Sylvan Adams: Using unconventional diplomacy to promote Israel

No. 14 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Canadian-Israeli businessman, philanthropist and self-appointed ambassador-at-large Sylvan Adams.

 Canadian-Israeli businessman and philanthropist Sylvan Adams, Israel's self-appointed ambassador-at-large. (photo credit: ZVI KOREN)
Canadian-Israeli businessman and philanthropist Sylvan Adams, Israel's self-appointed ambassador-at-large.
(photo credit: ZVI KOREN)

Sylvan Adams is a Canadian-Israeli businessman and philanthropist who, since making aliyah with his wife at the end of 2015, has devoted himself to serving as the self-appointed “ambassador-at-large for the State of Israel.”

Adams aims to show the world what he calls “normal Israel” – “tackling its often-negative portrayal in the media by revealing the beautiful reality of the country to large audiences around the world.” 

He has promoted this vision by bringing world-class cultural and sporting events to the country. Beyond sports, Adams’s philanthropic investments leverage Israeli innovation to positively impact Israeli society, the region and beyond. His projects include the construction of a groundbreaking children’s hospital in Holon, a state-of-the-art emergency ward in Tel Aviv, a project to supply laptops to every special education teacher in Israel, and a scholarship program for promising artists

Adams is the only Israeli member of the Giving Pledge, an organization initiated by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates for billionaires who are committed to giving away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic pursuits. His varied philanthropic pursuits have made a tangible, positive impact in Israel, across the Middle East and beyond. 

Canadian-Israeli philanthropist Sylvan Adams is seen speaking at the Jerusalem Post annual conference at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, on October 12, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Canadian-Israeli philanthropist Sylvan Adams is seen speaking at the Jerusalem Post annual conference at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, on October 12, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
You have done so much for Israel since making aliyah, and in particular in the past year. Which achievement are you most proud of?

I have done quite a number of large projects, and each is a bit different. Here are some examples, but they all have the same theme: promoting our beautiful country to gigantic audiences.

It started with the Big Start (first three stages) of the Giro d’Italia Grand Tour bicycle race in 2018, the first time a cycling Grand Tour had ever ventured outside of Europe. Israel was seen by more than a billion TV spectators, and over a million Israelis lined our roads to cheer, in what became a three-day national group hug.

The following year, Israel had won the rare right to host the world’s largest song competition, the Eurovision Song Contest, due to Netta Barzilai’s win in the previous edition. So opportunistically, I brought Madonna to make a cameo performance in what became the most-watched edition ever, seen by 280 million TV viewers.

My Israel Start-up Nation cycling team became the first team from Israel to compete at the highest level of its sport, the WorldTour, where we race in the Giro, Tour de France and all the other big races. The Tour de France alone has more than 2.5 billion television viewers, as well as 15 million live spectators on the roads of France. When we ride by, we are encouraged by fans yelling “Israel, Israel, allez, allez, allez!” And, everyone notices a winner. The team features four-time Tour winner Chris Froome, and we took historic victories at this summer’s race. The positive coverage we receive is priceless. 

More recently, in July, the championship game of the French soccer league, the Trophé des Champions, was played in Tel Aviv, featuring the world’s highest paid and most popular sporting star, Lionel Messi. This game was watched by 400 million fans, in addition to the literally hundreds of millions of social media followers of the game’s stars, Neymar, Ramos, and of course, Messi, who all posted from Tel Aviv. Fittingly, all three of these stars scored in the game, elating the sellout Bloomfield Stadium crowd.

In August, we hosted the World Junior Track cycling championship at the Sylvan Adams National Velodrome – to my knowledge, the first time a World championship has ever been held in our country.

If I had to pick a favorite, I would say that the Giro was the signature event because bike racing takes place outdoors, and it doesn’t cost anything to watch. We were able to show off the whole country – from Haifa in the North down to Eilat in the South, and a full day in our national capital of Jerusalem to a billion spectators around the world. And it worked! How do I know? From 2018 to 2019, Israel led the world in tourism growth – 38%. 

In a completely different vein, I also am trying to contribute to strengthening Israeli institutions and infrastructure in the areas of health and education. Just during the last year, we opened the Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital in Holon, and the world’s biggest and most advanced emergency ward at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. So, I’ve been keeping busy since making aliyah – and enjoying every moment.

As we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, what are the challenges you have set for yourself in the coming year? 

My slogan is: I’m JUST. GETTING. STARTED. My projects will continue to showcase the Israel that I know and love. I didn’t move to a country that is less diverse, open, free, tolerant and democratic than my native Canada. The media portrayal of Israel is almost exclusively through the prism of conflict. I am trying to show a “normal” Israel, Israel as a normal Western democracy, to huge numbers of first-time visitors (via their TV screens), who don’t know us but whose preconceptions are shaped by a distorted image of our country. I mostly do this with sporting events because sports reach so many people – I call them the “silent majority” – and it touches them emotionally.

Later this year, we will be hosting the Middle East championship of Ironman in Tiberias, on the shores of the iconic Sea of Galilee. This is fruit of the Abraham Accords, and we will welcome competitors from around the world, including our neighbors, coming to Israel for the first time.

This “sports diplomacy” can help create new openings to other countries in the region that haven’t yet made peace with Israel, like Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and even Saudi Arabia. Encouraging competitors from the Gulf nations to come to Israel for the event can be a first step in getting to know us, building bridges and creating new friendships between people of the region.

My idea now is for Israel to bid for the 2030 World Cup along with Egypt and Morocco. Even just working on the bid with our peace partners is a ground-breaking activity, promoting warmer relations in the region. This would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago.