Life & Culture

From Hollywood to Hawaii, meet Mr Israel

Meet the man who represents Israel in LA, hub of the entertainment and tech industries which employ so many Israelis.


Israel's latest Consul-General in Los Angeles, Sam Grundwerg, recently took up his new role in the consulates swish offices in an upmarket area of LA just a few minutes drive from celebrity haunts such as Beverly Hills and Brentwood. Florida-born Grundwerg,  new in LA from Efrat  where he spent six years as director-general of the Israeli branch of the World Jewish Congress, is already settling into his transition from the West Bank to the West Coast. Beautiful weather, beautiful people, and food, he enthuses.

It’s questionable how much time he’ll have to enjoy the perks of living in the City of Angels, where the 43-year-old has been joined by his wife, Julia, and their three children. With Los Angeles rivalling New York as the epicentre of American culture — certainly in terms of film, television, music, and technology but increasingly media, art and fashion — the LA posting has become one of mounting significance to Israel, so Grundwerg will be kept busy.

“It’s a world communication centre,” he explains. “Especially today where it’s all about communication, and every kid and adult is attached to their smartphone device, impacted by news and entertainment. If you look at how much of that comes out of Los Angeles, it’s disproportionate.”

LA is home to what is believed to be the world’s largest concentration of Israelis outside of Israel — Grundwerg estimates there are now 250,000 expats living there — and is also the city with the third largest Jewish population in the world after Tel Aviv and New York, boasting around 600,000 Jews. So what is LA’s appeal? Grundwerg cites the city’s “laid-back atmosphere” and “openness” as being particularly attractive to Israelis and Jews alike. “It’s a city that supports creative thinking, you know, which is a great match for the Jewish and Israeli spirit and temperament.”

Jews have a long history in Hollywood, of course, but ever since Jerusalem-born television producer Gideon Raff first sold the series Homeland to Fox around six years ago, the city has also become a hotbed of Israeli talent, culminating most recently with ex-IDF soldier and former Miss Israel Gal Gadot being cast as Wonder Woman opposite Ben Affleck in the blockbuster DC Comics franchise Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

“I think our reputation is really being established here in terms of the creativity that’s coming out of Israel,” says Grundwerg. “I think it all goes back to the fact that Israel is the Jewish state. We’re known to be good storytellers, the Jewish people, so it makes sense that we would do a good job on this.”

“And what could be better than Wonder Woman,” he points out. “It gives Israelis a really great sense of pride that it is an Israeli who plays the part.” Ever the diplomat, he adds: “From our perspective, every Israeli woman is a Wonder Woman.”

While Hollywood is the first thing most people think of when they hear Los Angeles, the consulate’s jurisdiction actually encompasses six nearby states as well as Southern California (Northern California has its own consulate, located in San Francisco). “Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Hawaii,” Grundwerg reels off.

“Hawaii!” I exclaim. “That’s a nice one.” “So are the others,” he replies without missing a beat. “Make sure you get that!”

The consulate’s mission, he says, is to partner with these states “in a way that helps those local communities and leverages the Israeli expertise, innovation and know-how.” Recent examples include advising California on water shortage (the Golden State is five years into an official drought), sharing cyber-tech security know-how, and community outreach, establishing trauma centres in at-risk areas.

While Grundwerg, who grew up in Miami Beach alongside Israel’s current US Ambassador, Ron Dermer, may have hoped to ease into his new role gently, he has already had to deal with tricky political issues during his brief tenure, including California’s anti-BDS bill, passed at the end of August and the outcry caused by a Black Lives Matter manifesto that accused the Jewish state of “apartheid” and “genocide”.

Of the California Combating BDS Act of 2016, which aims to prevent businesses from joining “discriminatory boycotts” against Israel, Grundwerg is keen to point out that “as representatives of the state of Israel we do not get involved in legislation in foreign countries.”

But, in general, he adds, “we welcome the effort, without getting into the specifics of the law.”

As for the controversial Black Lives Matter manifesto, he calls it “unfortunate” and “unacceptable”.

It is especially unfortunate, he says, given that “both the state of Israel and also the Jewish people have a rich history of co-operation with the African community and the civil rights movement,” not to mention, of course, that they have significant insight into what means to be persecuted because of one’s race.

But his biggest challenge, Grundwerg anticipates, will be reaching “the younger generation.” Similar to the UK, university campuses across America have become targets for antisemitism disguised as anti-Zionism, and it is those young American Jews who have little connection to Israel that are most at risk of being alienated. “In a world where it’s difficult to compete for people’s attention,” explains Grundwerg, “to try to get people who don’t necessarily think one way or the other about Israel to feel a connection to Israel — to first of all get their attention, get their time, and then, even after getting past all of those hurdles, to try to give the true image of Israel, to convey that — I think that’s the biggest challenge.”

Still, even the most challenging aspects of the job will no doubt be soothed by the pleasant location.

“The weather and the air here is really unbelievable,” Grundwerg smiles. And despite his busy schedule, he’s found time to check out the local beaches, which he describes as “just gorgeous”.

Although, he can’t resist adding, his national pride finally beating out his inner diplomat, they don’t hold a candle to the ones back home. “Israeli beaches are the best in the world of course.”

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