Tuesday 30 May 2000

A tale of two mothers

Globe and Mail

Ultra-Orthodox leaders outraged at ruling that creates Israel's first two-mother family

GLOBE AND MAIL, Tuesday, May 30, 2000

Special to The Globe and Mail

Jerusalem -- In a controversial decision hailed by lesbians and gays and denounced in religious circles, Israel's Supreme Court has recognized the right of a lesbian spouse to be registered as the parent of her partner's biological child.

The court ruled yesterday that two lesbian partners can both be legally registered as the mothers of the same child, creating the country's first two-mother family and drawing outrage from ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders.

One ultra-Orthodox lawmaker accused the judges of imposing the norms of the Biblical city of Sodom.

The court ordered government officials to register Nicole and Ruti Barnea-Kadish, a lesbian couple living in Tel Aviv, as the legal parents of Ruti's four-year-old son, Matan -- which means gift in Hebrew.

"It is no longer possible to say that I am not his mother," a joyful Nicole said after the ruling, adding that there are dozens of lesbian and homosexual couples in Israel in the same situation.

"Matan is the only one with the security of having two parents by law," she said.

Lawyers for the state had argued that a child cannot have two mothers, but the court ruled 2-1 in favour of the couple.

"Biologically it is impossible, but legally there is no obstacle to having two mothers," the couple's lawyer, Hadas Tagari, said.

Religious parliamentarians attacked the ruling and said they would bring in legislation to strengthen traditional family values eroded by the decision.

"The message that arises from the ruling is the destruction of the family," said Rabbi Haim Druckman, a National Religious Party member of the Knesset.

Rabbi Abraham Ravitz, a legislator from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, submitted a motion in parliament, expressing outrage over the court ruling.

"I know of a state which had laws like this," he said. "It was called Sodom. The judges are intelligent but they are cut off from their Jewish roots and from the true feelings of society."

The ruling was the second challenge to the orthodox religious establishment in less than a week. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that Jewish Reform women be allowed to conduct services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem using prayer shawls and reading from a Torah scroll.

The two women were represented by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which successfully argued that Israel had no choice but to recognize the California adoption. The judges ruled that the laws governing adoption in Israel are analogous to those governing marriage.

Under Israeli law, only marriages conducted by a religious authority are considered legal. It is technically impossible for a Jewish Israeli to marry a non-Jew in Israel -- but if the couple is married elsewhere, and forms a union legally recognized by that country, the marriage is recognized in Israel.

Many "mixed" couples get married in nearby Cyprus, or file for long-distance marriages by mail.

Six years ago, the two women celebrated a conservative Jewish religious "marriage" ceremony in California. Eighteen months later, with help from an anonymous sperm donor, Ruti gave birth to Matan. Taking advantage of a California law that allows the partner of a single parent, regardless of sex, to adopt the other partner's children, Nicole became Matan's second mother.

But when the couple, who hold joint American and Israeli citizenship, tried to register their son at the local Israeli consulate they were told that a child could not have two parents of the same sex in Israel. The women returned to Israel three years ago determined to fight the decision.

"He knows that he has two mothers," Nicole said of their son. "He calls us Mommy and Ima. I'm Mommy, because I speak to him in English and Ruti is Ima [Hebrew for mother] because she speaks to him in Hebrew."

Ilan Shainfeld, an Israeli poet and gay activist, hailed the court's decision. "They have moved the lesbian community in Israel one step forward," he said. "It has been this way throughout our entire history. Achievements of individual men and women who create legal precedents that enable us all to live better."

Sunday 21 May 2000

Investors cash in on Israel's Silicon Wadi

21 May 2000

High-tech start-ups are booming as former army commandos and computer 'geeks' adapt their skills to civilian use. Report by Matthew Kalman.
THEY call it Silicon Wadi.
It is Israel's booming high-technology sector.
For years American investors led the way in providing capital for Israel's burgeoning high-tech venture-capital scene but now British fund managers are getting in on the act.
That much is clear from the fact that Wellcome Trust is among several household names taking part in a $200m ( #135m) seed fund focused on early-stage Israeli internet and communications companies.
Horsley Bridge is the lead investor in Israel Seed IV. Its manager, Israel Seed Partners, says it is the country's largest fund devoted to providing high-tech seed capital.
Half the fund was raised in Britain from investors such as the London offices of Axa, Deutsche Bank and UBS Capital. American investors include IBM, America Online and the founders of Yahoo, eBay and Netscape.
Israel Seed's previous successes include Tradeum, a business-to-business net trading platform recently purchased by VerticalNet for $475m ( #340m).
Tradeum's co-founder is Zvi Schreiber, son of the British furniture millionaire David Schreiber. His brother, Daniel, runs Alchemedia, another Israel Seed company, which has patented a system that prevents the copying of pictures displayed on the web.
Both companies were founded less than two years ago, but once Alchemedia has floated, Zvi and Daniel will probably have amassed the same kind of fortune as their father took a lifetime to acquire.
Several more of Israel Seed's portfolio companies plan to go public in the next 18 months with a hoped-for return to early investors of more than 1,000%. They include DealTime, an online comparison-shopping site that has just begun operations in Britain.
Sandra Robertson, Wellcome's head of private equity, says Israel provides better opportunities for investors than anywhere in Europe. She says: "We find Israel particularly attractive because of the developments that have come out of there.
It really did mirror for us what has happened in Silicon Valley. I believe it's a hothouse of technological development."
Robertson argues that the venture-capital sector is more developed in Israel than in either Britain or continental Europe. "We have not invested very much money in Europe at all until this year in true venture capital," she says.
Graham Clempson, Deutsche Bank's co-head of European investment banking and head of European private equity, says Israel Seed Partners' previous fund is showing returns of more than 400%.
"We have more investments in Israel in the technology funds than we do in any of the European countries. In many respects it has stolen a march in terms of the kind of relationships between venture capitalists and entrepreneurs," says Clempson.
Israel Seed IV represents the latest wave in a rising tide of foreign investment in Israel's high-tech sector triggered by the start of the Israeli Palestinian peace process in 1993. Since then, hundreds of highly trained graduates of the Israeli army have founded dozens of start-ups based on the transformation of military know-how to civilian use. Instead of beating their swords into ploughshares, the young Israeli entrepreneurs have turned them into share options, attracting strong interest from the new net economy and delivering high returns for investors. Many have gone public on Wall Street.
There have been some spectacular deals in recent years. In 1998 America Online paid $287m for Mirabilis, the creator of ICQ software, which enables users to communicate with one another through the net. In 1999, Intel acquired DSP Communications for $1.6billion.
Last year venture-capital funds invested more than $1billion in more than 200 Israeli companies, up from $600m the previous year. In the first quarter of this year alone, more than $590m poured into Israel's venture-capital market.
"The Israeli army produces a rare mix of geeks and commandos," says Neil Cohen of Israel Seed Partners. "The geeks come from the army computer-training programmes and have the technical skill. The commandos go straight from elite units into marketing and management. It's an unbeatable combination."
London-born Cohen says the fund has targeted Britain and Europe to raise money, unlike many other Israeli companies, which usually go to America. One of Israel Seed's first investments was to put $700,000 into FoxCom Wireless, which makes communications hardware for domestic high-speed video and data. The firm, which began with three people in a workshop, is now worth at least $3.5m and may be worth far more when it floats.
Sasha van de Water, managing director of the European Fund of Funds for Axa, says such high-tech successes are very attractive to investors.
"You can say that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future performance, but they've done it," says Van de Water. "Those kinds of stories tend to spread like wildfire among the entrepreneurial community."
Van de Water says Axa had invested $25m in three Israeli funds managed by two companies: "We have not committed that much capital to a country-specific venture-capital fund anywhere else in Europe."
Israel Seed Partners' strategy of concentrating on early-stage investment is now being followed by other local venture capitalists. Polaris, a Tel Aviv fund headed by Chemi Peres, son of the former prime minister Shimon Peres, is about to announce the largest-ever Israeli fund of $500m. It says it will also focus on seed capital, providing more funding as businesses grow.
"In the past 18 months most venture-capital funds have realised that to have a good return on investment they have to start early," says Ella Jacoby, high tech analyst for Globes, the Israeli financial daily.
"Israel Seed has a very good name but has yet to prove itself because the seed fund that was established a few years ago hasn't completed any really significant exits yet and that's the way to prove your investments and your reputation."
But such considerations leave Wellcome unruffled. "Venture capital is a long term game," says Robertson. "We don't expect a two-year turnround. What's happening at the moment is unusual. When we go into these funds, we regard it as a five-year investment cycle followed by a five-year harvesting cycle. If it happens sooner, it's great."

Tuesday 9 May 2000

Camels may hold key to preventing famine caused by drought

Veterinary expert says animal's milk could alleviate hunger in the world's deserts

Special to the Globe and Mail
Tuesday, May 9, 2000

Negev Desert, Israel -- An Israeli veterinary expert is planning a camel farm in a joint venture with Jordan that he believes will prove that the animal can solve hunger problems in areas of the world plagued by drought.

Prof. Reuven Yagil of Ben-Gurion University Medical School in Beersheba has been working with camels for 30 years; travelling to places such as Kazakhstan, Kenya and China to help local farmers increase the milk yield of their camels.

"Camels are considered very primitive, but they thrive in areas where children are dying of hunger," he said. "I wanted to see if the camel could provide anything for humans in these areas."

In a small experimental farm on the border between Jordan and Israel in the Negev desert, Prof. Yagil is breeding a herd of 40 camels for their milk. He has increased their production from the standard one litre to 15 litres a day, and says they could provide even more if he had the staff to milk them more often.

One camel he calls Naim is 14 years old and will give milk until she is 25, much longer than a cow. Her yield has not been reduced by living in a corral instead of grazing across the desert plains.

Her calf suckles to get the milk going, and within 90 seconds Prof. Yagil and his wife have milked just under five litres of fresh milk. Drunk soon afterward, still warm and unpasteurized, it is similar to cow's milk, a little stronger in taste and thinner in texture.

"In these [arid] areas, the cows are not there, they die," said Prof. Yagil, adding that cows also need high-quality feed.

"We're feeding the camels the stuff they throw away from the farms. We feed them salt bushes, cacti leaves or peanut hay, so you cannot compare. Even if the camel is giving only 15 litres, the camel is much more economical."

The milk keeps up to nine days in a refrigerator. Unlike cow's milk, it does not separate when frozen and can keep for up to two years. Camel's milk cannot be made into cheese because it lacks the necessary fats, but it can be used for other purposes.

This summer, the Tel Aviv ice cream festival will feature Prof. Yagil's DromeDairy ice cream in strawberry, cherry and peanut butter flavours.

Camel's milk also has curative properties and is used in Arab society as defence against infection. Many children of wealthy families in the Gulf States are sent to live with Bedouin for a month every year so they can drink camel milk and strengthen their natural immune systems.

Prof. Yagil, a native of South Africa who now lives on a kibbutz in the Negev, is a professor of medicine and a former veterinarian for the Israeli Army Camel Corps. He claims to be the world's top expert on camels; his interest was sparked through a friendship with a Bedouin tribesman.

Discussions are well advanced to set up a joint Israeli-Jordanian camel farm in Moshav Tsofar, an Israeli farm in the Negev desert that has an enclave of land across the border with Jordan.

Prof. Yagil's work has sparked interest as far away as China. Prof. Shin Cui, head of Beijing University's veterinary department and the person responsible for developing the neglected areas of northwest China, visited Prof. Yagil's farm recently to see his methods firsthand.

"Prof. Yagil came to the Gobi Desert where we have hundreds of thousands of camels and spoke to local farmers about his ideas," said Prof. Cui. "We hope to implement some of his methods back in China."

In northern Kenya, where Prof. Yagil has been training camel farmers on the edge of the African desert, they are planning to set up farms that could produce up to a million litres of milk each day.