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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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The third barrier to be surmounted lies within Arab society itself. Given their historical alienation from the high-tech sector, many Arabs remain skeptical about the merits of acquiring a technological education only to be unable afterward to find work. Saadi therefore devotes much of his time to “rebranding” high-tech in Arab communities—where pharmacy, medicine, and education remain the most popular options for students. Saadi recalled how every time he talks to young Arabs about his visit to Google’s headquarters “their eyes light up.” He would like to see a similar reaction in their parents who in most cases still have the last say about what they eventually study. “Arab society is full of disappointment, and people are skeptical,” Saadi said, “but they don’t really have anything to lose.”

Nivine Shehadeh, who is in charge of job placement at Tsofen, located another impediment to successful integration in the inadequate social skills of Arab youths. Tasked with preparing them for job interviews, she is time and again astounded, she said, by how little they understand of how the process works. Her trove of stories included a “brilliant” Technion graduate who blew “seven interviews in seven companies in seven days” because “he didn’t know how to market himself properly”; she also cited the experiences of another candidate who in response to the question in a mock interview of where she saw herself in a few years all too truthfully answered “in a better company,” and of a recent graduate who was too shy to ask his best friend who was working in a top high-tech firm to pass on his résumé to his boss. This last example, according to Shehadeh, may be the most ubiquitous: Lacking the social capital that Jews accumulate in high school and the Army, Arab youths don’t only lack a network of friends to help get their foot through the door, but they are also reluctant to exploit the connections that they do have. “I keep telling them that a friend brings a friend,” Shehadeh explained, but she admitted that message had yet to seep through for many of the people she had worked with.

***

Many of the obvious challenges to the integration of Arabs into Israel’s high-tech sector can be eventually overcome; investors can be found, roads and factories can be built, self-confidence can be gained, and social capital can be acquired. But the one thing that cannot be easily amended is the historically charged cultural divide between Jews and Arabs rooted in decades of mistrust and animosity. Driving into Nazareth through its more recently built Jewish twin, Nazareth Illit, which overlooks it from atop, I couldn’t help but recall the conclusions of the 1968 Kerner report investigating the black urban riots that warned Americans they were fragmenting into two societies, “separate and unequal.” One doesn’t need to look at the dire statistics to realize that such a reality already exists in many parts of Israel; the moment municipal lines are crossed between these adjoining cities the endemic inequality dividing Jews and Arabs here becomes all too visible: The quality of the roads quickly deteriorates, the greenery that surrounds them disappears, and the attention to public maintenance, urban aesthetics, and overall organization and order drastically diminishes. (Nazareth’s unemployment rate is more than 50 percent higher than its Jewish neighbor’s.)

Given the persistent socioeconomic disparities that divide Arabs and Jews in today’s prosperous Israel, it is not surprising to learn that half of all Israeli-Arabs reportedly live below the poverty line. As a result, the key finding of the recent Index of Arab-Jewish Relations (an annual survey conducted by Prof. Sammy Smooha and the Israel Democracy Institute) released last month, was that in the past decade Israeli-Arabs have become more extreme in their attitudes toward the state and its Jewish majority. Even Saadi, a profound optimist, recognizes the dangers lurking beneath the surface. “I can’t look around and concede that we are living in an equal society,” he told me. “One of these days the bubble will burst.”

While the promise of a career in high-tech may not necessarily prevent that from happening, it might nevertheless provide at least some Israeli-Arabs with a sense of purpose and accomplishment that would help to gradually ameliorate some of their frustrations. For all the historical baggage that Saadi, Omari, Churi, Choscha, Shehadeh, and others with whom I spoke and met inevitably carried, they shared a cautious optimism. And it is that renewed sense of hope afforded them by a rewarding career (and the financial security and dignity that it provides) that suggests that the possibility for healing decades of Arab-Jewish enmity may very well be reliant upon the next generation of Israeli-Arabs picking up a smart phone rather than a rock.

As I was leaving the Nazareth Industrial Park, I ran into a bunch of Amdocs workers on their way to a cigarette break out on the stunning balcony and got a final taste of that technological adhesive that might very well help save Israeli society from coming apart. Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, they were all with smart-phones in hand. Some, I was later told, were Arabs and others were Jews. But it really didn’t matter, and you couldn’t tell the difference anyway. They weren’t talking politics; they were talking code.

***

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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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