Cycling king helps rebuild Negev with “wow” million-dollar gift

Cycling king helps rebuild Negev with “wow” million-dollar gift

Sylvan Adams for Jewish News January 2024

The Canadian-Israeli businessman Sylvan Adams, renowned for bringing both Madonna and international cycling to Israel, has made what he calls a “wow factor” donation of $100 million to Ben-Gurion University, with the aim of transforming the southern Negev.

Adams, a youthful 65, is a wonderfully maverick decoration to the Israeli philanthropy scene. Born in Quebec City, the son of Romanian Holocaust survivors, Adams transformed his father Marcel’s post-war property company into billionaire status. He and his British-born wife made unexpected aliyah in 2015 — a decision taken, he says, in the darkness of a freezing Canadian winter night — and once in Israel he poured his considerable energies into promotion of the Jewish state.

Describing himself as “the self-appointed ambassador-at-large for Israel”, Adams, a passionate cyclist, has transformed the Israeli cycling scene. He’s not just someone who has put money into the sport — though he has, indeed, done plenty of that — but he has put himself into cycling, winning the 2017 World Masters Championship in Manchester and having been a world time-trial champion many times.

But Adams really put Israel on the international cycling map in 2018, when he first suggested bringing a “stage” of the Giro d’Italia cycling race to Israel. It was the first time that any stage of the Giro tour had taken place outside Europe. He was named the honorary president of the 2018 Giro d’Italia as a result.
He brought international cycling champion Chris Froome to Israel to join the Israeli team, which placed well in one stage of the prestigious Tour de France. And earlier this year Adams was planning a three-country cycling tour with Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE, billing it as the “Peace Tour”, to mark the co-operation of countries which had signed the Abraham Accords.

He’s also brought Madonna and footballer Lionel Messi to Israel, (not together!), generating headline-grabbing events and generally good publicity for Israel around the world.

All this, Adams concedes, is now “on indefinite hold, until things return to a state of normalcy — and we don’t know when that will happen”. He had specialised in “large-scale events which showed Israel as a normal, benevolent Western democracy. I don’t know when ‘normal’ will return to Israel”.
He points gloomily to a potential “second, more intense, even uglier, even more disruptive campaign” in the north of Israel, courtesy of Hizbollah and Lebanon. “We can’t guarantee the safety of our citizens, both in the south and in the north. We can’t live like this. The government and the IDF swept these things under the rug… October 7, in a way, gave the government licence to do what it had to do in Gaza, to remove this terrorist group which has been harassing us constantly with rocket fire”.

Adams stops. “Rockets? These are missiles, 9,500 of which have been launched into Israel since October 7. What other country would tolerate missiles being launched? Forget 9,500. I like to compare it to the United States border. If a drug cartel from Mexico launched five missiles, 10 missiles, into Texas or Arizona or California, you’d have the US military flattening the place — without waiting for Mexico to give it permission to do so”.

There’s no question, Adams believes, that the kind of projects in which he was involved before October 7 2023, “were really working. They really were enhancing Israel’s image. People thought of us as a war zone, but we showed images of a normalised Western democracy and it gave people pause. But now we really are a war zone, and we are back to a position that is even worse than when I started my projects. Of course, it’s a strategic issue for Israel”.

Israel, claims Adams, not only has to fight a physical war but also a communications war. “We need to take this seriously, it’s of strategic importance to our survival”.

He acknowledges that the vast donation to Ben-Gurion University of $100 million denotes a necessary change in strategy in his philanthropy, though adds that he has — in parallel with the big PR schemes — already been supportive of three Israeli hospitals and two universities, as well as other civil projects.

“The BGU gift is the largest I’ve ever undertaken. In a way it’s my expression of ‘dafka’ — to say ‘dafka’ to the terrorists in Gaza, in Lebanon, to all of the haters — we are here to stay. I wanted this particular investment to have a wow factor to it and a declaration that we will not abandon our citizens in the south, that we will have sovereignty over our entire country — and there will be a reckoning for those who threaten us.”

Adams has been heavily involved behind the scenes in the path towards the signing of the Abraham Accords, so he knows more than most about their future in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. Donald Trump’s lawyer and negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, had noticed Sylvan Adams’ newsmaking endeavours on Israel’s behalf and the two men became friends.

“He asked my advice from time to time; he had tremendous contacts in the Arab world and he really was, working under Jared Kushner, the architect of the Abraham Accords. He acknowledged that the kind of outreach events that I was doing were quite helpful”. Specifically, Adams says, it was his taking an Israeli cycling team to take part in an important event in the racing calendar, a tour race in the UAE.

“We went to the UAE and Israel was emblazoned on the front of our jerseys, our water bottles, our vehicles — everywhere. Instead of any kind of security issue or a groundswell of objection, we had quite the opposite. We had little kids standing in line to receive a souvenir water bottle with the word ‘Israel’ on it. So the leadership of the UAE saw there wasn’t an organic hostility to Israel. Six months later, there I was at the White House [as the Abraham Accords were signed].”

Adams thinks that the current Arab signatories — Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco — are “solid” and “could have barked a lot louder than they did [in answer to the war against Hamas]. They had the opportunity to walk away. None of that has happened, which indicates to all of us, including my friend Jason, that they are sympathetic to Israel’s plight. They accept Israel’s response and are cheering us on, hoping that we get rid of this malevolent terrorist organisation, Hamas.”

He is still optimistic that Saudi Arabia will join the Abraham Accords, claiming that the Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, “doesn’t care that much about the Palestinians”, although the Saudis continue to insist publicly that a solution must be found for the Palestinian issue.

He is bullish about the Palestinians, calling their leadership “a kleptocracy” and praising the policies of the Trump administration in cutting funding to UNRWA and associated bodies. He is even more scathing about the role played by Qatar, which he accuses of playing “a double, even a triple game… the Qataris in general are troublemakers — and they enjoy every minute”.

Contrary to popular belief, Adams says that “almost universally”, those with whom he has worked on sports and entertainment project “are on our side. They understand that October 7, even if they haven’t understood all the details of how bad it was, was a terrible crime. Nobody is happy to see the war in Gaza, that’s for sure, but the criticism is muted and people understand that Israel has to defend herself.”

He is, entertainingly, supremely unconcerned about Icelandic threats not to participate in 2024’s Eurovision song contest unless Israel is kicked out. “Have you heard some of their entries? I don’t think we’d be missing much”.

Adams’ donation to Ben-Gurion University, which lost 82 members of its community including students, staff, faculty and their family members on October 7, will help to rebuild Israel’s south and play a critical role in reconstructing the Negev, advancing the vision of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Adams says: “The imperative to inject life into the Negev, is now more important than ever. We must make sure that the desert remains the launching point of Israel’s future, despite the pogrom that our people endured there”.

  • 2 January, 2024