Hi-tech underclass

Earlier this month Peres led a bus of top businesspeople on a tour of Arab hi-tech companies in Nazareth. Is Israel ready to take on affirmative action?

January 29, 2010 20:02
Afif Abu Much

Afif Abu Much 311. (photo credit: Jonathan Bloom)

A year ago Manpower Israel’s hi-tech branch, MIT, did an experiment to see what chances a qualified Israeli Arab had of breaking into the industry. The company took 180 CVs of Arab engineers and sent them to various hi-tech companies – one batch of copies listing the applicant’s name and hometown, another batch with the name and hometown blank.

“Out of 180 applicants, the companies wanted to interview only four whose CVs had the names and hometowns. But of those whose CVs were anonymous, the companies wanted to interview about 50 of them,” says Erez Benovich, head of MIT, one of the country’s three major hi-tech manpower companies.

Most everyone knows that the Arab minority is severely underrepresented in the country’s professional sector. Among hi-tech engineers, they number no more than 500, or 4 percent, with Arabs making up 20% of the population at large. A common explanation for such statistics is that they reflect Arab underachievement in education, which in turn reflects a long history as a Third World society.

But that doesn’t explain why even Arab graduates of the country’s best universities are at such a disadvantage compared to their Jewish classmates. Says Irit Tamir, head of Kav Mashveh (Equal Measure), an organization set up by the Manufacturers Association to address this issue: “The chance of an Arab academic being accepted for a job is five times lower than that of a Jewish academic with the same qualifications.”

Why is this so? “There is not intentional discrimination, but the reality is one of discrimination,” said President Shimon Peres earlier this month, while leading a bus filled with top businesspeople on a tour of Arab hi-tech companies in Nazareth.

If intentional discrimination means Arab applicants being turned down because the person doing the hiring simply doesn’t like Arabs, then Peres is largely right: That sort of raw racism is not the big problem. But everything else being equal, an Arab does not have a remotely equal chance with a Jew to succeed in hi-tech, and this is not accidental, say Arabs and Jews dealing with the issue. There are lots of excuses, but, as Peres said, the reality remains.

STANDING IN the Nazareth lab of her hi-tech start-up, Amal Ayoub, who has a bachelor’s in physics from the Technion and a master’s, doctorate and post-doctorate in biomedical engineering from Ben-Gurion University, recalls how it was looking for a job in the country’s hi-tech firms.

“I sent out well over 100 CVs to all the companies, big and small. I got called in for one job interview,” says Ayoub, 33, whose company, Metallotherapy, is based on a patent she developed with Subhi Basheer, the pioneering Arab in Israeli hi-tech, for the use of metals in cancer treatment.

“I taught high school physics for a year in [the Druse town of] Daliat al-Carmel,” she says with an assertiveness that seems to have been learned the hard way. Basheer also taught high school on the way up.

“So did I,” laughs Nasri Said, who founded New Generation Technology (NGT), the Arab-Jewish hi-tech incubator that currently houses Metallotherapy and 11 other start-ups. An electrical engineer who managed hi-tech projects in Germany, Said founded NGT, whose companies get most of their seed money from the government, after he couldn’t get a hi-tech job in this country, either.

NGT’s labs and offices are on the second floor of an unfinished building at the edge of Nazareth’s industrial zone. This corridor passes as the Silicon Valley of Israeli Arab hi-tech. Next door to NGT is MIT Soft, the hi-tech manpower company that MIT set up to get around the obstacles facing Israeli Arabs, and Tsofen, a nonprofit organization that prepares Arab science graduates for the job market.

Taking a break from a class in computer programming at Tsofen, Aamer Yahya, a Tel Aviv University graduate in computer hardware engineering, says he also sent out more than 100 CVs to hi-tech companies. He got called back for only two interviews for jobs in his field, neither of which he landed.

The only Arab in a class of 200 at TAU, Yahya says that all of the half-dozen classmates he’s still in touch with are “working in their field, even those who had lower grades than me. The ones who didn’t get hired as hardware engineers with hi-tech companies took jobs at Israel Aircraft Industries, Rafael, Elbit and other [defense-related companies] for experience.”

Defense companies are known for being effectively off-limits to Arabs in professional posts; Yahya says he didn’t even bother to apply to any.

He spent a year and a half teaching high school science in his village. The director of MIT Soft, Muhammad Zahalqa, spent a year and a half preparing high school students for the psychometric exam – after getting a bachelor’s in medicine from Hebrew University, then a bachelor’s at HU in computer science. During the time he spent teaching, he sent out more than 50 CVs to hi-tech companies.

“I had a few interviews. No offers,” says Zahalqa, 40, who went on to become a successful software engineering trainer and consultant before founding two start-ups and, a month ago, joining MIT Soft.

“I personally know about half the Arab hi-tech engineers in this country. If I’m able to say that, doesn’t that mean something’s wrong?” he asks rhetorically. He says Arab science graduates who don’t get hired by a hi-tech company here usually go abroad or end up taking some lower-level, much lower-paying job like teaching.

But there’s an upside, of sorts, to their predicament. Says NGT’s Said, laughing at the pathetic irony: “Arab high schools today have the best educated physics teachers, biology teachers, chemistry teachers and math teachers in the country.”

ON THE WHOLE, hi-tech firms are actually more open to hiring Arabs than companies in other prestigious fields such as law and accounting, says Tamir. “Hi-tech is more of a meritocracy, it’s less dependent on language so it’s less influenced by the national culture. Law and accounting firms have a greater fear that their customers won’t accept an Arab handling their file,” she says.

Yet hi-tech is supposed to be above something so backward, petty and wasteful as ethnic discrimination. Hi-tech is a young, global, “green” industry and Israel, with its inordinate success in the field, is the “start-up nation,” according to the new best-selling book by that title.

“What am I supposed to tell all these Arab engineers who are so talented, yet they don’t get hired?” demands Minister for Minority Affairs Avishay Braverman, who says he hopes very soon to funnel NIS 180 million, half from the government, half from the private sector, to Arab professionals in industry.

The good news is that the private sector has become aware of the severity of the situation, and is finally taking some steps to change it. Kav Mashveh, Tsofen, MIT Soft and Nazareth’s Galil Software (funded mainly by former Comverse executives) were all set up within the last couple of years.

Also, some of the major hi-tech companies are known for giving Arab job applicants a genuinely fair shake, with Intel, HP, Amdocs and SAP being singled out by Yaser Awad, the authority on job discrimination for Sikkuy, the leading NGO promoting Israeli Arab equality.

In a few months, Stef Wertheimer is due to begin construction on a giant industrial park in Nazareth. Furthermore, shortly after after Peres’s January 12 bus tour, 40 Arab and Jewish industrialists met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. And during our visit to NGT last week, the conference room table was covered with leftovers from a working lunch with a delegation from IDB Holdings, owned by one of Peres’s tour guests, Nochi Dankner.

It probably wasn’t coincidental that Peres and Netanyahu gave personal attention to Israeli Arab entrepreneurs only a week before the visit to Israel of Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Israel’s bid to join the OECD, which includes the world’s 31 leading industrialized democracies, is being sullied by the low socioeconomic standing of the Arab and haredi sectors, a point Gurria emphasized here.

STILL, THE attempts to level the hi-tech playing field for Israeli Arabs have been going on now for two years. There is no shortage of good intentions in the industry, no shortage of declared commitments to equality by top executives. The problem is not necessarily a lack of sincerity, but rather that the policy statements made at the top often get lost on the way down to the people meant to carry them out. Whatever the boss says, it’s the hiring decisions made at the lower levels that reflect the true “culture” of the company, the hi-tech industry and society as a whole.

“I talk to general managers of large companies,” says Sikkuy’s Awad, “and they tell me they don’t remember seeing a CV from an Arab. I tell them, ‘Isn’t that strange, with all the Arabs graduating from universities and colleges, that you’ve never seen an Arab’s CV? It’s probably because your human resources department sees them but never sends them along to you.’”

Adds Braverman: “The CEOs say they’re committed, but this hasn’t filtered down to the deputy director of human resources. The challenge is for the CEOs to instruct their HR departments to start filling vacant positions with qualified Arabs.”

That’s what SAP, a German hi-tech company that employs 900 people here, did with Afif Abu Much, a Technion graduate in computer science who lives in Baka al-Gharbiya. After three and a half years as an information systems engineer at SAP’s Ra’anana plant, Abu Much says: “There’s no discrimination here. I proved myself professionally and everyone saw that it doesn’t matter if I’m an Arab or a Jew. The people I work with treat me well. I have only good things to say about SAP.”

Abu Much, 28, says he wanted to work for the company ever since his student days, when he heard a lecture from one of its top executives. In late 2006, a temporary job in installation came open, and although he certainly didn’t need a Technion degree to install computer systems, he sent in his CV. “I knew I was overqualified for the job, but I saw it as a beginning,” he says.

He was called in for an interview, then another, and he got the job. After a month, he was offered a long-term contract as an engineer. “The hard thing for an Arab in hi-tech is to find a manager who will interview you and give you a chance to prove yourself, which is what I found,” says Abu Much, whose goal is to become one of those managers.

Some of his Arab classmates from the Technion are working at Intel in Haifa, and he says they speak as highly about the company as he does about SAP. But Abu Much, who’s become an activist for hi-tech equality, says that based on his experience and what he hears from others, Intel and SAP are among the industry’s exceptions, not the rule.

Salaries for Arabs in the professional sector run 30% lower than for Jews in the same positions, says Kav Mashveh’s Tamir, and Abu Much adds that this is also not necessarily a matter of raw racism, but rather the economic result of a biased system.

“An Israeli might have six or seven offers in his pocket before he signs a personal contract with a hi-tech company, so he has bargaining power. An Arab is lucky to have one job offer, and the company knows it,” he explains.

The discrimination, however, usually doesn’t begin with the hi-tech company; typically it begins with the manpower company that’s supposed to refer the applicant for job openings. Says Tamir: “The manpower companies tend to see Arab applicants as being suitable to work with the Arab public – to use their language, say, at a call center or a bank in the Arab sector – but not for a ‘regular’ job, meaning a job dealing mainly with Jews.”

At Tsofen, a devout young Muslim woman, Samah Hwari, who got a bachelor’s in computer science from the University of Indianapolis’s branch in the West Bank, says she gave her CV to a major manpower company. “They got me one interview – for a job as a bank teller,” she says.

The only professional fields where Israeli Arabs have found equality are medicine and pharmacology. Even at SAP, a model of egalitarianism in the hi-tech world, Arabs hold roughly one out of every 100 engineering and other “academic” jobs.

“There are about 50 people working on the project I’m on,” says Abu Much, “and I’m the only Arab.”

Some 15,000 Israeli Arabs who have bachelor’s degrees or better are currently unemployed or unsuitably employed, says Tamir, and another 3,000 are added to the list every year. “A lot of them go overseas and find work or go into teaching here,” says MIT Soft’s Zahalqa.

It’s only in recent years that large numbers of Israeli Arab graduates have even tried to get in the door. When he switched from medicine to computer programming at HU, Zahalqa says, “My whole village thought I was crazy.”

IN THE early days of hi-tech 30 to 40 years ago, the excuse given for the dearth of Arab employees was that the industry was mainly defense-related and Arabs couldn’t get security clearance. “Today,” says Braverman, “that’s hogwash. Most hi-tech in Israel now is for civilian purposes.” Adds Tamir: “Even if a company does both defense and civilian work, the teams work separately.”

A Jewish computer engineer says that when he worked at a Jerusalem hi-tech firm about six years ago, companies with “minority members” on their staff had to go through a longer security check by Maman, the national air cargo company. “For a hi-tech company trying to get its product to market in time, that’s a deterrent to hiring Arabs,” he says. The engineer recalls preparing a parcel to be flown overseas, and “a couple of guys came over from Maman to do a security check and they asked me if there were any ‘minority members’ on the company staff, and I said no. They said it was just to expedite the air shipment.”

Tamir says she’s heard talk about such a practice. “I asked to get a copy of the questionnaire Maman gives to companies, and no one would give it to me. I asked the Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry about it, and they said they checked and there was no such question being asked.”

But even if the security issue isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a barrier for Arabs going into hi-tech, an IDF background definitely helps, and this puts Arabs at a disadvantage. The book Start-Up Nation argues that certain technical IDF units act as incubators for hi-tech entrepreneurs; that combat officers learn to lead teams and make quick decisions under pressure that serves them well in the industry; and that at all levels, the IDF gives future hi-tech employees the connections that are invaluable later on. And except for Druse and some Beduin, Arabs don’t serve in the IDF.

“It’s not realistic to expect them to, but if they did national service, it might help overcome their lack of a network,” says Saul Singer, coauthor, with Dan Senor, of Start-Up Nation. “I’m not saying national service would be a panacea, but having it on a CV would at least take away the fear factor [in employers].”

Another disadvantage is that in job interviews, Arabs’ typical code of behavior doesn’t translate well to Jewish managers. A young Arab who’s been granted a meeting with someone older than him will likely keep his eyes lowered and speak softly and modestly. To Arabs, this shows respect, but to Jews, it shows lack of confidence, even lack of self-esteem.

Says Zahalqa: “Israelis want you to look them in the eye. If you look Americans in the eye, they take it as arrogance. If you look Arabs in the eye, they take it as disrespect.”

This is one of the things Tsofen teaches its students – how to impress Jewish employers in an interview. “They told me that the point isn’t to show the interviewer how much you know, but to show him you have personality for the job. They told me you have to look him in the eye. I didn’t know any of this,” says Yahya, the TAU grad.

Zahalqa used to give volunteer lectures at Tsofen, but he concluded that preparing Arabs for the hi-tech field wasn’t going to make much of a dent – the main obstacle that had to be overcome was the industry’s pattern of discrimination.

Says Tamir: “In hiring, the natural habit is to mainstream, to hire someone who’s like yourself, who’s like the others in the company. It’s not easy to seek out diversity. You ask yourself, ‘Why do I need this problem?’ And the result is that you hire more of what you’ve already got.”

Adds Zahalqa: “If you have an Israeli who’s never known an Arab, whose only knowledge of Arabs comes from the news, and he’s got to choose between five Itziks, five Avi Cohens and one Muhammad, who do you think he’s going to choose?”

HOWEVER, THERE are now signs of change from within. Realizing that most hi-tech company officials, consciously or unconsciously, consider it risky to hire an Arab, MIT Soft tries to neutralize the “fear factor.” It offers hi-tech companies teams of engineers, including “seniors” and “juniors,” consisting mainly but not only of Arabs. It also lets them work in the Nazareth office, which is cheaper for the hi-tech company than employing them in Tel Aviv, Herzliya Pituah, Jerusalem or elsewhere in the center where the industry is based. After six months in business, MIT Soft has landed three contracts employing 14 engineers – 11 Arabs and three Jews.

And the parent company, MIT, has instructed its sales force that getting Arabs hired is part of their job, a goal they’re expected to meet, says CEO Benovich.

Meanwhile, the incubator NGT is capitalizing on the reputation Arabs have in medicine and pharmacology: 17 of the 18 start-ups that have come through NGT are built on innovations in these two fields. And like MIT Soft, NGT is mainly but not exclusively Arab – 10 of its companies were founded by Arabs, five by Jews and three in combination.

Another encouraging sign is that Arabs aiming for hi-tech careers seem much more focused on possibilities than on obstacles. They sound determined.

“I have a friend from my village who’s working as a hardware engineer, so I can’t say the only reason I haven’t found a job yet is discrimination,” says Yahya. “I have to work on myself first. I have to be two levels higher than [a Jewish job candidate], so I have to work twice as hard, I have to job search twice as hard, I have to study more at home. That’s just the way it is.”

Before opening a hi-tech company at NGT, Dr. Samer Hamed, 37, did not know discrimination in his professional field. His field is medicine. He got an MD at France’s University of Nice, then worked as an internist in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, then got a doctorate in cardiology at Technion Medical School. In 2007 he was awarded the Levi Eshkol Prize for doctoral research, the year after he won the Neufeld Prize for medical research.

Developing an “innovative drug combination for boosting the body’s natural mechanism for wound healing and bone repair,” Hamed, now living in Nazareth, opened Remedor Biomed last month.

“Israel is starting to give Arabs more opportunity in biomed, in hi-tech,” he says, “and this can improve relations between Jews and Arabs. We’ve always lived together, but we’ve never worked together, and if we get the chance to prove ourselves, we will.”

No one in hi-tech is talking about affirmative action – about giving Arab job candidates extra points for their ethnic or national background. The goal, rather, is equal opportunity – to stop penalizing them for it.    

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