Sylvan Adams's 'soft diplomacy' goes big and goes home

#25 - Israel’s cycling philanthropist: Sylvan Adams

Sylvan Adams (photo credit: ICA)
Sylvan Adams
(photo credit: ICA)
There are some who subscribe to the slogan “Go big or go home.” When it comes to Sylvan Adams, the more apt phrase is “Come home AND go big.”
Since making aliyah in 2016, the 61-year-old Israeli-Canadian billionaire has devoted himself to serving his adopted country and the Jewish people globally in his self-described role as “self-appointed ambassador of Israel.”
He has been behind such projects as the Giro d’Italia grand tour cycling race coming to Israel for the first time in 2018, Madonna coming to Israel for the Eurovision in 2019, SpaceIL’s journey to the moon, the rejuvenation of Jerusalem’s YMCA, and the Israel Start-Up Nation cycling team currently riding on the world’s biggest stage at Tour de France, just to mention a few.
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“When I came to Israel and I made aliyah four-and-a-half years ago, I had this in mind,” Adams told The Jerusalem Post from the roadside in France. “I had this idea that I was going to work on large-scale events. I don’t have the patience or the inclination to try to do this one person at a time. So I wanted to appeal to large audiences and, strangely, nobody had ever thought of doing it this way – reaching out to the apolitical people. We do a lot of advocacy and we try to defend our case and all of those things are, of course, very important, but the silent majority is not political. They’re not interested in these arguments. They don’t want an education.”
Adams’s strategy when promoting Jews and Israel throughout the world is ironically one of subtlety, as the outspokenness of the avid sportsman is palpably infectious.
“This is kind of soft diplomacy,” he noted. “You know, I get a lot of questions about whether this is all politics and whether I am mixing politics with sports. I say, “No, this isn’t politics – but it is diplomacy. And then they say that I am ‘sport-washing.’ I say, ‘You know, we have the only gay pride parade in the Middle East.’ They attack us and call it ‘pink-washing,’ even though we’re just having a gay pride parade. I said, ‘When we sent the mission to the moon, do you call that space-washing? When we invent technology, do you call that tech-washing? Everything we do is washing? No, we are just living!’ So instead of calling it sport-washing, I have a different expression for it – I just call it sport.”
The feedback he has received through his philanthropic initiatives aimed at sports and cultural activities continues to motivate him further.
“I am speaking to what I call the ‘silent majority’ of people who don’t know us at all, but if pressed would probably have a negative impression of Israel, because of the news media coverage, which shows us as a conflict zone and ‘occupation’ and all of these things that unfortunately dominate the discussion, the discourse, and reflect on our image. So I’m trying to bring the face of what I call ‘normal Israel,’ the normal everyday Israel that we live in, which is open, tolerant, free, fiercely democratic and, of course, to show the world that we’re a safe country.
“What I like to think about is that when I meet first-time visitors to Israel, when they come, they are blown away. They can’t even believe that this is the country they’ve been hearing so much about. They don’t expect to see us with all of those qualities that I mentioned – free, open, tolerant. And, of course, beautiful and historically interesting and important. So. I like to think that I am showing to hundreds and hundreds of millions of first-time visitors to Israel, our wonderful country via their TV screens.”
BORN AND raised in Canada, Adams served for close to 25 years as president and CEO of Iberville Developments, one of Canada’s largest real-estate developers. The company was founded by Sylvan’s father, Marcel, who had fled the Nazis from Romania, to Palestine, then under British rule, which he quickly left for France before settling in Quebec in the 1950s.
Sylvan met his wife of 36 years in Israel where they were both volunteers on a kibbutz. Together, they established the Margaret and Sylvan Adams Family Foundation to support educational and medical projects in Israel and Canada. The foundation offers doctoral scholarships at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
The Bonei Zion Prize is given annually with his name from the  Nefesh b’Nefesh organization. The award recognizes immigrants to Israel from English-speaking countries who have impacted Israel in the fields of science and medicine, education and nonprofit work, national service, business, technology and culture, and the arts and sports. It was established in 2013 with Adams’s assistance and honors each recipient with a $10,000 prize.
Adams is the only Israeli member of the Giving Pledge, the organization begun by Warren Buffett together with Bill and Melinda Gates for billionaires committed, as signers of the pact, to give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic pursuits.
His latest successful endeavor to have the first Israeli cycling team participate in the world’s biggest race fit precisely into his overall aim of shining the light of Israel and the Jewish people on the world.
“The Tour de France is seen by 3.5 billion television views. It is the third-largest televised event in the world after the Olympic Games and the World Cup. So whether it’s a sport, like cycling, like my Formula One drive, where we’re going to have some 350 million people watch every one of those races are going to see the Israeli flag when Roy Nissany drives for Williams or whether it’s SpaceIL, where I was a partner in the mission to the moon; they see another side of our genius, where our tiny Israel, was the fourth country to land on the moon after the three superpowers.
The same is true in popular music.
Adams continues,“Whether it’s bringing Madonna to the Eurovision, again seen by 300 million TV viewers. They had a 50% increase in viewership because of Madonna and the fact that it was held in Israel, again appealing to music fans, again, nonpolitical people, the silent majority, seeing the best face of Israel.
“Being here in France is amazing because we are a symbol, not only of Israel, we are the team of the Jewish people, and it shows here in France, when we see by the side of the road, people waving Israeli flags, French people cheering for us. It’s such a spectacular thing to experience, the warmth of our friends. As we race around the world and, of course, here in France, which is such a hotbed of antisemitism and BDS and all of the rest of it. We – so far – outnumber them. The Jewish people – as a whole – needs to stand up and be counted. And we are, right here in France and I’m very proud of this moment.”
AND IN Adams’s mind, this approach began with the Giro.
“I like to believe that what kicked this all off was bringing the Giro d’Italia to Israel [in 2018], which of course showed our country from Haifa in the North all the way down to Eilat with beautiful aerial photography and a full day in our national capital of Jerusalem. Again, a billion television viewers and approximately a million Israelis came into the streets to come to cheer for something that they had never heard of just a few days before.
“It was a three-day group hug by Israel. I think in Israel we really want to feel the love from the rest of the world. There’s also the flip side of this, for Israelis. With all these events, we take pride in them and it brings us closer as a people. And we feel better for that. And so I’m proud of the work that I’m doing, and I know it’s working in and so I’m not going to stop, as I said, until global peace breaks out with Israel and all Jews.” And, indeed, it clearly is working.
“Look at the recent peace agreement with the UAE. We were there in March for the big cycling race and I didn’t know how close we were to making peace with them. But, prophetically, I noted that we were so well accepted in the streets of Dubai, and people, local fans, Emiratis were waiting in line to take pictures with our riders and get their autographs and souvenir water bottles with ‘Israel’ printed on them. And here we were riding in the streets of Dubai with our blue-and-white colors with Israel on our jerseys. And we were making friends and building bridges. And I said at the time ‘one day, when our governments will make peace, we will have set the conditions for a real warm peace and normalization’ and little did I know that it was going to happen so quickly and I’m proud to have been there and a part of that.
Adams is proud of the fruits of his labor abroad, but also right here in Israel.
“In 2019, from 2018, Israel had the highest increase in tourism in the world, 38%. And again, this is what it’s all about – bringing hundreds and hundreds of millions of people to see our country and bringing tens of thousands of tourists.
A 38% increase is a good number, but I think our tourism instead of being around four million should be 14 million a year. And this is what I’m working on. Until we are graced by the whole world as a normal country, I will continue pursuing my activities. And then, the day we are totally accepted and we have peace relations throughout the entire world and we are loved – because Israelis want to be loved – then my work is done and my role as a self-appointed ambassador can be retired.”