Two films: Encounter Point, Can You Hear Me? 

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

(Published in Haaretz, July 14, 2006)

The Jerusalem Film Festival this week featured two films highlighting efforts by Israelis and Palestinians to foster understanding and reconciliation between the two peoples. An all-women team of young filmmakers produced "Encounter Point," a powerful 90-minute feature documentary that portrays regular Israelis and Palestinians who have channeled the pain of their own private tragedies into action aimed at preventing further casualties of the conflict. "Can You Hear Me? Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace" is a shorter film by New York-based filmmaker Lilly Rivlin, who focuses on the role of women in peacemaking.

The two films share overlapping content, but differ in style. "Encounter Point" employs a "cinema verité" style, explains Canadian-born director Ronit Avni. The film documents its Israeli and Palestinian heroes interacting with each other and within their own communities. While dealing with the agony of bereavement – and making its Mideast debut during a week of escalating hostilities – the film offers hope by providing examples of people who have made extraordinary efforts to understand the other side. "Can You Hear Me?" is more didactic, employing maps and archive footage, but ultimately leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions about the prospects for reconciliation and the question of whether the world would be in better shape if run by women.

What do you do with this pain?

Encounter Point features two dominant characters: Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad. Damelin, whose son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper while serving as an IDF reservist, is the spokesperson for The Parents Circle – Families Forum: Bereaved Families Supporting Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance, an organization with about 500 members, including an equal number of Israelis and Palestinians. Originally from South Africa, Damelin immigrated to Israel in 1967.

Damelin poses the central question driving the film: "What do you do with this pain? Do you take it and look for revenge and keep the whole cycle going of violence, or do you choose another path?" Her response is to immerse herself in working toward reconciliation. She insists that reconciliation is not an "eccentric" mission. "It works," she asserts.

Towards the end of the film, her convictions are put to a test: The sniper who killed her son is finally apprehended. She describes a process of soul-searching, examining the integrity of her beliefs. It takes her four months to compose a letter to the sniper's family. She is still waiting for a response.

Ali Abu Awwad, who says his brother Youssef was shot "in cold blood" by an Israeli soldier, is also active in the Families Forum. The camera follows him on a visit to a rehabilitation hospital in Bethlehem, where his nephew is recovering from bullet wounds in his leg. Abu Awwad converses with several young Palestinians in the hospital cafeteria, trying to convince them of the wisdom of non-violent resistance, but his interlocutors are skeptical about the readiness of Israelis to live in peace.

Another member of the Families Forum, Tzvika Shahak, meets with a group of young Israelis who find it hard to comprehend how he could bear to sit with Palestinians after a suicide bomber took the life of his daughter, Bat-Chen. Shahak, a burly IDF veteran, notes that France and Germany were brutal enemies for years but now live in peace with open borders. "Why can't it happen here?" he exhorts the teenagers.

Cigarettes for Peace

The film is leavened with a few light moments, including a scene in which Abu Awwad suggests an original plan for resolving the century-old conflict: "Every Israeli who wants to smoke must come to the [Palestinian] territories, and every Palestinian who wants to smoke must come to Israel. There'd be peace in one day!"

In a question and answer session with the filmmakers and protagonists after the screening, a Palestinian woman complained that the film was pro-Israeli because it did not sufficiently portray the extent of suffering by the Palestinians. She noted that only one bereaved Palestinian parent was featured in the film – George Sa'adeh, whose daughter Christine was shot to death in Bethlehem. A young Jewish man complained, on the other hand, that the movie was biased in favor of the Palestinians because it used the term "Occupied Palestinian Territories" without giving equal play to "Judea and Samaria." Co-director Julia Bacha responded that this criticism from both sides indicates that "we must be doing something right."

Just Vision

Director Ronit Avni, 29, and producer Nahanni Rous, 31, spoke about the film in an interview earlier this week. Avni grew up in Montreal and now lives in New York City. In 2003, she left her job at the WITNESS human rights organization to launch Just Vision, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating comprehensive resources about civilian-led peace efforts between Palestinians and Israelis. In addition to producing Encounter Point, the organization is posting 180 interviews of Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers on its Website, and is developing educational curricula.

Rous is originally from New Hampshire and now works for Just Vision in Washington, DC. She lived for several years in Jerusalem, working as an assistant to NPR correspondent Linda Gradstein and volunteering for Seeds of Peace.

Did you try to make the film symmetrical?

Avni: "I think we were deliberate about a balance of empathy. I think we were also clear that we didn't want to try to quantify suffering and also didn’t want to create false symmetry between the conditions under which people were living, because the structural situation between Palestinians and Israelis is unequal."

How do you remain hopeful about the situation here?
Avni: "I don't think I'm hopeful in the immediate future. But after working [at WITNESS] with Algerian feminist journalists or Sierra Leonean peace builders, what started to give me hope was meeting people who were able to achieve results in extremely dire circumstances through years of hard work on a civil society level. I think it gave me energy to come back to this issue with a degree of optimism about the long term, not about the short term.

"What has been heartening is how many new initiatives are continually underway. We're constantly learning about people who are tired of the situation, can't take it anymore and want to get involved. I think people are unromantic now about what needs to happen, and yet people are finding energy to be involved."

Rous: "I don't think anybody I've interviewed for this project thinks their work alone is going to resolve the conflict or stop the violence. But when the day comes, when the politicians get their act together or when a third party steps in to help, the ground needs to be ready."

How is your work affected by the fact that you're engaged here, but not necessarily making your life here?

Avni: I think it always requires a lot of humility, but I'm really struck by how people from different places can influence each other. I'll give you a perfect example: The San Francisco International Film Festival takes a film every year to a juvenile detention center. Ali [Abu Awwad] came to speak with teenage guys from the Bay area, most of them current or former gang members. And Ali just blew them away. They were so inspired by him talking about non-violence and taking responsibility for his life and actions. Ali wasn't there to tell them what to do, but he was saying: 'These are some of my experiences, this is what I've learned, this is how I might be able to be helpful.' To me, that's what I would want to aspire to, not to shy away from."

Do you have other films in the works?

Avni: "Not another film at the moment. I think that one of the biggest lessons I learned at WITNESS was that the work starts when the film is finished. I think there is work to do around it, around educational materials, doing outreach, sharing best practices, finishing the 180 interviews."

Was it by design or chance that you have an all-women production crew?

Rous: "By chance, but it's not an unhappy coincidence. In retrospect, I think we realize that we’ve gained a lot by being an all-women team. In a lot of ways, we were less intimidating to some of the subjects we were interviewing. People would really open up to us in a way that they might not have if we were men."

Sarah and Hagar

Lilly Rivlin, who wrote, directed and produced "Can You Here Me?" traces the rift between Arabs and Jews to the biblical story of Sarah and Hagar – a story she began to film over 20 years ago. "In 1984," he recalls, "ten good women gave me $1,000 each because I had a good story. I said: If women would have rewritten the story of Sarah and Hagar, would it be different? I came here and shot a recreation, and went on for a few years filming women who had a cultural and dramatic take on the story of Sarah and Hagar."

Rivlin is a seventh-generation Jerusalemite who has spent most of her life in America. She began filmmaking in 1981, documenting a Rivlin family reunion with some 2,500 participants. (Likud MK Ruby Rivlin is one of her first cousins. "We don't agree on politics," notes the filmmaker, who also serves as president of Meretz USA.)

In 2002, she began filming Israeli and Palestinian women involved in peace advocacy and tried to combine their narratives with the story of Sarah and Hagar. In the end, the biblical story plays only a cameo role in Can You Here Me? Instead, the two main characters are Leah Shakdiel, an Orthodox Jew from Yeruham, and Maha Abu-Dayyeh, a Christian Arab from Beit Hanina.

The emotional climax of the film comes during a visit by Shakdiel to Abu-Dayyeh's home. When the discussion turns to Zionism and the Palestinian right of return, the two peace activists find themselves unable to communicate. A tearful Shakdiel accuses Abu-Dayyeh of demagoguery. Abu-Dayyeh shakes her head, a stony expression on her face.

The narrator of the film, Hollywood star Debra Winger, concludes that "the meeting turned out to be a microcosm of the conflict. Both want something from the other that they can't or won't give." The narrator offers some consolation: "Though Leah and Maha argue, they don't pick up guns."

The film also introduces viewers to a number of women's peace organizations and activists. One of the most striking personalities is Abu-Dayyeh's mother, Wedad. The silver-haired grandmother (who reminds Rivlin of her aunts in Jerusalem), remains charming while delivering a dire prognosis: "I don’t remember anything as bad as it is now. It will be a massacre, I tell you, for both sides."

What if women were in decision-making roles regarding war and peace? Israeli peace activist Alona Barkat has a simple answer: "If women ruled the world, we wouldn’t have wars."
Rivlin is less unequivocal: "I'm throwing out the question. I'm encouraging others to think about what it would be like if women were in decision-making positions."

Meanwhile, Rivlin's film concludes with another question: "The sons of Sarah and Hagar only come together for their father's funeral. Is it only death that can bring reconciliation?"

Blaine brings a bit of magic to war victims 

Monday, September 18, 2006

(Published in Haaretz, August 18, 2006)

Around 9 PM on Wednesday night, a mini-van pulled into the Nahalat Yehuda Youth Village, located in a quiet neighborhood in Rishon Lezion. The world's most famous magician and stuntman, David Blaine, emerged from the backseat, looking tired after a long day of barnstorming in northern Israel. A few minutes later, Blaine – who has performed before world leaders and Hollywood celebrities – was doing card tricks for a group of Druze teenagers in a nondescript classroom.

In his subdued and monotone style, Blaine wowed the youth with his magic – making cards appear and disappear, change suit and even become whole again after being ripped into pieces. He also shocked one of the youngsters by presenting a "present" – a watch Blaine had somehow managed to furtively remove from the boy's wrist. "I think he came from heaven," one of the bewildered kids exclaimed.

Blaine landed in Israel on Tuesday in time to perform for soldiers on Yehoram Gaon's live program on Channel 2. His itinerary on Wednesday began at an absorption center in Kibbutz Ayalet Hashahar. Later, in Kiryat Shmona, Blaine pulled up next to a rocket-damaged home to chat with local residents. Other stops included a visit with wounded soldiers at Ziv Hospital in Safed and a trip to the Arab village of Dir al-Assad. Yesterday, Blaine concluded his intensive two-day mission with a tour in the Haifa area, including Rambam Hospital.

Seth (Yossi) Siegel, the co-chairman of a New York-based trademark licensing agency, initiated the idea of bringing Blaine to Israel and accompanied the magician during his visit. Siegel only met Blaine several months ago, but says "something about him immediately touched me."

Blaine explained to Anglo File how the trip originated: "My friend Yossi called me when the war first started and asked me if I would want to come and do something, and I said I would love to go into the hospitals and do magic for the injured and go into the shelters for the kids. So it sounded like a great idea and I said 'yes' right away."

Siegel called the United Jewish Appeal in New York and Israel's Foreign Ministry to "reality test" the idea. "We didn't know how long the war would last and weren't waiting for a cease-fire," Siegel notes. "We just planned to go on a certain date and left. The UJA said this is wonderful and that they'd be glad to take the responsibility for putting the schedule together. So it was as simple as that really."

Blaine, who has lived in a transparent box suspended over the Thames River for 44 days and more recently completed a week-long residence in an aquarium outside Lincoln Center, is making his third trip to Israel. The 33-year-old native of Brooklyn arrived the first time as a tourist and came again to film footage for one of his projects. He is hurrying back to New York this weekend to conclude work on one of his current projects – a show for the Learning Channel. "My deadline is in a week," he chuckles.

Famous for his extreme stunts, Blaine also bears an unconventional and disquieting tattoo on his burly forearm – "174517" – the number tattooed on Primo Levy's arm at Auschwitz. "Levy is one of the most important writers who has affected me in my life," Blaine explains. "When I read his first book, right when he was talking about his number, I ran and put it [the tattoo] on."

Do you have a special connection with Israel?

Blaine: "I'm Jewish by blood; my mother was Jewish. I'm proud of my heritage, but I didn’t grow up in a religious family – it was just me and my mother and she was working three jobs to feed me, so we didn’t have special holiday celebrations."

What are your impressions after touring northern Israel?

Blaine: "It's just been amazing how strong all these kids are. They find peace and happiness and all get along with each other, and are not thinking about the negativity in the world, so that's nice."

It is important for Siegel to emphasize that "David Blaine is a very sought-after entertainer who commands as high a fee as anyone in the world, and he basically gave up a week of his life" to make this trip. Siegel adds: "Although my original idea was to have movie stars and singers come, the reality is that there could not have been a more perfect fit than David, because it's not culture-bound – it's magic."

Ramle - a mixed bag in a mixed city 

Sunday, September 17, 2006

(Written for Jerusalem Post, November 2004)

Molotov cocktails crashed against the Tiferet Zion synagogue earlier this month in Ramle, one of the few mixed (Jewish-Arab) cities in Israel. No one was at the synagogue at the time and only minor damage resulted. Local residents were quick to call this incident an anomaly and described Arab-Jewish relations in the city as generally good – though perhaps not as good as they once were.

Established as a Muslim city in 716, Ramle is today home to about 70,000 people, including approximately 14,000 Arabs (Muslims and Christians) and 56,000 Jews.

Michail Fanous, 46, a local activist and former city councilman, explains that Arab-Jewish relations in the city can be examined on two levels: the personal and the community. On the personal level, he says, relations are indeed relatively smooth in Ramle and he cites this as a moderating influence on both sides. But these personal relations must be reinforced on the community level, he argues.

On the community level, Mayor Yoel Lavi, a retired IDF colonel and native of Ramle, has invested greatly in Arab schools and opened the doors to Jewish philanthropy, Fanous says. For example, the municipality will celebrate the opening of a new community center in the Arab neighborhood of Jawarish on Wednesday, built with a donation of over $1 million from the British philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield of the Clore Israel Foundation. Over $500,000 in city funding has also been invested in this project.

Fanous, who traces his roots to the first Christian family in Ramle about 800 years ago, says he was initially opposed to joining Lavi’s city council coalition because of the mayor’s right-wing, Likud affiliation. However, he became convinced that Lavi had “an open mind” and was genuinely intent on investing in the Arab sector, viewing this as a Jewish interest. “Arab leaders have wasted time arguing with the guard at the vineyard. My pragmatic approach is to see how can we eat some grapes,” Fanous explains.

One focus of dispute between Fanous and Lavi is the housing situation of Ramle’s Arab population. Lavi takes a no-nonsense approach to illegal construction and has even turned to the High Court of Justice when the police refused to deploy forces for executing demolition orders.

“If I enforce the law when Jews build an illegal balcony, I can’t ignore the law when an Arab builds a home without a permit. Otherwise, things would get out of control,” he explains. According to Lavi, there are a number of suitable housing options for Ramle’s Arabs, and additional projects are in the works. His opponents argue that these options are not sufficient, noting for example that Arabs are ineligible for some of the housing benefits available to IDF veterans.

Each operation to demolish a home costs at least $300,000, complains Busayna Dbait, the director of a neighborhood-centered housing lobby sponsored by the New Israel Fund’s Shatil organization. “When you destroy others, you end up destroying yourself,” she says. “Just think what could be done with the money spent on these demolitions, “ Dbait adds.

Dbait was born in Ramle in 1965 and was the only Arab in her class at a Jewish high school. She returned to the city after studying architecture in Czechoslovakia. Dbait has been active in Hadash, the Israeli communist party, but during the past two years has focused on local issues as director of Shatil’s Mixed Cities Project. (“Think globally, act locally,” she recites with a smile.) Dbait laments a lack of cohesiveness in the Arab community and says the Shatil project aims to “build faith in change, battle indifference and encourage people to take the initiative and stop feeling like victims.”

Besides organizing anti-demolition protests, Dbait says the project has succeeded in raising awareness of the housing issues in Ramle by bringing in some of Israel’s leading performers and television personalities to tour the area. Shatil is also helping to promote the protest songs of the Arab rap group DAM from the neighboring city of Lod.

Dbait describes Ramle as a city in decline, but says it is still in better shape than Lod, also a mixed city. She fears that the two cities are “heading toward an abyss” and draws a sketch illustrating how each person can help drain off the flood waters of destruction by creating a stream of sanity. She regards the Molotov cocktail incident as a symptom of the loss of sanity. Still, despite her fears and her feeling that things are getting worse, Dbait tries to stay optimistic: “Yes, I’ve discovered that even as a minority there are doors we can open.”

Ghetto memories

Abdallah Zakut, 81, originally from the Arab village of Asdud (now Ashdod), has lived in Ramle for more than five decades. He chuckles as he considers the irony of his address – Lohamei Haghetaot Street [honoring the Jewish fighters in the European ghettos] – located on the edge of the neighborhood called “The Ghetto.” This neighborhood was given its name during the period of military rule in the city following the War of Independence, when Arab residents were confined within a barbed wired section of Ramle.

Zakut was shocked and angered to hear about the synagogue firebombing that took place just a block or two from his home. He was glad to learn that the perpetrators had been apprehended – three local 15-year-old Arabs who told the police that they decided to firebomb the synagogue in protest over Israel’s actions against the Palestinians in the territories. Zakut was stunned to learn that one of the boys is the son of a religious leader in the Muslim community.

Shaded by a sturdy fig tree in his garden, Zakut recalls close relations with new Jewish immigrants from Bulgaria who arrived in Ramle during the early days of statehood. “We were like brothers in the neighborhood,” he says. A wave of impoverished Iraqi immigrants in the early 1950s made the situation more difficult, he says, but “even today, Jewish-Arab relations are generally good.”

Sheikh Abu Laban Mahdi, the imam of Ramle’s Great Mosque, emphasizes: “Islam teaches that holy places should not be attacked, even during wartime.” He seeks to place the synagogue incident into a wider context of juvenile delinquency, noting that local Muslim youth set fire to his mosque several years ago and make a practice of setting off firecrackers during prayer time. He complains about a lack of discipline and respect among Ramle’s Arab youth and attributes part of this to the fact that “not only parents raise the children today, but also the television.” The imam also notes that Ramle’s social fabric has grown even more complicated, with “Arabs from everywhere” – including an influx of collaborators and their families from the territories.

“I have been living with Jewish neighbors in Ramle for 35 years and nothing like this [the synagogue firebombing] has ever happened,” he says. According to the sheikh, Ramle has never experienced the kind of political turmoil that has erupted in Umm al-Fahm and other Arab communities in Israel.

The commander of the Ramle police station, Chief Superintendent Igal Hadad, 38, agrees that relations between Arabs and Jews in Ramle are “good,” but describes a less idyllic reality. For example, the sheikh failed to mention that the same Tiferet Zion synagogue was the target of a firebombing in October 2000, when the intifada erupted and Arab unrest spread throughout Israel. (In this earlier incident, there were also no injuries, but the synagogue was more severely damaged.) Hadad relates that police also needed to restrain groups of angry Jews who blocked city streets in October 2000. Several dozen Jewish residents were arrested during these disturbances.

The police commander says that the situation in Ramle is clearly improving, with a steady drop in violence. “There are no longer any drug stands in Ramle,” he declares, attributing this to a massive police effort several years ago. The police have also cracked down on illegal possession of guns, he adds, collecting over 200 pistols and rifles during the past three years.

Still, Hadad describes Ramle’s situation as potentially explosive, with “the occasional madman” capable of upsetting the delicate balance in the city. Thus, Hadad considers the synagogue attack “a very, very serious” incident and says he called in a team of investigators and intelligence officers after the attack and told them: “We’re not going home until we bring in the perpetrators.” After apprehending the culprits, who were released to home arrest several days later, Hadad also called in local Arab leaders and encouraged them to initiate a “sulha” meeting with members of the Tiferet Zion synagogue. (See below.)

Baruch Ashraf, 53, is one of the leaders of the Tiferet Zion congregation, comprised mainly of Jews of Yeminite origin. He has lived most of his life in this Ramle neighborhood and also attests to good neighborly relations. Referring to the firebombing incident, he says: “I’d also be angry if anyone did something like this to a church or mosque.” Ashraf points across the street and notes the owner of each home: “Jew, Arab, Arab, Jew, Jew, Arab.” He goes to an Arab physician and says he can call his Arab friends at 2 AM if he ever needs help. Nonetheless, Ashraf admits that Arab-Jewish relations were closer in his parent’s generation and much weaker in his children’s generation.

Jews move out, Arabs stay

Anat Moshe, like Busayna Dbait, is an architect who grew up in Ramle. They met while working on separate projects in the Old City of Ramle and both speak passionately about the Old City as a potential catalyst for the city’s renaissance. But while Dbait still lives in Ramle, Anat now makes her home in Jerusalem.

Anat, 36, remembers being part of a “very serious” group of Scouts in Ramle, who were high achievers and went on to serve in elite army units. However, she recalls feeling uncomfortable about her “Ramle-ness” when encountering people from outside the city. None of her close friends from the Scouts still live in Ramle.

Mayor Lavi seems resigned to the fact that Ramle’s Jews tend to leave the city as soon as their financial situation allows for this. He explains bluntly: “Jews do not want their kids to grow up in a mixed city.” Lavi, a self-declared pragmatist, is also not enthralled by visions of developing the Old City as a unique attraction. (Instead, he is focusing development efforts on the city’s periphery.) His critics say that Lavi should be using his leadership to foster a multicultural environment that could serve as a magnet for both Arabs and Jews, instead of perpetuating a segregated approach.

Anat is now working in Ramle as the youth coordinator for Mosaic Communities, an organization formed last year with the ultimate goal of developing new models of desegregated and multicultural neighborhoods. As part of her work, she tried to examine how Jewish and Arab teenagers feel about their city. It did not surprise her to discover that the Jewish teenagers tended to regard Ramle as a place located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and planned to leave for greener pastures as soon as they could. The Arab teenagers, on the other hand, expressed a greater sense of belonging.

Mayor Lavi is clearly proud of the progress Ramle has made since he took office in 1993, and the city’s voters – including the vast majority of Arabs – have rewarded him with two landslide reelection victories. Indeed, he rides around town like a sheriff, checking the progress of various projects, quizzing school officials, and pointing out refurbished schools and housing blocks. He says he believes that improved surroundings can induce people to improve their own lives.

But for Ramle to thrive as a successful mixed city, the mayor will have to find a way to defuse tensions over the housing issue in the Arab sector and discover a formula to prevent the city’s Jewish population from leveraging economic improvement into a one-way ticket out of Ramle.

‘We’re all Israelis’

About 30 Arabs and Jews, including a delegation of uniformed police officers and plainclothesmen, gathered for a reconciliation meeting last Thursday afternoon at the Tiferet Zion synagogue, the site of the firebombing incident earlier in the week.

The meeting began with brief remarks by the commander of the Ramle police station, Chief Superintendent Igal Hadad, who emphasized the importance of the meeting and said it reflected the real image of Arab-Jewish relations in Ramle.

Hadad then introduced his superior officer, Commander Rafi Peled, who is responsible for the Shefela subdistrict (Rishon Lezion, Ramle, Lod, Rehovot and Modi’in). Peled called the synagogue firebombing a very serious incident, but focused on a positive message, noting the joint Arab-Jewish businesses in the city and a special Christian-Muslim-Jewish unit of Civil Guard volunteers who patrol the city’s churches, mosques and synagogues. “If we put aside the marginal incidents, we are all living in harmony here,” Peled said. “In the end, we’re all Israelis.”

Peled took the opportunity to wish the Muslims a happy Id al-Fitr holiday and also noted the passing of Yasser Arafat. While acknowledging the disparate attitudes of Jews and Arabs toward Arafat while he was still alive, Peled said Jews could now join the Arab community in wishing the deceased Palestinian leader God’s mercy [Allah yirahamu]. The police commander also stressed the monotheistic link between Judaism, Islam and Christianity and noted that we all originate from the same womb, using a graphic Arabic term (rhymes with “moose”) to describe a particular part of the female anatomy.

Peled concluded by suggesting that the peaceful relations between individuals in Ramle could “serve as an example for those across the border that Jews and Arabs can live in peace.”

Tzvia Greenfield - an ultra-Orthodox iconoclast 

(Published in Haaretz, March 17, 2006)

Tzvia Greenfield, No. 6 on Meretz’s Knesset list, was born and raised in an ultra-Orthodox setting in Jerusalem – not exactly a breeding ground for candidates of a left-wing party that advocates the separation of religion and state. But at age 19, she spent a year teaching Hebrew in New York and traveling coast-to-coast in the United States. It was an eye-opening experience that significantly shaped her liberal worldview, she says. She later spent an 11-year period in the U.S., where four of her five children were born.

“My worldview was very influenced by the 1960s revolution in the U.S. – the message of peace, brotherhood, love, anti-war,” Greenfield says. This started with the folk songs she used to listen to on the radio as a teenager in Jerusalem. These songs “had a huge impact on me,” she says. “Then, as a 19-year-old, I came to the U.S. [in 1966] and witnessed anti-government demonstrations for the first time in my life. And I learned that you could be a very great patriot and still oppose the government’s policy. Here in Israel it was almost impossible.”

Greenfield returned to Israel just before the Six-Day War, but came back to the U.S. in 1971 after marrying a Harvard Medical School student from Los Angeles who had taken a year off to study at a Jerusalem yeshiva. During the next 11 years, they lived in Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

“For me, there were a lot of amazing discoveries in the U.S.,” she says. “I’m a Zionist and wanted to live in Israel, but I loved the U.S. very much and am very grateful for what I learned from it. Despite all of its very difficult problems, it still seems like the greatest, most interesting and successful human experiment.”

The immigrant experience in bronze and stone 

(Published in Haaretz, March 10, 2006)

The Ruppin Academic Center inaugurated a sculpture garden this week aimed at providing exposure for the work of immigrant (olim) artists. Professor Shoshana Arad, the president of the college, noted at the inauguration ceremony that the sculpture garden is an “inseparable” part of Ruppin’s Institute for Immigration & Integration, established last year.

The institute, located on Ruppin’s campus in Emek Hefer, was founded to promote interdisciplinary research, teaching and volunteer activity related to immigration and community integration. It opened six courses this year for undergraduates and hopes to offer a masters program next year. Guest lecturers include author Eli Amir, who co-teaches a course entitled: “Immigration as Expressed in Literature and Cinema.”

Myra Kraft, a Boston-based philanthropist whose family owns the New England Patriots football team and has a number of business interests in Israel, was recruited last year by Professor Arad to co-chair the public council for the new institute. “I was shocked that in a country comprised of immigrants that there was no such faculty dealing with all aspects of immigration,” recalls Kraft, who is also involved in immigration and absorption work at the Joint Distribution Committee.

A geophysicist and a surveyor

The garden’s first sculpture, entitled “Lech Lecha” [the command Abraham received to set forth from his native land] is a joint project of Michael Lazar, originally from Canada, and Mark Lewis, who immigrated from England. Other sculptures commissioned for in the garden include works by immigrants from Italy, Russia, Belgium, the U.S., Uruguay, France, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Argentina.

Lazar, 34, came to Israel as a child and began sculpting only after his army service and while completing a PhD in Geophysics at Tel Aviv University. He still works part-time at a university laboratory, but says: “I’ve put my academic career on hold to focus more on sculpture at the moment.” He met Mark Lewis about six years ago and the two have been working together ever since. Lazar says they are often asked how two artists can collaborate on a single sculpture: “We just sort of put our ego aside and get on with the work,” he explains.

The two artists prefer not to attach any one meaning to their sculpture. “We let everybody see what they want in it,” Lazar explains. But in the case of Lech Lecha, he is prepared to say that it attempts to portray “somebody trying to come to terms with being uprooted from his native country and the difficulties he faces as an immigrant.”

Lewis is more familiar with these difficulties than Lazar, who grew up in Israel. Lewis worked as a surveyor in London and came to Israel about eight years ago as a “semi-old man of 32,” speaking very little Hebrew. “Anybody who wants to make it with art in Israel is struggling, and anyone who has made aliyah is struggling twice as much as anybody else,” he says.

Nonetheless, Lewis speaks very positively of his experience in Israel, noting the very welcoming and helpful society he has found in Tel Aviv. His message to new immigrants is: “If you want to get somewhere, and especially with art, you can’t make excuses that it’s hard here and there’s no money and you’re not a mother-tongue speaker. You’ve just got to get on with it.”

Philanthropic VC does good by doing well 

(Published in Haaretz, March 3, 2006)

Let’s say you are twenty-something, just starting your career, still paying off your student loans and saving for your first home. You are certainly not in a position to contribute much to philanthropic causes. But what if someone were to say to you: “Don’t give us anything now, just promise that when you make your first million shekels, you’ll donate 5,000-10,000 shekels to our charitable activities.”

This, in a nutshell, is the idea behind Tmura –The Israeli Public Service Venture Fund. Founded by Yadin Kaufmann in 2002, Tmura primarily targets startup companies, hoping to leverage their future success to benefit educational and youth-related organizations in Israel.

“I wanted to get the high-tech and venture communities here involved in philanthropy in some kind of organized way,” explains Kaufmann, who grew up in New York City and moved to Israel about 20 years ago. Some 676 Israeli companies have signed onto Tmura Kaufmann’s initiative, and a number of legal, accounting and other firms are providing pro bono services to allow Tmura to operate with only one paid employee.

The road to Israel for Kaufmann began at home, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he spoke Hebrew with his Israeli mother. He also in New York, where he attended Jewish private schools (Solomon Schechter and Ramaz). He, spent many summers with his grandparents in Rehovot and studied one semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Kaufmann explains his decision to move to Israel: “I always liked it here. I guess aAt some point in college I made the decision that I wanted to try living here, and that it was important to try to help build the Jewish state. I guess you can say I bought into the Zionist dream. I figured I’d give it a shot.”

Kaufmann arrived in Israel with impressive academic qualifications: a B.A. from Princeton and both an M.A. and J.D. from Harvard. While at Harvard Law School, he met Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, who invited Kaufmann to clerk for him. “Having an opportunity to work with him and getting to know him was incredible,” Kaufmann says. “He and his wife on a personal level were also fantastic to us on a personal level, . They had us over a lot and it their hospitality really helped our klita (acclimation).”

Kaufmann completed the second year of his law clerkship at one of Israel’s premier law firms – Herzog Fox & Neeman. He was admitted to the Israeli bar (in addition to his New York bar certification), but was not sure he wanted to work in a law firm. “I looked around for interesting opportunities,” he recalls. “And I heard about this thing called a venture capital fund.”

Venture capital was a new field in Israel when he joined Athena Venture Partners in 1987. Several years later, Kaufmann co-founded his own firm, Veritas Venture Partners (with Gideon Tolkowsky), which has remained the focus of his career. He notes that Veritas has always targeted “very early-stage (seed) companies, generally starting up in Israel or based on Israeli know-how,” and that this suits his entrepreneurial inclination. “We wanted to be involved in helping people start companies from the idea stage, and we think that’s really where the fun is … because if you’re an entrepreneurial yourself, then the next best thing to starting all these companies yourself is being there when other people start them and helping them develop somehow.”

By the end of the 1990s, a flourishing venture capital industry had developed in Israel and Kaufmann began to think about how to harness some of the wealth being created in the high-tech sector for the community at large. While exploring several different models, Hhe then learned of a new philanthropic endeavor in the United States, the Entrepreneurs Foundation, which tapped local high-tech communities. Kaufmann imported this model to establish Tmura, the only non-American affiliate of the Entrepreneurs Foundation.

In the U.S., the Entrepreneurs Foundation not only solicits donations of equity but also runs its own non-profit organizations”community involvement” programs. Kaufmann decided not to import the second part of the model and to support existing non-profit activities instead. “I thought that our real contribution and kind of unique value added could be to develop a new the vehicle for getting companies to donate options, and thereby enlarge the philanthropic pie here” he explains. “And because of my years in the industry and my relationships, I was able to get other people involved and put this thing together.”

Still, some questioned the timing of this initiative. “When we started Tmura, everyone saidmany people asked, ‘Is this the time to start?’ High-tech was in a deep slump the toilet and nobody thought no one was thinking of exits then,” Kaufman recalls. “But taking a long-term view and having been in the business a long time, I sort of knew that this business would come back and that it was exactly the time when it made sense to get options. First of all, people were more modest about what their company’s equity was worth, so they were more willing to give. Secondly, you were getting options at valuations next to zero, which means that when they do work, you’re going to make a lot of money.”

Kaufmann credits the enthusiastic support of his colleagues in the venture capital and high-tech industries, and the diligent efforts of its lone employee, Executive Director Baruch Lipner (himself a North American oleh), with making Tmura a success. Since its establishment in 2002, Tmura has cashed in about some NIS 2.5 million in options and allocated funds to 12 Israeli non-profit organizations, including educational enrichment initiatives, neighborhood drop-in centers and a rape crisis outreach program. Tmura realized part of this money when five private companies in its portfolio were acquired: MagniFire, Phonetic Systems, Native Networks, Modem-Art and, most recently, Cyota. The lion’s share of Tmura’s cash derives from exercising options donated by two publicly traded companies, Orckit and M-Systems, whose values have soared since contributing options to Tmura.

Kaufmann believes that Tmura’s performance has validated its basic premise: “A tiny bit of equity donated by a company can end up being a very significant grant to worthy causes in Israel.” And he is optimistic about the future: “When we started, we talked about the potential to donate $5 million in five years and that sounded like an extremely outrageous projection at the time, but I think with some continued success, I believe we can get there.”

Hundreds of Heads

Yadin and Lori Kaufmann’s oldest son, Dov, is now finishing his army service and is planning to study at Princeton, where his parents met as undergraduates. “When he started thinking about going to college, I thought about how I could help him understand what it was all about,” Yadin says. “I could tell him about my experience and Lori could tell about hers, but first of all it was quite a few years ago and secondly, we’re his parents so he’s not going to really take our advice all that seriously.” So the idea occurred to him to try to expose his son “to the experience and advice of not just us and our inner circle of friends, but all these other hundreds of thousands of people who have been through this and let’s learn from them.”

Kaufmann teamed up recruited with an old friend – former CNN executive Mark Bernstein – to form a publishing company, Hundreds of Heads. “The idea was to create a means of helping people get through each of life’s major challenges or milestones with the advice, based on experience, of many hundreds of people who have been through that specific life event thing before.” The initial book in the series – How to Survive Your Freshman Year – has sold about 60,000 copies. Other titles in this “How to Survive” series include Dating, Your Baby’s First Year, Your Marriage, A Move, Your Teenager, Your Diet, and DivorceYour Retirement and Your In-Laws. “Lots more are in the works,” Kaufmann promises.The Atlanta-based firm has more titles in production.

Bean there, done that - the story of Cup O' Joe 

(Published in Haaretz, February 24, 2006)

"What about your idea of opening a coffee shop?" Dov Goldfarb asked David Klein one evening in 1997. Goldfarb, originally from New York, and Klein, who grew up in Maryland, had both recently left Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava, where they met. "Apparently, I had spent a lot of time talking about a coffee shop, but had no recollection of it whatsoever," Klein told Anglo File this week at the Holon production facility of Cup 'O' Joe, the coffee business he now owns and manages with Goldfarb.

Cup 'O' Joe is Israel's second largest chain of coffee shops (after Aroma), with 23 locations and another four slated to open soon. The company also roasts, blends and packages about 8,000 kilograms of coffee each month for its own shops and other businesses.

Klein, 39, began experimenting with coffee as a young boy. "I enjoy learning to do things on my own. So for me, learning about coffee meant roasting coffee in a frying pan, grinding it up, tasting it," he explains. "But I never felt like I was a mad coffee person."

He studied film and photography at Hampshire College, and wanted to be a photographer. But the only way he found to make money in this field was as an industrial photographer, which he did not enjoy. So he started selling suits at Saks Fifth Avenue in Boston and working at restaurants.

Meanwhile, he had become obsessed with snowboarding and mountain bike riding. "That's why Denver was the obvious next step," he notes. Saks approved a transfer to its branch in Colorado and everything was set for the move. But first he came on what was supposed to be a three-week trip to Israel to visit his sister Robyn Tal, who had made aliyah and was living at Kibbutz Ketura.

"Why don't you stay awhile longer?" Robyn asked. She introduced him to Goldfarb, who arranged for him to work as a maintenance man at the kibbutz's date-packing plant. "So I figured I'd put off Denver for awhile," Klein says. Besides the future business partnership, the kibbutz also spawned another type of alliance: Klein met Shiri and they married a year later.

The young couple moved to Rehovot, where Shiri began studying. It was then that Goldfarb, who had left the kibbutz a few months earlier, reminded Klein about the coffee shop idea. "Sure, let's open up a coffee shop," Klein replied.

Joe is born

Klein and Goldfarb found a location on Hahashmonaim Street in Tel Aviv and launched Cup 'O' Joe (or "Coffee Joe" in Hebrew). "'Joe' is American slang for coffee," Klein explains. "'Joe' works in both Hebrew and English, it's easy on the ear, sounds international, is one syllable - we're very happy with it."

The original idea was to establish a chain of coffee shops. An additional goal was to develop coffee products in-house. "One of the things I was very adamant about was to produce our own coffee," Klein emphasizes. "So we built Hahashmonaim with a roaster in the front of the shop. I don't think we were there for even a month before people started to come to us wanting to buy our coffee for other shops."

At this stage, Klein and Goldfarb decided to put the idea of a chain aside and focus on coffee production. Since it was too hot to roast coffee in the shop during the day, Klein worked through the night four or five times a week at the 12-kilo roaster, producing some 1,500 kilograms of coffee each month. After two years in the business, they were already supplying their Joe blends to over 200 clients and it was time to upgrade their production facilities. They acquired a 30-kilo roaster and set up a dedicated production site in the Holon industrial zone.

Soon afterward, Klein and Goldfarb began revisiting the original idea of building a chain of shops. "Joe had become a brand name and all the time people were coming and wanting to open up similar shops," Klein says. "I began to see that the only way to continue in the Israeli market was by becoming a chain, because Israelis wanted that security. When you go to drink coffee at a chain, you know what you're getting."

After some initial experimentation with an island shop at the Azrieli Mall and a Cup 'O' Joe shop on Dizengoff Street, the company began to expand rapidly in 2002 and opened 20 franchise stores within the next three years. (Another former American, David Ginsburg, recently acquired the franchise for the Dizengoff shop.)

The fact that the intifada was raging during this time did not hamper the chain's growth. "Israelis are hardened people and they want to go out at night. If there's a bomb attack on Sunday, then Monday is slow but Tuesday is a regular day," Klein notes.

Where Starbucks failed

Part of the expansion of Cup 'O' Joe and other local coffee chains can be attributed to the recession here in recent years, Klein explains. People had less disposable income and cafes offer a less expensive alternative to restaurants. Another part of Cup 'O' Joe's success is cultural. "I think Israel's coffee culture is very special, and like everything in Israel, it's disproportionate to the size of the country. It's a great market here and still growing."

Starbucks failed in Israel, among other reasons, because it was not attuned to Israeli culture, according to Klein. Starbucks announced it was coming to Israel to "teach Israelis to drink coffee" and later blamed its departure on the intifada - both of these statements were impolitic, Klein suggests. "And their blend wasn't particularly to Israelis' taste. Starbucks tried to sell filter coffee here and Israelis don't like filter coffee."

There is a strong American and familial atmosphere at Cup 'O' Joe's Holon headquarters. Goldfarb's wife Susan, originally from Minnesota, is part of the crew, along with Klein's sister Robyn. However, the end product - a cup of coffee - is designed for the local culture. Klein: "One of the big successes of Joe is that we produced a coffee that is very much the taste of Israelis - it's more Italian than American. It's very Israeli."

Fighting for Rishon, playing for peace 

(Published in Haaretz, February 17, 2006)

It was Ivy League night at the Premier League: A contingent of about 40 Yale alumni crowded into the sports auditorium in Rishon Letzion on Sunday to cheer for Matt Minoff, a former Yale basketball captain, now wearing the orange colors of Maccabi Rishon. In his second year as a professional player in Israel, Minoff has become a key member of the feisty team that outgunned perennial champs Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday.

Basketball brought Minoff from his hometown of Cherry Hill, New Jersey to Israel after graduating from Yale in 2004. He began thinking of a professional career in Israel after participating in the 2001 Maccabiah Games. "It was the first time I was exposed to the idea that a Jewish person could come to Israel, make aliyah and play basketball here as a professional. There were a few guys on the [U.S. Maccabiah] team who were already playing here and they did a really good job of selling it," he explains. "I kind of knew that this was something that I would probably want to at least try."

Minoff had visited Israel once before, on a confirmation trip organized by his local Conservative synagogue in 1996. This initial trip "definitely piqued my interest," he says. "But if you were to pick a Jewish person to come to Israel, it probably wouldn't have been me," Minoff notes with a wide grin.

"To be honest, what brought me here was basketball, the opportunity to play professionally," he says. Minoff, a 6'6" forward, was offered contracts to play professionally in Denmark and Ireland, but wanted to "test the waters" in Israel, where the level of play is higher. He came to Israel and began contacting Premier League teams, and practiced with several - including Maccabi Tel Aviv - before signing with Maccabi Rishon.

Minoff says he completed his paperwork for Israeli citizenship before coming to Israel, realizing that it would be easier to win a spot on a team as an Israeli because of the rule limiting the number of foreign players. Even so, "there was a time I wasn't sure I was going to get a spot on a first-division team, which would have been very disappointing, because I knew that if a team gave me a chance I would prove myself and be a contributor."

Rishon signed Minoff, but during the first half of his maiden season he saw little playing time. However, after Guy Goodes became head coach in mid-season, Minoff started getting more playing time and proved his worth to the team, which asked him to re-sign for a second season. "I felt really proud," Minoff says. "From basically being the last guy on the bench, I had become someone they wanted back."

Minoff has thoroughly enjoyed playing in Israel. "Guys in this league are NBA-caliber players and it's fun to play against people at that level." And he speaks highly of his coaches and teammates at Rishon: "We've really built a unique team - all a bunch of fighters. I don't know if we have the most talent, but we play together, we play hard and we play to win."

The team is currently in third place and focused on making the final-four season finale. This would be a "huge achievement for us," Minoff says. "And once you're there, anything can happen."

Playing together

Minoff has not yet decided about his plans for next year and "almost definitely" plans to return to the U.S. eventually. Meanwhile, he is helping to establish youth basketball programs in Israel and the West Bank through the U.S.-based Playing for Peace organization, which also operates in Ireland and South Africa. In fact, before coming to Israel, Minoff was offered a job working for the organization in South Africa. "I told them I wanted to be involved somehow, but that I was going to Israel. When I got here, I quickly realized that this was a place that needed something like Playing for Peace."

Minoff and Ryan Lexer, a fellow American who currently plays for Hapoel Holon, launched the Middle East branch of Playing for Peace in August with a one-week overnight camp for 100 Israeli teenagers - 50 Arabs and 50 Jews. A group of seven coaches from the U.S., including NBA coaches Herb Brown and Don Casey, came to work with the campers, together with a local staff of five Jews and five Arabs.

Playing for Peace is now running a yearlong program in various Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in Israel, as well as in the West Bank. In addition to practicing twice a week in their own communities with coaches hired and trained by Playing for Peace, the aspiring basketball players also meet for biweekly clinics with peers from the other side of the cultural divide.

According to the organization's Web site, its basic premise is that "children who play together can learn to live together." Or as Minoff says: "My hope is that we can give the kids in our program the opportunity to meet someone they never would have met before." And why is basketball particularly suited for teaching the life skills the program seeks to impart? Minoff: "Basketball is unique because of the intimacy of the team, with everyone involved in every play - and you really need to work together to achieve victory."

Bob Hoskins remembers his kibbutz 'mom' 

(Published in Haaretz, February 17, 2006)

A young man called Bob arrived at Kibbutz Zikim several days after the outbreak of the Six-Day War as part of a "very nice, but very rambunctious" group of 24 English volunteers, recalls Edna Caplan, 72, a former Londoner who had settled on the kibbutz a decade earlier and "adopted" Bob during his stay.

Thirty-five years later, in 2002, Caplan received a call from the Jerusalem Film Festival saying that the renowned British actor Bob Hoskins wanted to visit her at the kibbutz on the coast south of Ashkelon. Only then did she realize that the young volunteer and the famous actor were one and the same.

"Where have all your curls gone?" was the first thing Caplan said to Hoskins, whose hairline is now somewhere near the back of his head. Hoskins toured the kibbutz for about four hours that day. "He remembered every hole and corner of the kibbutz," Caplan marvels.

Caplan recalls that the young Hoskins was "quite left-wing" and very enamored of the kibbutz model. After his six-month stay at Kibbutz Zikim, he worked at two other kibbutzim, spending a total of two years in Israel. He even considered settling on a kibbutz, she says, "but, in the end, he didn't want to become Jewish and didn't want to join the army."

At the conclusion of their reunion in 2002, Caplan and Hoskins did not exchange addresses or phone numbers and Caplan did not expect to hear from Hoskins again. But he surprised her again last month: "I got a phone call from the British Council and they said, 'Bob Hoskins wants to talk to you.'"

Caplan says that she had heard that Hoskins would be coming to Israel for the British Film Festival and had considered trying to get in touch with him. But she decide against it, reasoning "no, once is enough for him. I'm not particularly important or anything." But here Hoskins was on the phone telling her: "Come to my film."

Caplan and her husband Dan - the couple met in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in England - came to Jerusalem the next night for a reception and screening of Hoskins' film "Mrs. Henderson Presents." ("It is a lovely film, an understated English comedy, the way it should be, in my opinion," she says.)

"Everyone was so eager to shake my hand [at the reception] because he greeted me with hugs and kisses," Caplan chuckles. Hoskins asked Caplan whether she has been following his career. "Yes," she replied, "now that I know who you are."

WJC seminar focuses on empowering young leaders 

(Published in Haaretz, February 17, 2006)

Twenty-five young Jewish professionals from around the world gathered at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel this week to discuss how to envision and conduct Jewish diplomacy in the 21st century, locally and globally. The two-day seminar was part of the World Jewish Congress’ Future Generations initiative, aimed at fostering a “successor generation” to take the reins from long-time WJC leaders Edgar Bronfman and Rabbi Israel Singer.

Bronfman shared anecdotes with the group about some of the WJC’s successes during his 25-year tenure as president of the organization, including lobbying for Soviet Jewry and the overturn of the United Nation’s resolution that equated Zionism with racism. But he insisted that it was “high time” for a new generation to chart the organization’s course. “Before I step down, I want to make sure young people are listened to,” he said. Indeed, when he was asked for his ideas on how to engage the young generation in working for the Jewish people, Bronfman threw the question back to the floor, saying: “You tell me.”

“We’re ready for change,” Israel Singer, the chairman of the WJC’s Policy Council, reiterated in a conversation with Anglo File. “Older people should be of counsel, should give advice, like they do in China, but they shouldn’t be in charge all the time, and that’s what we’re hoping is happening here.”

The diplomat, a mensch

Yossi Sapirman, 37, a rabbi from Toronto, believes that to be a good Jewish diplomat basically means to be a “mensch.” He is confident that the young professionals at the seminar will return home “feeling empowered.” In his case, he plans to intensify his efforts at interfaith dialogue in Toronto, including reaching out to the local Chinese community. “Diplomacy empowers the individual to make local decisions, while at all times remembering our critical values,” he explains.

“Think globally, act locally” was a recurrent theme in conversations with the seminar’s participants. For Lior Herman, 30, an Israeli pursuing a doctorate at the London School of Economics, this also includes thinking on a continental basis: “I’m involved in how to conceptualize European Jewry; that is, now that Europe is united, how do you leverage your Jewish agenda with the European Commission, the European Council, with the parliament?”

Herman is planning to return to Israel after completing his studies, but he insists – contrary to the classical Zionist view – that “in terms of the Jewish world, I don’t think it really matters where I am.” In fact, Herman refers to “diaspora” as a “D word” that he chooses not use “because a conversation among the Jewish people should be on a equal basis.” He was one of the founding members of KolDor, a worldwide network of young Jews who share a commitment to “strengthen Jewish peoplehood.”

Making a difference

The director of the WCJ’s Future Generations initiative, Peleg Reshef, 33, is an Israeli who worked with many Jewish organizations during his four years as president of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS). “Many Jewish organizations around the world are led by older leaders with older, sometimes archaic concepts and we need to freshen up the world Jewish leadership.” But, the WCJ’s initiative “is not really about leadership,” Reshef adds. “The Jewish people have enough leaders. We want young people who want to make a difference. People who want to be out there and voice their concerns about how the Jewish world should look.”

Sonat Hart, 32, speaks eloquently about making a difference. Born and raised in Chicago, she has lived in Europe during the past decade, and is currently a professor of Jewish Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. She notes that the WJC has been very committed to “dealing with the aftermath of what the 20th century did to the Jews ... but I think that today there are new issues. Now we are a strong Jewish people, we have a land. We have Jews all over the world, we are an incredibly modern people.”

Hart views the geographical dispersal of world Jewry as a great asset. “But how do we use this asset?” she asks. “The young Jews gathered here have been talking about this and I think the answer is to act like Jews, and Jews are committed to making the world a better place – that’s what we do,” Hart explains.

Building Bridges in Beit Shemesh 

(Published in Haaretz, February 3, 2006)

Two very different immigrant communities – Anglos and Ethiopians – gathered Saturday night at the Feigenson synagogue in Beit Shemesh for an “Ethiopian Ethnic Evening,” which featured a musical performance by the Ethiopian ensemble Tizita (“Longings” in Amharic) and helpings of Ethiopian-style injera (a pancake-like bread). The Feigenson synagogue straddles a transparent “seam line” between the homes of the two communities in the city’s Nofei Aviv neighborhood, and is seeking to serve as a shared bridge to Israeli society.

On one side of this seam line are blocks of drab apartment buildings, mostly inhabited by Ethiopian immigrants, where the cost of an apartment is well under $100,000. On the other side of the street is a neighborhood of private homes, which sell for some $350,000. Most of the approximately 400 Ethiopian families came from rural areas where there was no formal education. The Anglo part of the neighborhood is home to about 200 families, with university-educated breadwinners and “yuppie” vans in the driveway.

The evening program began with a lecture by Sharon Shalom, a dynamic young rabbi from Kiryat Gat, who came to Israel from Ethiopia as a young boy. Rabbi Shalom charmed the mostly Anglo audience of about 150 people with historical anecdotes and rabbinic references attesting to the antiquity of the Jewish community in Ethiopia. The dark skin of Ethiopian Jews, he explained with a flashing smile and gesticulating hands, can be traced back to Mount Sinai, where they stood in the first row and were scorched by God’s pyrotechnics. (The Yemenites were in the row behind them, he joked.) He also peppered his talk with Yiddish phrases, drawing smiles from the crowd.

On a more serious note, Shalom criticized the portrayal of Ethiopian Israelis as “cute” charity cases and emphasized the need to find a way to create a more reciprocal relationship with Israeli society. “It hurts both sides to make a person into someone who only receives,” he said, and quoted an Amharic saying: “He who kisses unwisely soils the other with snot.”

Reuven Adana, a soft-spoken man in his early fifties, was among the first Ethiopian Jews to move to the neighborhood, in 1991. In a conversation with Anglo File after Rabbi Shalom’s talk, he expressed a less sanguine view about the possibility of reciprocity in light of the current disparities in education and income. “You have to face the facts. There are a lot of problems that need to be solved.”

Project Daybreak

Adana is active in the synagogue’s Project Daybreak, a program aimed at teaching Jewish heritage and literacy to the local Ethiopian community. But he also bemoans the fact that the Ethiopian community has not been allocated a synagogue of their own, where they could practice their traditional prayer rituals. Though Ethiopian Jews in the neighborhood regularly attend the Feigenson synagogue, much of the prayer service is still foreign to them. “It would make them feel good to have their own synagogue, just like the Moroccan or Yemenite Jews,” he says. This does not mean isolating the Ethiopians from the rest of Israeli society, he explains. “We can be integrated in other areas, while still preserving our heritage.”

Chanoch Schwartz, who came to Nofei Aviv from Long Island in 2002, is one of the volunteer activists in Project Daybreak. He emphasizes that it is not a “hesed” (charity) program. “We’re all relatively new olim [new immigrants], so we know what they’re going through,” he says. Project Daybreak runs several classes, including a literacy program for women, a discussion of the weekly Torah portion, and a popular class where fathers and children study together.

Generation gap

Narrowing the gap between parents and their children, who quickly become fluent in Hebrew and savvy about Israeli life, is one of the program’s main goals. This gap is expressed vividly in a promotional film clip prepared by Project Daybreak. A young Ethiopian-Israeli girl, about 12 years old, tells the camera in fluent Hebrew, striking a confident hand-on-hip pose: “I teach my father.”

Project Daybreak began last year and recently received NIS 50,000 in funding from Partnership 2000, a program sponsored by the Jewish Agency and other Jewish organizations. Ilan Geal-Dor, a coordinator of Partnership 2000 in Beit Shemesh, speaks enthusiastically about Project Daybreak, calling it a “real partnership.” Unlike other projects that Jewish organizations seek to initiate, the program at the Feigenson synagogue was homegrown, he explains.

The coordinator of Project Daybreak, Cindy Feder, is a former New Yorker who has been living in Nofei Aviv for about seven years. She hopes to use the new funding to expand outreach to the local Ethiopian community and broaden its range of educational offerings.

Both Geal-Dor and Feder admit that some tension exists between the two disparate communities in Nofei Aviv, but Geal-Dor stresses the positive impact Project Daybreak has made on the entire community. Feder suggests that the “spiritual anchor” is the best solution to whatever problems exist. The question remains, however, whether the Ashkenazi-Anglo style spirituality of the Feigenson synagogue will succeed in answering the spiritual needs of the local Ethiopian community.

Palestinian Americans: Respect the election results 

(Published in Haaretz, February 3, 2006)

Palestinian Americans living in the Ramallah area expressed cautious optimism this week, despite the ascendance of an Islamic party denounced as a terrorist organization by the United States. None of the highly educated and successful Palestinian-Americans who spoke with Anglo File were even considering a move back to America, and all voiced a commitment to continuing their involvement in building civic society in Palestine.

Getting past tomorrow

Sam Bahour, 41, a businessman originally from Youngstown, Ohio, told Anglo File on the eve of the elections that Palestinians were generally anxious “just to get past tomorrow.” A week later, he said this statement still holds true. “Every day that Fatah lives with this new reality, without major chaos, means that we’re one step closer to a smooth succession of power. And maybe most importantly, every day we move forward, we’re giving Hamas time to redefine itself.”

In Bahour’s view, the focus on Hamas overlooks the main historic significance of these elections: “The real story is that there will no longer be a monopoly of power and that everyone will have a stake in the political system.”

Bahour, a Muslim who describes himself as “very secular,” was “not enthused that an Islamic force won the elections.” (He voted for Dr. Mustafa Barghouti’s Independent Palestine slate.) But he is confident in the strength of secular Palestinian society. Bahour also does not expect Hamas to rush forward with a religious agenda and scoffs at attempts to portray Hamas as a Palestinian Taliban.

A golden opportunity

Akram Baker, 39, an organizational consultant and former spokesman for Faisal Husseini, was born and raised in Virginia. He was hesitant about predicting the election outcome last week, but suspected that Fatah would ultimately win, with Hamas running a strong second. “Yes, in the end I was wrong, like everyone else,” he admits. But he notes that Hamas actually failed to win a plurality of votes, and achieved its strong majority in the parliament thanks to “brilliant voting management.” That is, “they fought where they thought they could win and relinquished other places willingly. Therefore, they got the absolutely best results they could get.”

In fact, Baker suggests that Hamas’ campaign of “compassionate Islamicism” (which he compares to George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign of “compassionate conservatism”) was too successful from Hamas’ perspective, leaving them with the “quandary” of having to rule. While Hamas has successfully run local welfare and education programs as a non-government entity, the expectations will now be very different, Baker explains.

‘The wild card,” Baker continues, “is what Hamas is going to do to end the occupation and how Israel will react.” He detects signs of moderation: “Hamas is going to learn that in order to be a successful national political party, they are going to have to go to the middle, and they have already been doing it for months.” As evidence of this, he notes the fact that Hamas put Ismail Haniyeh at the top of their list. “This man Haniyeh is a very sophisticated, very soft-spoken, very moderate, and very thoughtful human being.

“The fact is,” Baker continues, “we have a golden opportunity to press forward a reform agenda and to make a unity government.” He voted for the Third Way party, led by former finance minister Salam Fayyad, and hopes to eventually see Fayyad become the prime minister of a technocrat-run government.

Hamas – not for its platform

Cairo Arafat, 47, is a former Bostonian who serves as director-general of the Aid Management and Coordination Unit at the Palestinian Ministry of Planning. In her conversation with Anglo File last week, she emphasized that warnings from Israel and abroad about Hamas were counterproductive: “I think quite a few people are now voting for Hamas – not for its platform, but as a way of saying: ‘We’re going to vote for whoever we want.’”

Like Baker, she voted for Salam Fayyad’s party. Arafat says that the biggest surprise for her was that such independent parties did not garner more of the anti-Fatah vote.

Arafat is impatient with outsiders who preach democracy, yet are unwilling to accept its results. “It is not enough for everyone to highly praise the fact that we were able to carry off such a successful, peaceful, democratic electoral process. You have to realize that the outcome was just as valuable.”

U.S.-born environmental warrior rewarded for his efforts 

(Published in Haaretz, January 13, 2006)

In a ceremony Tuesday night at the Jerusalem Municipality, environmentalist Alon Tal received the second annual Charles Bronfman Prize, a $100,000 award recognizing humanitarian work that has contributed significantly to the world and enriched Jewish life. Tal, 45, was chosen from among 80 international candidates by a team of judges including former World Bank president and Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella and former Israeli minister Dan Meridor.

Meridor spoke at the ceremony about Tal’s unique contribution in bringing environmental issues to the fore in Israel. With its priorities focused on defense and settlement, this was a particularly difficult mission in Israel, Meridor noted. The attitude was: “Who has time to think of the environment? We don’t have time for such niceties.”

In his acceptance speech, Tal cited some of the environmental achievements of recent years and the distinctive “technological optimism” of Israeli environmentalism, but also acknowledged that the country has been mainly preoccupied with its political and economic survival. He expressed hope that this focus would shift toward the “health and spirit” of the country as “we reclaim our role as an indigenous people living in harmony in our homeland.”

Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, Charles Bronfman and his son-in-law, Andrew Hauptman, also spoke at the ceremony. Several hundred of Tal’s colleagues, students family and friends, including prominent members of academia, the business community, Jewish organizations and the Knesset, filled the municipality’s council chambers.

In a pre-ceremony interview with Anglofile at his home in Maccabim, Tal says he was “completely speechless and very, very excited” when he received the phone call informing him that he had won the prize. “The only weird thing about it is that it’s like a life achievement award in the middle of your life, and hopefully the best is yet to come.”

‘Diehard Zionist’

Sitting in his patio, Tal reviewed the course of his life so far, taking a moment now and then to help Zoe, the youngest of his three daughters, with an art project. “The big decisions in my life have sort of been laid out before me,” he explains. One of these “self-evident” decisions was to immigrate to Israel after completing college in North Carolina in 1980. He grew up in a Zionist home, and spent a summer in Israel with his family and a year in high school in Israel on a Young Judea program. So, it was a “no-brainer” for him: “If I was serious about being Jewish, I would be in Israel.” He arrived in Israel alone, but his parents followed five years later and a sister now lives in Rehovot.

Thirty days after landing in Israel, Tal was already a soldier in the Nahal Brigade. “I loved the army. I always ran track and distance running, so the physical stuff wasn’t hard. I learned the language and I met some great people from all over the country. Until the war in Lebanon, it was great.” He notes that his experience as a soldier at the gates of Beirut and the death of some friends in Israel’s Lebanon campaign “sobered me up about Israel.”

At this point, Tal’s loquacious delivery enters high gear, with his green eyes flashing above his trim beard. “I still feel I’m a diehard Zionist, but it made me less naïve about the excesses of certain Zionist axioms, which leads right into the environment. That’s one of the things I wrestle with today – how to be a Zionist in the second century of Zionism and make peace between the Zionist vision and the ecological vision.” For example, “The paradigm of Zionist planning is horizontal. So now we have this horrible sprawl and are wiping out the last of the open spaces. The same thing with the population policies in the country: Once there was a time when we had a real imperative to grow demographically; that isn’t the case any more.”

A passion for the environment

Tal traces the roots of his environmental passion to hikes in the green forests of North Carolina, growing up in the 1970s (he remembers the first Earth Day) and dinner table conversations about his father’s ecology-related work as a chemist. However, he says that his focus on environmental work really began during law school, when he also worked at the Interior Ministry’s Environmental Protection Service. “I answered an ad for a law student and it changed my life.”

Law school was not initially one of the “self-evident” decisions in Tal’s path. After finishing his army service, he received a scholarship to enter a doctoral program in political science at Yale. But he did not want to leave Israel, and law school at Hebrew University became a suitable “excuse” to stay in the country. He also felt obliged to remain in Israel because he had promised friends to form a rock band together. The band, Liquid Plumber, played at the university, kibbutzim and army bases. “If I could have been a rock star I would have, but I guess I didn’t have the hairline for it,” he smiles, alluding to his hair-challenged pate.

Tal found law school to be an “anti-intellectual” experience and spent more time working at the Environmental Protection Service than in the classroom. He cites Ruth Ruthenberg, the woman who hired him and who currently serves as the legal advisor to the Environment Ministry, as one of his mentors. “I look back at it and think: What was she thinking? Here I was, this basically illiterate oleh; I had to make 500 spelling corrections on everything I wrote, but she gave me the chance.”

After graduated from law school, Tal clerked with the attorney general, Yitzchak Zamir. “It was a privilege. I don’t have many heroes, but he’s one of them. But it was clear to me then – even though it was an unbelievable clerkship, I was in charge of the Kahane file –the environment is where I want to be.” So, the next step was to pursue environmental studies, and this brought him back to the United States. “They wouldn’t take me at the environmental science program at Givat Ram unless I first did a year of physics and chemistry courses, so I said the heck with that – I’ll go to Harvard. I went for a masters and it turned into a doctorate.”

While doing his graduate work at Harvard, the Natural Resources Defense Council – the largest American environmental group – appointed him to an advisory panel. “I was very impressed and I saw what an engine they had been for environmental progress in the States and I said: ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Changing the world

Upon returning to Israel, he was offered a job at the newly established Environment Ministry, but decided to pursue his goal of creating an Israeli environmental advocacy organization. In 1989, at age 29, he founded the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V’Din). Tal recruited two other lawyers and an office manager, and rented office space in Tel Aviv. “We were literally living on ideology. It was like a kibbutz – everyone made the same salary of $1,000 per month. It was really a sense there that we were going to change the world, and I think in some ways we did change environmental law and environmental advocacy for sure.”

During this period, Tal split his week between his home on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava and the IUED office in Tel Aviv. “I spent three to four days in Tel Aviv, working until midnight and sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the office.” From these humble beginnings, IUED has evolved into a robust advocacy organization, with a current operating budget of about $1 million. While no longer directly involved in the organization, Tal is very proud of its work: “It’s the greatest thing in the world to open the paper and see what they have done. They’re doing the good fight.”

In 1994, Tal was part of an Israeli delegation that met with Arab environmentalists in Tunisia. This meeting led to the first regional environmental initiative, which initially operated from IUED’s offices and is now called Friends of the Earth Middle East. Two years later, Tal started another initiative to encourage trans-border environmental cooperation: the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Tal notes that Charles Bronfman’s charitable foundation in Israel provided the initial scholarships for Middle Eastern students, thus making this academic program and model of Arab-Jewish co-existence a reality.

Tal also helped to advance environmental work in Israel as the chairman of the Life and Environment umbrella group, which grew during his tenure from 24 to 80 organizations, mainly through his efforts to enlist small, local organizations. He now hopes to use the money from the Charles Bronfman Prize to assist these grassroots initiatives. “The idea is that I want to take the lion’s share of the money and find matching sources and to create a new environmental foundation that will focus on assisting grassroots groups in facing environmental emergencies. Sometimes a 5,000-shekel notice in a local newspaper about a demonstration is enough to save a park, or one small $3,000-4,000 lawsuit against a major polluter can make a whole neighborhood breathe freely.”

In addition to his plans for this new foundation, Tal is now focusing his sights on the Jewish National Fund; he currently serves on the JNF’s board and aspires to become its chairman. He also teaches and conducts research at Ben-Gurion University, is working on two new books and will chair an international conference on desertification in Sde Boker in November, the first conference the United Nations has agreed to co-sponsor in Israel.

While feeling very gratified personally with the prize award, Tal also regards it as “an expression of a certain maturation of the environmental movement in Israel” and is pleased by the recognition of the environment as “an essentially Jewish impulse and aspiration.”

Private equity takes its place in Israel 

Monday, September 11, 2006

In recent years, a number of private equity funds have begun operating in Israel and several venture-oriented funds are beginning to shift their emphasis toward private equity investments. This article will attempt to map the private equity market in Israel, based largely on conversations with fund managers, some of whom preferred to speak with the Israel Venture Capital Journal “off the record.”

Private equity is a broad term used to describe a range of investment models. In general, private equity funds focus on investing in mature companies that have a history of sales and earnings. “Venture capital funds invest in ideas and try to nurture them into real companies. Private equity funds buy real companies,” one fund manager succinctly explains. This type of investment offers lower potential returns than venture capital investments, but also entails lower risks for its largely institutional investors.

Partly because of the higher risks often associated with technology companies, private equity investments tend to focus on traditional industries rather than “new economy” enterprises. Private equity funds also generally seek control or extremely substantial holdings in companies, while venture capital funds inject smaller doses of investment and are usually not interested in acquiring actual control over a company.

Latecomer to Israel

“Private equity is just in its infancy in Israel,” declares one local expert, and partly attributes this to the fact that Israel’s public market is relatively hyperactive. That is, Israeli enterprises are quicker to opt for public offerings in situations that would be considered in other markets more appropriate for private equity. This is perhaps particularly true of Israeli high-tech enterprises, which have often gone public by the time they have reached the level of maturity typical of private equity investment.

Yadin Kaufmann, a co-founder of Veritas Venture Partners, suggests that one of the reasons private equity funds were slow to develop in Israel is because “these funds tend to target traditional industries, while most of the more interesting investment activity in Israel – and virtually all the attention of foreign money – was focused on the high-tech sector.” On the other hand, Kaufmann adds, the development of the private equity market in Israel may have received a boost from the high-tech slump of 2000-2001: “People started looking at other ways to put money to work here.”

Private equity deals have actually been around for a long time in Israel, but were previously conducted through Israel’s major holding companies rather than via dedicated funds, explains Roy Machnes, the managing partner of one Israeli fund, FITE. “The Koors, the Clals and the IDBs of the world invested equity in other companies and really operated as private equity resources.”

But Machnes also notes how private equity funds are substantially different than holding companies: “Holding companies take a different view of the world. Private equity has an expiration date, while holding companies do not. Private equity comes into these companies with the goal of bettering the asset and turning it over. Holding companies have various options – they can hold it forever, merge it with other assets, and so on.”

Another fund manager, who asked to remain unnamed, attributes the development of the Israeli private equity market to the fact that Israeli holding companies and other sources of local financing (that is, the government and major banks) receded in the early 2000s as a result of the global economic slump and regional political developments. “When the world turned south,” he explains, “government turned to privatize aggressively, families either crumbled or went overseas, and banks were forced by regulators to get out of real investments.” The result, he explains, is a more balanced Israeli economy: “All of a sudden, you had a room for a fourth leg, an institutional leg, which is commonplace in every developed economy.”


Ishay Davidi founded the first private equity fund in Israel, FIMI (First Israel Mezzanine Investors), nearly ten years ago. He has no ready answer to explain why such funds did not develop earlier. “We assessed that there was an interesting and important market for investing in non-VC, mid-sized and larger companies, where no one was – so we entered it,” he explains.

FIMI, which specializes in buyouts and mezzanine financing, has so far invested $650 million in a diversified portfolio of 37 companies (including plastics, defense, communications, software, and food) and has executed 16 exits. Davidi cites the following investment criteria for FIMI: “sales of over $50 million, a stable balance sheet, strong management, horizon for foreign market, and growth potential.”

At the end of 2005, FIMI completed raising $350 million for its latest fund: FIMI Opportunities II. This leveraged fund will invest about $700 million over the next three to four years, according to Davidi, and has recently made its initial investment – a 25% stake in Scope Metal Industries.


Davidi is also one of the three owners of FITE (First Israeli Turnaround Investors), a turnaround investment fund that began operating in 2004. It was created as a separate entity from FIMI because it entails “a different type of thinking,” Davidi explains. FITE has raised $130 million from institutional investors – about 55% from Israel and 45% from the United States. The fund has invested so far in four “old economy” companies, including copper wire and plastics, with the goal of effecting exits within three to four years.

FITE’s managing partner, Roy Machnes, explains the fund’s strategy: “We seek investments in companies that are in distress situations, which means a weak balance sheet, cash flow issues, and so on. We look at companies that have revenues of at least $20 million, so that there is actually a business and a model that has been established. We’ll come in and buy control or close to control, and institute a turnaround plan, stay very close to it, implement it and then seek to sell it at a profit.”

Maches distinguishes this niche of the private equity market from the sector that does leveraged buyouts, management buyouts and mezzanine investments, “which usually requires real and often strong balance sheets and healthy cash flow to service the debt that is associated with these transactions.” He also notes that turnaround investments entail a higher risk than other private equity investments, but have generated better returns in recent years in world markets, particularly in the United States.


Markstone Capital, which began operating about three years ago, is the largest Israeli private equity fund: It has raised $800 million and committed about 40% of this sum, including major investments in the Netafim drip irrigation company and acquisition of the Steimatzky bookstore and publishing company.

Markstone is a buyout fund that seeks to act as a bridge between institutional sources in United States and the Israeli old economy; investors include the employee pension funds of the states of New York and California. The fund’s buyout model of active investment ranges from 100% ownership to a protective minority and participation in a company’s control group. Markstone plans a 10-12 year turnover cycle for its fund.


Apax Partners is one of the world’s leading private equity investment groups, with about $20 billion under management. The Israeli branch of Apax was inaugurated in 1994 and has invested about $450 million in 40 companies. Most of this investment has been directed to venture capital, with the prominent exception of Apax’s acquisition of Bezeq.

According to a recent Globes report, Apax has decided to shift the focus of its operations in Israel from start-ups to large and established enterprises, thus aligning it with the group’s core business abroad. Apax Israel also has a new CEO: Dr. Zehavit Joseph-Cohen, former CFO and executive vice president at IDB Holding Corporation. The Globes report notes: “The appointment of Joseph-Cohen, who comes from an organization that specializes in investment in large and established companies, is an indicator of the change in trend at Apax. Joseph-Cohen is expected to expand Apax’s investment in private equity-based media ventures, as well as the healthcare and retail sectors.”

Edmond de Rothschild Venture Capital Management (RVCM), established in 1999, is responsible for the private equity activities of the LCF Rothschild Group in Israel. The LCF Rothschild Group, whose main headquarters are in France and Switzerland, is one of Europe’s leading private investment houses, with some 80 billion euros under management.

To date, RVCM has pursued a dual focus, operating both a Seed Venture Capital Fund for early-stage technology companies and a Late Stage Private Equity Fund for more mature, mid-sized enterprises. Each of these funds has approximately $40 million under management.

However, according to RCVM’s president and chief executive, Joel Warschawski, the company is strongly increasing its focus on the private equity side and, accordingly, is planning to change its name to Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity Management. “Private equity – that’s where our new funds are going to be developed,” he explains. “That’s the direction the market should go and will go, though I don’t think it is doing that yet.”

Warschawski notes that until recent years, there were very few large Israeli companies. “But this has changed and Israel has been able to develop billion-dollar companies. There are a lot of $20-50 million businesses that need to go to the next step; and if we can move them from $30 million to $60-100 million by financing a strong growth plan oriented towards increasing international activities, then they become very attractive for acquisition by large companies, holdings and especially buyout funds," he says. “There are a lot of large buyout funds in Europe looking for good opportunities, and with our strong European orientation, we hope to be one of the sources of deal flow for them.”

Private equity investment in Israel is gaining more attention, Warschawski adds, “because the world market is now looking at Israel as an economy, and not only as a reservoir of ideas.”

(Published in Israel Venture Capital Journal, April 2006)

Cleantech finds investors in Israel 

Saturday, September 02, 2006

(Published in Israel Venture Capital Journal, June 2006)

“If I was 25 again and I was setting up a career in the private sector, not as a public servant, I would go into clean energy,” Bill Clinton told an audience in Scotland last month. “I would be a billionaire before you could turn around.”

Indeed, with spiraling fuel prices and dire environmental phenomena, investing in clean energy and other clean technologies (cleantech) would appear to be a “no-brainer.” It might not be so simple to become a billionaire overnight, even if you are Bill Clinton, but the annual market for cleantech is now valued at over $200 billion and is growing fast. According to the Cleantech Venture Network, over $7.3 billion of venture capital was invested in North American cleantech companies between 1999 and mid-2005, and cleantech could account for up to 10% of all venture capital investment activity by 2009.

In Israel, venture capital is just beginning to target cleantech startups. Two dedicated cleantech funds have begun to raise money in recent months, and at least two established funds are focusing more attention on cleantech investment opportunities. In addition, a non-profit organization aimed at promoting Israel’s water technology companies was formed last summer: Waterfronts – Israel Water Alliance.

Terra Venture Partners

Astorre Modena is an Italian-born physicist with a McKinsey background who began tracking cleantech opportunities while at Israel Seed Partners in the early 2000s. “There was not much interest then,” he confirms. “I thing the VCs were very skeptical of this sector a couple years ago – partly because they didn’t understand it and partly because they saw it as a long-term investment.”

Modena is now convinced that cleantech can yield returns over a shorter term because “the market is much more driven than it was a few years ago.” In fact, he adds, “all the plans we’ve seen in the past two years have really put this industry in the forefront.”

About six months ago, Modena partnered with Eli Even to form a dedicated cleantech firm – Terra Venture Partners. (Terra is “earth” in Italian, indicating the fund’s environmental focus, Modena notes.) Even, a chemist, worked at Millenium Materials for a number of years and directed Dow Chemicals’ activity at the Ashkelon Technological Industries (ATI) incubator. Modena says Terra will soon announce the name of a third partner, whom he describes as “one of the most veteran and successful people in the VC business, with twenty years of industry experience as well.”

Terra began raising funds about four months ago, with a target of $50 million. Modena expects to execute an initial closing of $15-20 million by the summer. “Most of our investors are very smart financial and strategic investors from Europe and the States, and some from Israel,” he says. “I wouldn’t raise a $400 million fund – I don’t think there are enough opportunities for that. But for a small $50 million fund, I think there are plenty of opportunities and you can make very good returns for your investors.”

Terra is mainly focusing on renewable energy, and solar energy in particular, as well as water management and water treatment technologies. “We’ve found some very interesting opportunities in the market already and we’re in the process with a few companies to make an investment very soon,” Modena says.

Israel Cleantech Ventures

Jack Levy and Meir Ukeles are American-Israelis who teamed with four local partners last November to form Israel Cleantech Ventures. As its name implies, the fund will exclusively focus on cleantech investments. Levy and Ukeles, both in their thirties, bring Wall Street experience to the company, while the Israeli partners have “deep experience in building and leading companies in relevant sectors,” Levy says.

During the first half of 2005, Levy and Ukeles began looking at cleantech as an area “where the deals might be somewhat more available, with less capital chasing them, and at the same time where we believed there were good opportunities in general in the global market.” They became convinced that “there was a significant opportunity that wasn’t covered and had terrific market dynamics,” Levy says. “Then the question really became whether there is enough deal flow in Israel.”

Levy answers this question in the affirmative: “I’m basically moving into this area for my career because I feel that this is where some of the best investments for the next 30 years are going to be made. Some of the changes that are going to happen in these areas of water and energy are going to be so fundamental … markets that are so big, and growing so fast, are going to attract venture investments; it wasn’t that way five years ago.”

The target for the fund is $60 million; Levy expects the first close to take place in the fall. So far, all of the commitments are from North American investors, but the fund is also conducting talks with Israeli investors.

“We’re actively looking now for investment deals, which may happen even before the first close. The deals we’ve looked at involve initial investment of $200,000 to $2 million,” Levy explains. The fund has a database of about 200 companies, most of them early-stage. Some 40% are water-related and another 35% are energy-related.

Because of the scope of the global water and energy markets, including the antiquated condition of water and energy infrastructure in developed countries, the opportunities can be very significant even if the technology is not revolutionary, Levy contends. Having just returned from a capital-raising trip to America, he says: “You can’t walk anywhere without people thinking about these matters – especially on the energy side.”

Millennium Materials Technologies

Nir Belzer, a senior partner at Millenium Materials Technologies (MMT), says his firm has invested in cleantech since 1998, before it became a “buzz word.” Most of MMT’s portfolio companies are engaged in material science, with a small subset involved in what can be considered cleantech, he explains. Among these investments is a green battery (for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other applications) and a renewable lithium ion battery. MMT has not invested in water technology, “but we’ve had some deal flow in this domain,” he notes.

MMT is currently raising its third fund – targeted at $100 million. The two initial funds, which totaled about $50 million, allocated about 10% of investment to cleantech companies. The new fund will increase this proportion to 25%, while maintaining the same general focus. This reflects a limited vote of confidence in Israeli cleantech opportunities.

Belzer explains: “We believe that there are not so many clean technologies in Israel that would satisfy just a cleantech fund. We believe there are technologies in water, fuel cell batteries, recycling, etc., but the deals you can reach are not as big as in material science and other sectors, so we choose to look at cleantech as part of our activity, but not as our sole activity.” According to Belzer, there are about 100 cleantech startups in Israel that should be considered for VC investment. “I believe $25 million can serve this area,” he says.

Giza Venture Capital

Giza Venture Capital has recently closed its fourth fund at “north of $150 million” and is “actively looking” to invest some of this money in cleantech, according to Co-Founder and Managing Director Zvi Schechter. But he cannot say how much of the new fund will be devoted to cleantech, “because I don’t think we know.”

Schechter is examining opportunities in water technology, while a colleague at Giza is looking into the energy field. “We did not invent the [cleantech] trend, but are following what is happening in the U.S., where there is a lot of activity,” he explains. “Still, with every new hype you should try to be realistic and see how you make money from it,” Schechter cautions. “Because at the end of the day we are in the business of making investments and making money from it. We are not in the business of cleaning the environment.”

Cleantech investment in the U.S. tends to target companies that have “traction” and expand them, Schechter notes. In Israel, he has only identified two such water technology companies. (This does not include smart irrigation, which is already a mature industry and is not relevant for venture capital investment, he explains.) “The majority of companies are just ideas, one-man or two-man operations. In a nutshell, there are lots of opportunities, but they are very early. But we are looking all the time.”

Waterfronts – Israel Water Alliance

Waterfronts – Israel Water Alliance is a non-profit organization seeking to promote Israel as an “Ocean of Innovations” in advanced water solutions. Established in August 2005, the Waterfronts brings together industry leaders like Netafim, Plastro Irrigation and IDE Technologies, the state-owned Mekorot Water Company, university-based water research centers, technology incubators and startups, VC investors, the Manufacturers’ Association, Israel Export Institute and other organizations.

When it comes to cleantech, Israel’s strongest advantage is in the area of water, explains Waterfronts’ chairman, former Finance Ministry budget director Ori Yogev. “We have been dealing with the water problem for five decades. There is a lot of experience here and many uses of advanced water technology and knowledge,” he notes.

Yogev says that advanced technologies and solutions account for 25-30% of the $400 billion global water market and that this technology sector is growing at upwards of 10% a year. Israel’s share of this sector is less than $1 billion today, but “we think within a decade we can be at $10 billion and have a very strong global presence,” Yogev says.

Waterfronts is helping to promote the Agamim 10 plan that would channel some NIS 100 million in government funding for the water industry over the next few years, recognizing it a strategic industry. As part of this effort, Waterfronts showcased leading Israeli water technologies at the Tides of Change conference and exhibition held in Tel Aviv last month. “The next stage,” Yogev says, “is to market Waterfronts as an Israeli brand to the world, like we did in the past with Jaffa oranges.”

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