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The Nazareth Code: Can Israel’s Booming Tech Sector Heal the Wounds of Israeli Arabs?

An ambitious new high-tech industrial park doubles as an initiative to bring more Arabs into the Israeli economy

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Aerial view of the new industrial park in Nazareth. (Arie Dahan)
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Driving through Nazareth’s industrial zone is no easy task. Congested, confusing, and somewhat chaotic, it is not very inviting to first-time visitors. But at the end of the freshly paved road lined with auto-body shops, garages, warehouses, and one oddly situated girls school, awaits a surprising sight: a new industrial park, recently built by the Israeli billionaire and philanthropist Stef Wertheimer.

Constructed to promote Arab-Jewish economic cooperation and coexistence by providing “quality employment” in export-oriented industries, the park, which formally opened in April, is also an attractive tourist destination: Towering above the biblical Jezreel valley to the south, it affords a stunning view of one of Israel’s lushest landscapes. Once you enter, it looks more like a museum than a place of business. The illuminated sunlit lobby exhibits bronze sculptures by the local Arab artist Sana Farah Bishara that suggest the work of August Rodin, while the surrounding stone walls are draped with abstract-art tapestries by the Israeli choreographer Noa Eshkol. With top-notch facilities, breathtaking views, and a work atmosphere evocative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the park appears to have everything necessary for an ideal industrial hub—except for one thing.

There are very few people. Operating at only 30 percent occupancy, the Nazareth Industrial Park has the feel of a luxury ghost town.

Supposedly, the occupants will be here soon—and join with Amdocs, the Israeli software and telecommunication-services giant, that is already operating in the park—making it the next great hope for social activists and business entrepreneurs who have labored to integrate Arabs into Israel’s ever-expanding high-tech sector. In Start-Up Nation, the best-selling 2009 book about Israel’s high-tech economy, authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer set out to tell “the story of Israel’s economic miracle,” but the only place Israeli Arabs are mentioned is in a chapter warning against their continued exclusion from this booming sector. With more companies listed on the Nasdaq than any other country except the United States, Israel has a high-tech sector that exports more than $35 billion annually in goods and services, but when you do the math you begin to realize just how conspicuously absent Arabs are from this crucial industry. According to the most recent government figures, there are no fewer than 261,000 Israelis working in the broader high-tech sector. Of those, it is estimated that only 6,000 are Arabs, despite making up 20 percent of the total population of just under 8 million people.

Which is how the inauguration of the Nazareth Industrial Park has come to be seen as the beginning of a historic transformation—one that could include Arabs in the lucrative high-tech industry, and thereby create a more equal and just Israeli society.

***

Not far from the industrial park are the offices of Tsofen, the Israeli NGO that has been spearheading efforts at integrating Arabs into the high-tech sector. Founded five years ago as a joint Arab-Jewish initiative by Smadar Nehab and Yossi Coten, two former high-tech executives, and Sami Saadi, a veteran CPA and social activist from the Arab town of Arraba in the Galilee, the organization has committed itself to economic integration as a pathway to “transforming Israel” and sustaining genuine and lasting coexistence between Arabs and Jews. The primary way in which they aim to achieve their goal is by training talented Arab college graduates to write code. (In Hebrew, tsofen means “code.”) The NGO helps out with job placement, résumé-writing, and the cultivation of crucial social skills needed to pass a job interview while also lobbying the private and public sectors to turn their attention—and refocus their investments—toward Arab communities.

Saadi is an amicable, charismatic man with a warm smile. I first met him a few months ago at the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues in New York, where he was trying to raise awareness for his cause among American Jews. “We, as an Arab society, have been left out,” he told me, as we sat in the peaceful balcony of the hilltop Jewish village of Hararit, which overlooks his hometown. He briefly surveyed the array of circumstances that caused this to happen—the sensitive military origins of the Israeli high-tech sector, which excluded Arabs due to security concerns; the massive immigration of Russian Jews in the 1980s that supplied the technical know-how to launch the high-tech boom; misplaced priorities and poor leadership within Arab society itself—before looking ahead to the future. “We will have time to come to terms about history and determine who was worse to whom,” he said, “but for now, let’s give Jewish and Arab youths the opportunity to work together, on par—not as the Arab in the role of the construction worker or hummus maker and the Jew as the company owner, but with the Arab also as the boss.”

The way to achieve this fundamental restructuring of Israeli society, Sami believes, is clear. “Economic development can offer the solution to the political problems,” he explained. “How do people bring about real change? When you empower them and when you give them an outlook for the future. Technology is that outlook.”

If there is any hope for bridging the political gaps through economic cooperation, you can find it at Galil Software, a Nazareth-based outsourcing company that provides a variety of software-development services for Israeli firms. Founded by predominantly Jewish investors in 2008, the company employs around 150 workers (90 percent of whom are non-Jews) with Arab and Druze personnel filling a range of positions from software engineers all the way up to the executive boardroom. (The company’s previous CEO, Inas Said, was also Arab.)

Sitting in Galil’s conference room sipping Turkish coffee with the staff, I met a motley crew of techies: The men were mostly dressed in jeans, sneakers and T-shirts while their female coworkers sported a stylistic mélange that ranged from traditional Muslim garb to skinny jeans and low-cut blouses. With the friendly conversation sustaining a balance of coquettish banter and office gossip (the talk of the day was the impending sale of the Israeli navigational application Waze to Google for a whopping $1 billion), it was apparent that Galil has been able to unite an ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse group of people around the common goal of writing code. Adi Bouganim, the company’s HR manager, who is probably one of the only Jewish high-tech employees in Israel who is a minority in a workplace that has its own Muslim prayer room, told me that the close-knit work experience emits “a feeling of home” and that her time there has taught her that “language, religion, or nationality were not impediments but rather conducive” to productivity.

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The Nazareth Code: Can Israel’s Booming Tech Sector Heal the Wounds of Israeli Arabs?

An ambitious new high-tech industrial park doubles as an initiative to bring more Arabs into the Israeli economy