Top 50 most influential Jews: Places 11-20

Shai Agassi is founder,CEO of Better Place, which unveiled its electric car network in Israel, Denmark earlier this year.

Shai Agassi (photo credit: courtesty)
Shai Agassi
(photo credit: courtesty)
11. Shai Agassi CEO of Better Place
Shai Agassi is the founder and CEO of Better Place, which unveiled its electric car network in Israel and Denmark earlier this year. Better Place expects to support a total of 8,000 to 10,000 cars in the two countries by the end of this year, before turning its attention to larger markets in an attempt to meet Agassi’s objective of helping end global oil dependence by 2020.
Better Place opened its pre-launch phase in Israel on January 22, the fourth anniversary of the company’s creation, when 70 company employees and another dozen individuals received the keys to their new Renault Fluence ZE (Zero Emission) electric vehicles. Thirty-three battery switch stations are now in operation throughout Israel, from Metulla to Eilat.
Technion graduate Agassi, 44, founded TopTier Software in Israel in 1992 before moving the company to California and eventually selling to German firm SAP in 2001. He quickly established a reputation as a leading young entrepreneur.
He decided to enter the electric car business after being posed the question “How would you make the world a better place?” at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2005. – Nadav Shemer
12. Daniel Shapiro US ambassador to Israel
US President Barack Obama, to put it mildly, has had a wobbly relationship with the Israeli public. While 78 percent of American Jews voted for him in 2008, polls in Israel showed that had Israelis been able to vote, they would have cast their ballots overwhelmingly for John McCain.
That situation did not improve during his first two years in office.
The Israeli needle started to move a bit, however, not long after Obama named Daniel Shapiro as US ambassador to Israel in May 2011. Shapiro, 43, was an adviser to Obama on the Mideast and Jewish issues during his first campaign and a key Mideast staffer during the president’s first 30 months in office.
A committed conservative Jew from Champaign, Illinois, Shapiro spent time in Israel as a student and even once toyed with thoughts of aliya. He has a good understanding of Israel and open sympathy for its people – qualities that many of Obama’s critics say the US president lacks. Since arriving, the Hebrew-speaking Shapiro has traveled extensively and met with hundreds of groups, radiating a sense that he – and by extension his boss – really does care about and understand this country.
A man trusted by Obama, and by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Shapiro’s reporting back to Washington on what is going on here and why carries a great deal of weight and influence on US policy. It’s all about the information, and the information from Israel to Washington via Shapiro is now passing through an empathetic conduit. – Herb Keinon
13. Sacha Baron Cohen Comedian
Who is Sacha Baron Cohen? Many people. A gay fashion talk-show host from Austria, an anti-Semitic journalist from Kazakhstan and a flashy British hip-hop interviewer with a penchant for asking inappropriate questions.
The character comedian created international uproar in Borat, a film which every Arab country except for Lebanon banned, and whose creators were sued by Kazakhstan and several people who appeared in the film. Baron Cohen has also been sued by others who feel harmed by his depictions in his 2009 film Bruno.
Aside from arousing anger, the 40-year-old Brit has been praised for revealing underlying homophobia, sexism, anti- Semitism, hypocrisy and other flattering traits among his films’ unknowing victims.
Inspired by Andy Kaufman’s outlandish personas, Baron Cohen’s brand of comedy is shocking (his song “Throw the Jew Down the Well” in Borat and orgy scene in Bruno, for example), and keeps his millions of viewers on their toes.
His new role in The Dictator– which arrived in theaters this month – as Admiral General Aladeen, a runaway Middle Eastern autocrat, follows a linear plot, unlike his other films, but is just as outrageous.
– Rachel Marder
14. Benny Gantz IDF chief of staff
For Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, the hardest part about being the IDF’s chief of staff is the sense of loneliness at the top. “When I have to make a decision there is no one to look to since it all ends by me,” he often tells people when explaining the complexity of the post.
Put into the Iranian context, Gantz’s feeling could not be more telling, since as IDF chief, it is he who will have to give the order for what could become one of the most complicated operations in Israeli history.
Nevertheless, in the 15 months since his appointment, Gantz, 52, has yet to undergo a real military test.
Gaza is relatively quiet, Hezbollah appears deterred in Lebanon and Bashar Assad is too preoccupied with his own survival to mess with Israel right now. While Iran’s race for a nuclear weapon is still on track, Gantz believes that ultimately the ayatollahs will decide not to build one due to the escalating isolation and economic sanctions.
But all that could change without warning and that is why Gantz’s job is so critical today.
With the Middle East still in the throes of a historic upheaval, Israel is finding itself increasingly isolated in the region. The IDF is often referred to as Israel’s “insurance policy,” and it is Gantz’s job to make sure that if the day ever comes it will know how to deliver. – Yaakov Katz
15. Jeremy Ben-Ami Executive director of J Street
Jeremy Ben-Ami revitalized a conversation on Israel that for many liberal Jewish Americans has felt stifled and monolithic. Challenging America’s powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, with a new pro-Israel and propeace agenda, Ben-Ami founded J Street and a political action committee to counteract AIPAC’s steering of American foreign policy, and to urge the US to support a two-state solution of Israel and Palestine.
A polarizing figure, Ben-Ami, 49, argues in his book, A New Voice for Israel: Survival of the Jewish Nation (2011), that Israel’s military control over the Palestinian people threatens the Zionist dream, runs counter to rabbinic values and US interests in the region, and the time for change is now.
He has been called anti-Israel for wanting to bring Hamas to the negotiating table, but Ben-Ami is not quite as left-wing as his naysayers claim. The Clinton White House veteran stresses Israel’s right to self-defense, America’s increase in funding for the Iron Dome (and robust aid in general), and opposes Iran’s nuclear program.
J Street has riled up major Zionist organizations, Israeli and American politicians, as it is now being taken seriously and has the ear of US President Barack Obama, who invited the organization, along with 12 other Jewish groups, to the White House in 2009. – Rachel Marder
16. Drake, Singer
The proud Canadian Jewish rapper showed off his Torah-reading skills in his recent video for “HYFR” (Hell Yeah F***ing Right) in which he “re-bar mitzva-ed” himself at Temple Israel in Miami.
A likely upgrade on his earlier celebration, this time around, the 25-year-old hip-hop singer invited scantily-clad women drinking alcohol and fellow rapper Lil Wayne to the party. Born and raised in Toronto, the son of a Jewish mother and African-American father, Aubrey “Drake” Graham attended a Jewish day school and had a bar mitzva, before launching his career on Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Since joining his mentor Lil Wayne’s crew, Drake has recorded explosive hits for hip-hop and rap fans, like “Find Your Love,” “Best I Ever Had” and “Houstonatlantavegas.”
Despite his sprint to the top, Drake remains a nice Jewish boy, having canceled his 2010 European tour to help his mother recover post-surgery. – Rachel Marder
17. Amir Eshel IAF commander-in-chief
On September 4, 2003, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel served as the lead pilot in one of the Israel Air Force’s most memorable missions – a flight over the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
Under the agreement with the Polish government, the IAF F-15s were supposed to fly high above Auschwitz, and way out of sight.
The day of the flight though, Eshel convened the other pilots and announced that they were going to fly below the clouds so they could be seen by the IDF officers who would be holding a ceremony along the train tracks below.
“We listened to the Poles for 800 years,” Eshel was quoted as telling the other pilots at the time. “Today, we don’t have to listen anymore.” The picture of the three F-15s over Auschwitz – a demonstration of Israel’s might and independence – can be found in hundreds of IDF offices these days, most of them with the inscription “To remember. Not to forget. To rely only on ourselves.”
Eshel, 52, who in May became the 17th commander of the Israel Air Force, is the officer who will have to plan and oversee a potential Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The mission will be one of the most complicated ever carried out by the IAF and Eshel will be the man all eyes in Israel will be on if and when the government gives the green light. – Yaakov Katz
18. Shelly Yacimovich
19. Eric Cantor House majority leader
Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the US House of Representatives, stands just one step away from being America’s first Jewish Speaker of the House, and in his current role is the highest-ranking elected Jewish official in American history.
A conservative Republican who has had few co-religionists on his side of the aisle, Cantor, 48, is nonetheless outspoken in his support of Israel and makes no bones about his Jewish heritage.
Cantor holds office at a time when the US House of Representatives has particularly great power as the one part of the federal government not run by Democrats. And he has been particularly important in crafting the House Republicans’ posture – which trickles down across the party writ large – in opposing the Obama administration’s agenda and charting a different Republican path. He has navigated between tea party adherents and establishment Republicans at a time of discord within the GOP, never loosening his grip on his authority. – Hilary Leila Krieger
20. Jonathan Safran Foer
About five years ago, Jonathan Safran Foer, 35, hailed as one of the best writers of his generation, found himself dissatisfied with his Jewish illiteracy.
Safran Foer already revealed the evils of factory farming in his first nonfiction book Eating Animals (2009); a young man’s hilarious and poignant journey discovering his Eastern European roots in Everything is Illuminated (2002), and a boy’s grief over losing his father in 9/11 in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), was turned into a movie this year starring Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks.
To answer his crisis of religious ignorance, Safran Foer set out to write the New American Haggadah, published this year, in order to take “a step toward a Judaism of question marks rather than quotation marks; toward the story of my people, my family and myself,” he wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in March.
While his latest work has been met with mixed reviews mainly over his translation, his influence on the literary world and voice as a provocative Jewish writer, advocate and observer of modern life is indisputable.
Safran Foer, originally from Washington, lives in Brooklyn with his wife and colleague Nicole Krauss and their two children.
– Rachel Marder