In 1986, Yosef Abramowitz, a Jewish student leader from Boston, felt that the Jerusalem-based World Zionist Organization sought to “control the student movement and take it over” by fielding highly politicized figures for chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students. Worried that this could lead to a “complete manipulation” of the student movement, which needed to remain “pure” to remain relevant and do its part for the Jewish world, Abramowitz, who was 21 at the time, decided to throw his hat in the ring.
“So here you had a naïve American from outside the system, up against the Israeli political machines — plural. I was the youngest ever to be a candidate, let alone win,” Abramowitz recalled. But Abramowitz won, beating six other candidates. “I was the apolitical, idealistic, change-the-world dark horse,” he said, turning his attention to the present. “So here we go again… 28 years ago, I was in this movie. And it worked out pretty well. So [my wife] Susan and I are going to go for it again.”
Abramowitz is currently trying to run for president of Israel. Mostly unknown to Israelis and with no political backing, his chances are close to zero, if not lower. And yet the New York-born, Boston-raised civil rights activist and solar energy pioneer is dreaming about replacing Shimon Peres this summer to become the head of a state he moved to just eight years ago. Like few others, Abramowitz, who is turning 50 next month, gets a kick out of setting himself seemingly unobtainable goals. So far, most of his projects have worked out, yet his latest enterprise seems like a real mission impossible.
In Israel, wannabe presidents need the signature of at least 10 MKs before they can officially file their candidacies. Abramowitz has met with several lawmakers but so far was unable to secure a single signature, or even the promise of a signature. In an exclusive in-depth interview with The Times of Israel, he admitted his run is “somewhat quixotic,” yet asserted that there is a “lot of interest” in what he has to offer.
‘We set out to do what everyone told us was going to be impossible. I guess that’s a recurring theme, right?’
“I think Abramowitz’s chances are not close to nil, but nil,” said Yoav Gelber, one of the leading historians of Israeli politics, who heads the Nevzlin Center for Jewish Peoplehood Studies at Herzliyah’s Interdisciplinary Center. “The position has become a monopoly of politicians and it is impossible to turn the wheel back.”
Abramowitz — whose wife Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi, happens to be the sister of US comedienne Sarah Silverman — certainly has an interesting resume and bona fide credentials when it comes to advocating on behalf of world Jewry. A graduate of Boston University and Columbia University, he played a significant role in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, for which he was co-nominated for the Nobel Prize three times. He was also active in efforts to help Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel, and vocally advocated for the abolition of the apartheid regime in South Africa. His activism included everything from aggressive lobbying with top administration officials to rallies and hunger strikes. In 1985, he was arrested outside the Soviet embassy in Washington.
“This is a young man with a burning desire to help the Jewish people, and I believe he has proven that he can make a difference,” Elie Wiesel said about Abramowitz in 2006. “He represents for his generation — and mine — hope, innovation and excellence in Jewish life.”
That same year, the Abramowitz-Silverman family — Yosef and Susan have five children, two of them adopted from Ethiopia — moved from Massachusetts to Ketura, a kibbutz in Israel’s Arava desert. The couple originally planned to write books, Yosef about Jewish peoplehood and Rabbi Susan about adoption in Judaism. But some rays of light changed their plans.
On his first day in Israel, as he exited the air-conditioned van that brought him from the airport to the kibbutz, Abramowitz was blinded by the scorching sun. Surely this place runs entirely on solar energy, he thought to himself. “I thought Israel was a world leader in something to do with this. I had drunk the Kool-Aid,” he recalled, sitting on the balcony of his spacious home in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood.
After he found out that the sun’s energy was not harnessed in any significant way, Abramowitz embarked on a project seeking to turn Israel into “a renewable light unto the nations.” Together with the kibbutz’s Ed Hofland and New York-based businessman David Rosenblatt, he founded the Arava Power Company, essentially creating Israel’s still-nascent solar industry. Since then he has given himself a new nickname: Captain Sunshine.
“We set out to do what everyone told us was going to be impossible. I guess that’s a recurring theme, right?” Abramowitz said. Cynics warned him that Israeli politics and bureaucracy would eat him alive. If it were a good idea, someone else would have already done it, and certainly not a naïve American kibbutznik. But Abramowitz was reminded of his struggle for Soviet Jewry and looked forward to a fresh challenge. “I said, wait a second. I can get a Hebrew teacher out of solitary confinement in Siberia. You’re saying I can’t change a couple laws in our own country?”
It wasn’t easy. “When we started we realized that we would have to win 100 regulatory and statutory battles,” he remembers. “We won 100 out of 100 battles.”
In 2009, German engineering powerhouse Siemens bought 40 percent of the company’s shares, bringing in $15 million. Two years later, the company inaugurated Israel’s first utility-scale solar energy field at Ketura. Earlier this month, Arava Power — the country’s leading solar power developer — launched another six commercial-scale solar fields.
But Israel wasn’t enough for Abramowitz, who has since founded Energiya Global, a company attempting to develop “affordable solar projects worldwide, with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020,” according to the company’s website. While he was considering to run for president, Captain Sunshine, together with managing director Chaim Motzen, was bringing solar energy to Rwanda, where they are currently building an 8.5-megawatt solar photovoltaic power plant — the first utility-scale solar power field in East Africa.
“Today, we’re realizing what everyone said was going to be impossible, which is creating a viable, commercial-scale solar industry in East Africa,” he said in February.
Most of the projects Abramowitz has tackled have worked out fine — but not all of them. Last year, he tried to save Better Place, an electric car company that had gone bankrupt. The project failed bitterly, but Abramowitz vows that the last word is yet to be spoken: “Solar-charged electric car networks is just too good an idea to die. It might come back soon,” he vowed.
Abramowitz himself doesn’t own a car. “My electric bike is my main vehicle,” he said, pulling train and bus tickets out of his wallet to prove that he used public transportation earlier that day to get to a meeting in Tel Aviv. “As president, one of the first things I’d do is order an armor-plated [electric car], and we would have a solar-power charge station in the President’s residence.”
He also dreams of having his wife officiate as a rabbi at the country’s first civil marriage and of creating a “President’s Talit,” or prayer shawl, that would be given as a gift to every person who becomes president of a synagogue. What gives Abramowitz, a new immigrant with no name recognition who speaks Hebrew with a heavy American accent and has never held political office, the chutzpah to believe he can become president?
Abramowitz’s answer is simple: Israel thirsts for a different kind of president, for someone who is more like Yosef Abramowitz. “Do we want the brand equity of the presidency to be an aging politician, or do we want it to be ‘Startup Nation’ on behalf of tikkun olam — Israeli innovation for saving the world?… Who’s going to preserve the spirit of vision and technology and Israeli entrepreneurship and Israeli renewal more than me?”
Abramowitz believes that the public is sick of old-fashioned politicians, and that the new president will be an independent candidate, a non-politician. Current such candidates include Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dan Shechtman and former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner (both of them managed to garner two of the 10 required signatures); Jewish Agency chairman Nathan Sharansky is said to also be considering running.
Gelber, the historian of Israeli politics, on the other hand, is convinced that the next president will come from within the Knesset. Shechtman and Dorner are far more prominent than Abramowitz, yet still “their chances are also nil,” he said. “The only way for an outsider is to get the prime minister’s open support, and even this is not enough.”
Abramowitz has requested a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but is still waiting for a response.
Some experts agree with Abramowitz that the idea of a citizen-president fits the Israeli zeitgeist. “People don’t want a politician as president. Peres was different because of his personal standing, but none of the other candidates capture the public imagination,” according to Jonathan Rynhold, the director of Bar-Ilan University’s Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People. Abramowitz “represents the strong anti-establishment sensibility,” yet his chances to win the presidency are still very low, and so is that of the other independent candidates, Rynhold added. “The potential is there to mobilize the public, the question is whether any of them understands how to do this.”
Abramowitz has assembled a staff of about 15, many of them volunteers, including chief strategist Shmuel Elgrabli, who served as Labor party spokesman under Yitzhak Rabin, and Tal Marom, a former spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality. Together, the team formulated four main selling points intended to convince the public and the MKs who eventually will elect the president of his worthiness.
Firstly, Israel’s relationship with the US. “It’s probably a pretty good idea for the State of Israel to have a president who can speak clearly to the American people, press, Congress, administration. Beyond specific policies, but nation to nation, and to make sure that relationship stays strong during what could be very tumultuous times.”
Secondly, Abramowitz believes his civil rights credentials uniquely position him to oppose the anti-Israel boycott movements, and that he knows how to attract foreign investors to the Jewish state. “You need a very business- and investment-minded president,” he said, adding that he’s been part of companies that have brought “hundreds of millions of dollars” to Israel.
Furthermore, the presidency “should really represent the entire Jewish people,” he posits, lamenting a “split in world Jewry” over religious pluralism. With his wife a Reform rabbi, his daughter Hallel a prominent activist with the Women of the Wall and two adopted children from Ethiopia, “I don’t know another family that can claim the mantle of pluralism and diversity” more than his own, he says.
Lastly, Abramowitz says, Israel could use a green head of state. “Wouldn’t it be nice if the president of Israel would be addressing global conferences on global warming, because we have something to contribute?”
Abramowitz expects this platform to speak mostly to MKs from the centrist Yesh Atid party, who, just like him, don’t come from within the political establishment and represent more or less the same values. But the 19 lawmakers from Yesh Atid keep their cards close to their chests. “I have tremendous admiration for the remarkable successes which Yossi Abramowitz has had in the areas of human rights, renewable energy and the environment. The world is a better place because of his activism,” said Dov Lipman, a US-born lawmaker for Yesh Atid. He added, however: “At this point, I have made no decisions regarding the presidential race.”
Soon after the Knesset’s current Passover recess, party chief Yair Lapid is expected to announce whether his MKs will be allowed to individually endorse presidential candidates. If he prefers to cut a deal instead with any of the major parties to support someone from within their ranks, Abramowitz’s presidential project is sure to remain a pipedream.
“I can lose and — I mean, I’d be disappointed, but you know, I’ll go on building commercial-scale solar fields in Israel and around the world,” he said. “And that’s good. It’s really good.”