I’m working on a feature documentary, “Green Rebel – the Adventures of Kaptain Sunshine”, about a very persistent American-Israeli guy, Yossi Abramowitz. As I try to make progress on my indie movie (which in itself is never an easy task), I’m inspired by Abramowitz’s seemingly endless well of persistence in his own work.
Abramowitz’s company is now trying to bring solar-generated electricity to African nations. 600 million Africans – almost half of all Africans – have no electricity at all (and in especially poor nations like Burundi, about 10,000 people die yearly of indoor air pollution, caused by the smoke of burning wood and charcoal for all cooking and heating needs).
In 2015, he successfully built his company’s first (and East Africa’s first) solar field, in Rwanda – after raising $23.7 million for the project. Now, against obstacles of pervasive corruption (caused by among other things, many decades of violence, and the destabilizing effects of European colonialism) and competition from both petrochemical companies (who would much prefer to build power plants fueled by coal and diesel) and large Chinese solar companies, Abramowitz is negotiating with ten additional African nations about potential solar fields.
His company, Energiya Global, is also talking with governments in Jordan and Egypt – as he says, the goal is: “To realize that the same sun shines equally on all of us, is owned by none of us, and can supply our energy needs in abundance, inherently promoting peace. The sun doesn’t recognize borders.”
Like a lot of rebels, he started young. He reminisced to my video camera about his mom dragging 15-yr old Yossi to civil disobedience trainings, preparing for protests against the building of nuclear power plants in New England.
His first arrest (above), a few years later, was outside of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. in October 1985, while protesting on behalf of Boris Lifshitz, a Russian-Jewish refusenik. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Abramowitz’s conviction, setting a precedent on First Amendment rights outside embassies.
The next year, at Boston University, he founded the anti-apartheid and divestiture movement, and initiated a 14-day hunger strike to force B.U. to divest from South African investments. And then, the year after, as chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students, Abramowitz hunger-struck again, in support of the last Soviet Prisoner of Zion, Alexei Magarik (who was eventually released from solitary confinement, and released to fly to Israel)
Fast forward to the late 2000’s – he had immigrated in 2006 with his family from Boston to Kibbutz Ketura in Israel, and he was in a long struggle to fund his first commercial scale solar field there, and to battle Israel’s famous bureaucracy of entrenched industry interests.
One afternoon, a friend of Abramowitz’s shot secret video of a meeting he was having with two Israeli industry executives, who weren’t very happy to bless his endeavors. Abramowitz is on the left in the above photo, defending his plans to build a solar field, “We came here to build the country, just like you.” The supportive response from one of the others? “We’ve been here four generations – don’t tell me about building the country”.
In 2011, the Ketura solar field was finally built – the first commercial scale field to be connected to the Israeli national grid.
Now that Abramowitz is grown up 🙂 , he looks for ways to deftly resist, often behind the scenes, so it doesn’t interfere with his work in business, which includes courting the support of many investors. Like many countries these days, Israel has its share of asylum seekers – by now about 40,000 Africans, mainly from the war-torn areas of Sudan and Eritrea. Predictably, Netanyahu calls them “infiltrators”, and one of his ministers even called them a “cancer”.
Behind the scenes, Abramowitz has worked with his contacts at UNHCR, to try to broker a deal with the Netanyahu government, for Israel to at least accept a portion of the Africans.
I followed him and his activist wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman (above), to a massive demonstration last year in Tel Aviv, where crowds were lined up block after block to hear speakers like their friend Shula Mola, an Ethiopian Israeli, say things like, “We are gathered here to shout our need to be normal – to be human beings. To be people.”
“Green Rebel” will have a section about the difficult maneuvering of their trying to fight to allow the asylum seekers to stay in Israel legally. Abramowitz, always trying to create a happy ending, has an active plan to try to have many of the Africans stay and study Israeli hi-tech and green-tech in a special institute. Then, if and when they return to their home countries, they will be more likely to be welcomed for their valuable skills.
As part of Abramowitz’s balancing act, he must also work closely with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, to try to seal deals in Africa. (He accompanied Netanyahu on a trip to Ethiopia and other African nations in 2016, the group trying to kindle mutually beneficial business projects between Israel and African nations).
Abramowitz doesn’t hesitate to criticize any government’s policies though. He calls Israel’s latest dubious solution to generating energy – the natural gas fields in the Mediterranean – and the true desires of the Israeli multi-millionaires who will bankroll it – “a messianic intoxication with a trillion dollar price tag at the end of their rainbow”.
The photo above shows him at a Tel Aviv Climate protest recently (the banner reads, “Stop the Natural Gas Disaster”).
At the end of the day, his idea seems to be to insulate yourself from criticism as much as possible, by being positive. Don’t only resist – offer specific solutions, not just trashing things.
His latest positive challenge, after building his first Negev desert solar field, is to motivate Israel to build on that success to work for the entire nation going for green energy.
That may be the key in a world that is falling apart: anyone can kvetch about 1001 things in 1001 places, but who can build on small success after small success, like in his vision of Israel’s being, as he often describes, “a sustainable Light Unto the Nations”?