Israelis are recognized leaders in any number of fields including technology, medical research, innovation and humanitarian aid.
As the year comes to a close, NoCamels has put together a list of this year’s most influential Israelis in the spheres of literature, science, tech, sports and the arts — people who have made their mark not only in their own country but on the world.
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Here are 10 Israelis that fit that description for 2017:
The Actress: Gal Gadot
Israeli model and actress Gal Gadot was Israel’s hottest commodity in 2017. This year, exploding on to the scene as Wonder Woman, she became the sixth most searched person on Google, according to a Google Trends report, nestled between actor Kevin Spacey and US First Lady Melania Trump. Gadot was also a top grossing female star of 2017, according to Mashable. She was on every notable talk show and on numerous magazine covers. GQ named her their 2017 Wonder Woman of the Year. Many Israelis know Gadot as a former Miss Israel, a model, and a spokesperson for Israeli clothing brand Castro. But what really makes Gadot special, as she becomes a household name, is that she doesn’t appear to have lost her Israeli authenticity. She continues to be super nice and super Israeli — in a good way. Remember when she sampled Israeli chocolate on the Jimmy Fallon show? Or when she joked on an American morning talk show that having a second baby as Wonder Woman was harder than being in the Israeli military? Gadot is not afraid to talk about her upbringing and it’s utterly refreshing.
Gadot, too, has become a role model for young girls and women, perhaps by default, but she relishes the role and it shows in her appearances. She is not afraid to have the “sexism” conversation and has gone as far as to refuse to work on the Wonder Woman sequel, if Brett Ratner, the film’s producer who was accused of sexual misconduct, stays involved. He has since left the project.
The Author: David Grossman
Jerusalem-born author David Grossman has written at least seven books that have been translated into more than 30 languages. In his works, he’s addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, young adult romance, and loneliness in childhood, writing a children’s book about a mother-son relationship, and even doing some poetry. He has been a bestselling Israeli writer for years and a celebrated one at that — his works have won global awards that include French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Germany’s Buxtehuder Bulle, Rome’s Premio per la pace e l’azione umanitaria, the Frankfurt peace prize, and Israel’s Emet prize.
This year, he won the Man Booker Prize for his book A Horse Walks Into a Bar in 2017, a prestigious international literary award from the UK given out to a deserving title in English translation, annually, with a £50,000 ($67,272) prize. Grossman’s book, a tale of a comedian suffering a breakdown in an Israeli comedy club, was selected from 126 titles from writers in Denmark, Argentina, France, and Israel. Critically acclaimed Israeli author Amos Oz was one of the finalists.
Grossman isn’t just recognized for being an Israeli writing about an Israeli character. He is recognized for being a “master storyteller,” the Man Booker Prize judges said.
The Entrepreneur: Adam Neumann
Adam Neumann, the Israeli-born co-founder of WeWork, the international co-working space company, is the founder of one of the most talked-about startups in the world right now. In September, Business Insider called it the “most valuable startup in New York City” after the company raised $4.4 billion in three months. With a $20 billion valuation, WeWork is actually considered the sixth most valuable startup in the world, according to the CBInsights, a venture capital database. So how did its New York-based founder build this company from the ground up? Neumann credits his Israeli character with helping him reach his goals, even though he doesn’t live in the country right now. At the WeWork Creator Awards in Tel Aviv in October, Neumann told the packed crowd that “Israeli is special” and filled with “an energy” that has helped it earn its “Startup Nation” title. “People here do things from the heart,” he said, “I always felt part of a community and that community is called Israel. We are so lucky to have this.”
Taking from Israel’s “community” concept could sound completely cliche if it wasn’t for the fact that Neumann is running one of the biggest “community”- related firms in the world. Founded in 2010 with Miguel McKelvey, WeWork now has 178 locations in 18 countries around the world and shows no signs of slowing down. The company, with its coworking space concepts and its offshoot projects that include shared apartments, and yes, even a private children’s school, is certainly making an impact. Adam Neumann is a big reason for that.
The Chef: Michael Solomonov
It’s not just that Israeli chef Michael Solomonov has a highly-rated restaurant in Philadelphia. It’s that his top-notch culinary fare has helped put Israeli cuisine back on the map. While he opened his beloved modern Israeli bistro Zahav back in May 2008, every year has meant more and more success for the humble restaurateur.
As the story goes, Chef Michael Solomonov was born in G’nei Yehuda, Israel, but raised in Pittsburgh, PA. When he returned to Israel at the age of 18, he had no Hebrew language skills and so he found work at a bakery, where his culinary career was born. From there it was on to a culinary school in Florida to work in Philly to a job at an Italian restaurant Vetri, as this New York Time s article tells it, when he learned his brother in Israel had been killed by sniper fire during army service in Israel in 2003. The long and short of it is that even when he met his current business partner Steve Cook and opened his restaurant Zahav, he was using drugs to wipe out his pain, but turned his life around.
In a way, Solomonov is remembering his brother and his country of origin through his cooking. Although Zahav is his most famous eatery, Solomonov has opened a few classic Israeli restaurants that bring forth a taste of the “homeland” including a hummus place and a falafel joint. Still, there must be something extra special to his cuisine and the way he makes it. Solomonov has just won another prestigious James Beard award, also dubbed the “Oscars of Food,” this year and this time, it’s for Outstanding Chef.
The Humanitarian: Natalie Portman
One could argue that Natalie Portman is old news. Yes, she’s unique — an Oscar-award winning actress who was born in Israel and proud to be Israeli-American. Yes, she took on Israeli author Amoz Oz’s book A Tale of Love and Darkness as a sort of pet project in 2015, directing the feature and starring as the author’s late mother. But Natalie Portman, Harvard graduate, and social and political activist, also continues to stay relevant as an Israeli influencer in 2017 for two very good reasons. First, she was the 2018 Laureate of the Genesis Prize, which honors individuals who have “attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.” The winner is awarded $1 million from the Genesis Prize Foundation. This year, Natalie won the prize and announced she would give the money to programs that focus on the advancement of women’s equality in the educational, political and health spheres. While already a pertinent act in itself, it also prompted South African-Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn to donate another $1 million to the Genesis Prize Foundation in her honor.
When Natalie Portman talks, people listen, and the 36-year old mother of two has not been silent. In 2017, Portman has also been very outspoken about the #MeToo movement, recalling her own experiences with sexism, sexual harassment, and misconduct in the industry. We salute her for making her voice heard and actively promoting the equality of women.
The Athletes: Tal Flicker, Linoy Ashram, Omri Casspi
As the only Israeli currently in the National Basketball Association (NBA), Omri Casspi has been representing Israel for quite some time now. At only 29 years old, Casspi has made quite an impact on the game, playing for the champion Golden State Warriors. It’s his sixth team in nine years. And while he may not be as world famous as, say, teammate Stephen Curry, he’s certainly a proud ambassador for Israel. For the Warriors, Casspi wears his lucky number, 18, also the symbol for “chai” or “life” in Hebrew. He’s also always thinking about the impression he’s making for the people back home. “It’s not a duty, it’s a privilege,” he told Times of Israel in November. “Being the only Israeli, I know a lot of people back home are following us. I don’t take that lightly, either. So I always think about how I carry myself on and off the court. I’m trying to be the best role model I can be for the young generation and be the best ambassador for Israel and for Jewish people here in the US.” He may be more of a team player than the star of the show, but Casspi, with a typical Israeli sensibility, understands that it could all go away someday, and so he doesn’t take anything for granted.
The younger generation of up-and-coming athletes could certainly learn a thing or two from Casspi when they are representing Israel on an international stage. It seems, though, that they already understand the importance of what they are doing. In September, Israeli rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram finished third in the world gymnastics championship for her sport, making her the first Israeli in history to win a medal in the all-around category. While she could represent Israel (and maybe even win a medal) in the 2020 Olympic Games, she’s also putting Israelis on the map in a sport that is very much dominated by other nationalities, particularly Russian.
Then there’s Tal Flicker, the Israeli judoka who won a gold medal at the Grand Slam Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates in October, after defeating the world champion bronze medalist from Azerbaijan. Despite objections from the International Judo Federation, who asked that all teams be treated fairly, tournament staff refused to play the Israeli national anthem or fly the Israeli flag. Flicker did not let this moment get him angry — instead, he was a class act and a true role model — mouthing the words of the Israeli national anthem and becoming a true ambassador for the state of Israel.
The Techies: Amnon Shashua, Ziv Aviram
When Israeli sensor technology company Mobileye was acquired by Intel for $15 billion in the largest deal ever in Israeli high tech last year, Mobileye co-founders Amnon Shashua and Ziv Aviram were in a position that most techies could only think about in their wildest dream. While they had realized the potential of Mobileye on the autonomous car sector at an early stage, they likely had no idea that a buyout by Intel, the American multinational corporation, and technology giant, was the direction in which they were headed.
“I think that a common value underlying people who continue to generate startups, is the love for creating value as opposed to the love of making money,” Shashua told Israel21C in March, when asked about his serial entrepreneurship, “The end goal is to make an impact, to be involved in something larger than life — something that will amaze and influence people,” he says. Shashua has already set his sights on taking another influential startup, OrCam, public by the end of next year. This startup, toting a portable, artificial vision device allowing the visually impaired to identify objects, could also change lives of patients who are suffering. OrCam was named by NoCamels as one of nine “superhero” startups in 2017. Meanwhile, as Intel completed its deal to acquire Mobileye in August, president and co-founder Ziv Aviram has stepped down.
The Changemaker: Sivan Ya’ari
“The Israeli Heart and Mind Just Transformed the Lives of 1 Million Africans Forever,” read the headline beneath a YouTube video on Sivan Ya’ari, the founder of Innovation: Africa, a non-profit organization that brings Israeli solar power, water, and agricultural innovations to rural African villages. Ya’ari, a Tel Aviv-based mother of three, was born in Israel, raised in France and educated in the United States. The story goes that Ya’ari visited Africa at a very young age when she was working for an international clothing company. She established Innovation: Africa in 2008, headquartered in NY, but moved back to Israel in 2009, where she heads the company’s office in Herzliya Pituach. Ya’ari has worked in Africa for over 20 years and changed the lives of many with her efforts. Innovation: Africa has received an Innovation Award from the United Nations and Ya’ari herself has found her name on atop many “Influential Israeli women” lists, including this one.
The Innovator: Aharon Aharon
The end of 2016 saw Apple Israel’s CEO Aharon Aharon head to the revamped Israeli Innovation Authority, formerly known as the Office of the Chief Scientist of the Economy Ministry. As startups were quickly becoming Israel’s most important economic influence, it would be a lofty task to head the country’s central agency managing the government’s support of innovation and fostering the development of R&D within Israel. But Aharon seemed up for the challenge. He had served as Apple Israel’s CEO since 2011, held two degrees from the Technion and worked in the private sector, including at IBM. Aharon quickly set about reporting on the data that would need to be analyzed in order to help Israel position itself in the high-tech scene of the rest of the world.
In October 2017, NoCamels reported that the Israel Innovation Authority came out with its annual report, which said that while the achievements in Israeli high-tech are astounding, the rest of the country needs to start following suit. In other words, the Israeli economy would see a significant improvement, if high-tech positions need to be created within other sectors. Aharon’s leadership, knowledge, and expertise will surely lead Israel into a new era of innovation in the future.
The Scientist: Dr. Oron Yacoby-Zeevi
Neuroderm Chief Scientist Officer Dr. Oron Yacoby-Zeevi may seem rather unassuming when compared to some of the other game-changers on this list, but there’s a very good reason she joins the other nine candidates. Israel’s Neuroderm, a clinical-stage pharmaceutical firm developing next-generation treatments for disorders of the central nervous system, was sold to Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma for $1.1 billion in what is said to be Israel’s largest Pharma exit earlier this year. Yacoby-Zeevi, according to a report in Globes, had a hand in that exit, at least in part, because she is responsible for the company’s technological solution. NeuroDerm has developed a liquid version of a drug already in existence to treat Parkinson’s Disease. This groundbreaking achievement will certainly improve the lives of patients around the world who suffer from the disease, while also generating profits for the company.