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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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Like Bouganim, Shadi Omari, a quality-assurance team leader at Galil, feels at home; unlike her, however, he had a much harder time getting there. Omari, a Muslim from Acre, is in his mid-thirties and has more than 15 years experience in Israel’s competitive high-tech industry, which makes him something of a pioneer. “When I began working, it was not that easy,” he recalled. Most of his friends mocked him for studying computer science in college and warned that he would end up a teacher (a profession that many Arab college grads find themselves pursuing, reluctantly, after failing to find private sector work). Jovial and witty, Omari, who never misses a punch-line and casually incorporates IDF lingo into his speech (he uses the term “fire and forget” to describe finishing a project), was able to find employment in several prominent high-tech companies around Tel Aviv, thus gaining the experience and reputation that eventually landed him a job as team leader at Galil.

But his path to success was not without hurdles. “Our chances of finding work are not similar to those of ‘Moshe,’ ” he said. “And if I go to a job interview and don’t get the job then I can’t help but wonder why they hired Moshe and not me. Even if I am better than him, and can”—IDF lingo again—“ ‘eat him without salt.’ ” Even after finding work, there remained particularly painful moments that reminded him of his outsider status. Recalling an incident from the Second Intifada a decade ago, he prefaces his story with what sounded like a pretty genuine “oy vey.” “I was walking around smiling because I had just finished a project while everyone was walking around with mourning faces,” he remembered. As a result his boss summoned him to inquire why he appeared so happy. “When he asked me if I was happy about what just had happened I asked, ‘what just happened?’ ”: Unlike his co-workers, he hadn’t yet heard of that day’s deadly terrorist attack.

Rita Churi, a star programmer on Omari’s team, had a similar story to tell. Diffident and reserved, the young Christian Arab who graduated from the Technion, Israel’s internationally acclaimed institute of technology, explained that “we don’t have endless possibilities,” pointing to the geographic impediments to finding work. (There are still only a handful of high-tech companies operating in the Galilee, where a majority of Israeli Arabs reside.) The intimate relationship between the defense establishment and high-tech industry also dissuades employers from hiring Arabs. In college, Churi was forced to enter an unequal playing field “when suddenly the Jewish students were getting hired despite the fact that their grades weren’t as good as mine,” she said.

In her mid twenties, Churi is married without children—an anomaly among most Israeli-Arab women her age. As an Arab woman, she admitted that high-tech provided her with a dual sense of empowerment. This duality that many female techies convey was most evident when I met her coworker Lina Choscha, a young Circassian Muslim who wore full Muslim garb that covers her head. Like Churi, Choscha is in her mid twenties, graduated from the Technion, and, with some help from Tsofen’s crew, was able to get a job as a software developer at Galil. Brimming with self-confidence and a captivating smile, Choscha is a symbol of just how empowering a career in high-tech can be for Arab women: Still single, she commutes daily from her pastoral (and very religious) village on the slopes of Mount Tabor to Nazareth. High-tech, she explained, offered her not only a way to make a good living, but “prestige” and a pipeline to experience the outside world. It also allowed her to have control over her life. “You always feel empowered when you have a job, an education, your own salary, and, when you are not married, that you are, ‘for your own’,” she remarked. “I think that times have changed. Women are encouraged to work and get an education and develop. It’s not like it used to be.”

***

When I asked Omari whether economic cooperation can bridge the deep political chasms, he conceded that it was a definite possibility, though he insisted that “it takes two to tango.” But it appears there might actually be a need for more than two partners in this dance. Although the Israeli government has certainly contributed to recent successes—it subsidizes employers’ labor costs, offers grants for relocation, and provides job training (not to mention also partially funding some of Tsofen’s programs)—almost everyone I spoke to agreed that such assistance is insufficient. “Just as in the 1990s the government invested in the integration of immigrants from the former Soviet Union into the workforce, that is what needs to be done today with Arab engineers,” Smadar Nehab, Tsofen’s CEO, has argued. What is really needed, many experts opine, is a massive investment of at least a billion shekels aimed at improving poor infrastructure, public transportation, and education; constructing industrial parks near Arab communities (whose members are less mobile than their Jewish counterparts); and funding daycare and job-training centers that would allow qualified Arab college graduates to transition into high-tech. “So far there has been a lot of talk,” Saadi concluded, “but not enough action on the government’s part.”

“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.”

In response to such claims, a government spokesperson recently announced that the integration of Arabs into high-tech is a matter of “national interest” and revealed that the government implements a policy of “affirmative action” in its hiring in order to support this goal. Last year, the Netanyahu Administration launched a media ad campaign to combat anti-Arab discrimination in the workplace.

But while government assistance is imperative for the integration of Israeli-Arabs into the high-tech sector it is the willingness of the private sector itself to incorporate them that matters most. Not coincidentally, Saadi and his colleagues constantly emphasize the need to “unleash market forces” and lobby private firms to embrace Arab applicants. Holding to a Field of Dreams type of expectation that “if you build it they will come,” many activists here believe that if you develop the skilled labor and sufficient infrastructure, the private sector will then be forced to follow, not for any altruistic reasons but out of a simple cost-benefit analysis. In order to continue developing and expand, the Israeli high-tech sector is in dire need of skilled labor, especially now that many former Russian immigrants have begun to retire. Elisha Yanay, who heads the Israel Association of Electronics and Software Industries, has accordingly admitted that “the Israeli high-tech needs Arabs as much as Arabs need the high-tech.” Saadi hopes Arabs will be able to capitalize on these growing market demands for skilled labor by enticing private companies to take advantage of the competitive wages, lower production costs, and reduced municipal taxes that Arab communities provide in comparison with the enclaves around Tel Aviv and Haifa, where the bulk of Israeli high-tech currently operates. “Ultimately, what matters for investors is money. And that is what makes people accept you: because they need the skilled labor,” Shadi Omari of Galil explained. “There is no escaping this reality.”

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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