Who is John Galt? The character from Ayn Rand’s seminal Atlas Shrugged may be fictional, but apparently he was a Zionist.
On Tuesday evening in Tel Aviv, the Ayn Rand Center debuted its first Atlas Award, a prize intended to bolster entrepreneurship and represent Rand’s individualistic ideals. It presented the award to Moovit, a company whose app provides real-time data on public transport.
Many of the prestigious participants in the event, however, also sought to distance themselves from some of the more controversial political elements of the Ayn Rand Center and Rand’s philosophy.
The award, the first of its kind, came in the form of a sizable sculpture of Atlas, a nod to Rand’s novel, sculpted by Israeli-American sculptor Richard Minns. According to organizers, Minns was the brainchild of the award.
“This is the world premier of this initiative and Israel is the beta test,” said Boaz Arad, director of the Ayn Rand Center Israel, which was founded in 2012 with the assistance and sponsorship of the US-based Ayn Rand Institute.
Aside from the sculpture, which organizers said is worth around $70,000, the only other benefit that accompanies the prize is a sense of prestige.
The award, organizers said, was designed to promote Ayn Rand’s philosophy as it applies to entrepreneurship and creativity.
“The sculptor is very committed to connecting the idea of Start-up Nation to Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand,” said Yaron Brook, who heads the Ayn Rand Institute in the US and is president of the Ayn Rand Center in Israel.
Rand, whose novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged continue to sell in high volumes, founded a philosophical movement called Objectivism, which aligns with libertarian thinking that puts the role of the individual and individual freedom at the fore and seeks strict limitations on government.
In Rand’s novels, politicians could do no right in terms of promoting economic growth, other than to simply back away.
In more recent years, Rand has become the darling of the Tea Party in the US. Freedom- Works, a Tea Party-affiliated organization debuted a film version of Atlas Shrugged at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2011.
The next year, Politico went so far as to compile a list of politicians who have cited their admiration for Ayn Rand, which included only Republicans, among them US President Ronald Reagan.
Though the Ayn Rand organizations do not endorse political parties, some extreme elements have latched onto Rand’s work as an ideological guide.
Brook, for example, had his book Equal is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality on display at Tuesday’s event. He argues vehemently against the consensus position among climate scientists that climate change is real and man-made phenomenon.
Arad runs a blog called “The Green Blog,” which is devoted to countering claims of climate change, and was set up in response to a 2008 visit to Israel by former US vice president and environmental activist Al Gore.
Brook acknowledged that there was some seeming contradiction between Rand’s philosophy and the story of Israel’s high-tech success, which has by many accounts benefited from government support for research and development, private-public partnerships and guarantees that helped launch the country’s venture capital environment.
The nomination for the prize, for example, did not require companies to have forgone any kind of government grants, subsidized credit, government- backed accelerators, and so on. (The winner, Moovit, did, in fact, receive a grant from the Office of the Chief Scientist, though they note that their funding has mostly come from private sources.) “Superficially, I think it’s right that there’s a sense of contradiction here. I know Ayn Rand and we frown upon public-private partnership, and no doubt I support limited government. The real question is did it benefit [Israel] or didn’t it?” he said.
“But there’s no question in my mind that the Israeli government dabbles and intervenes in the hi-tech sector way too much. Maybe if it intervened less Israel would be better off.
“I think there’s a deeper reason about Israel, there’s something special going on here, where I think the spirit that Atlas Shrugged represents manifests itself more than anywhere else. A country under siege, a country constantly in a state of struggle, yet [there are] more start-ups in the technology sector per capita than anyplace else in the world,” he said.
Asked about some of the more controversial positions espoused by the Ayn Rand Institute and Center, many of the participants, and even sponsors, sought to distance themselves from the controversial politics surrounding the award.
“We are purely trying to focus on transportation and moving, not on political issues. On the contrary, we would like to be as apolitical as possible,” said Nir Erez, the CEO of Moovit that won the award.
“I feel very proud because if you look at it, it’s about a company that’s really making a difference or changing the world, and that’s really how we define ourselves,” he added.
Deloitte, which along with TheMarker co-sponsored the award, said “Deloitte had one objective in participating in the conference: to support the high-tech community and recognize the most influential start-ups.”
Karin Mayer Rubinstein, CEO of Israel Advanced Technology Industries – a hi-tech umbrella group – served as a judge for the event, but sought to clarify that her organization’s position was to promote hi-tech, and that she spoke at the conference for that reason.
Orna Kleinmann, head of SAP Labs in Israel, who also spoke on the panel, said: “The panel focused on the topic of finding a new momentum for driving the high tech industry forward – a topic meaningful and important not only to the conference participants, but also carries significant impact for all of us, on a local and global scale. SAP’s participation in this panel was strictly professional, with respect to the conference participants and TheMarker.”
For his part, Arad noted that parts of Rand’s ideology also promoted human rights, sexual freedom, and was decidedly pro-choice.
“There are certain elements of the ideology that the Left agrees with as well,” he said.
The focus of the award, he emphasized, was meant to be on entrepreneurship and creativity.