Amid efforts to find ways to boost employment of Israel’s Arab citizens, the opening of an industrial park in Nazareth marks a double milestone. For Arabs who studied and trained to work in hi-tech, there are new opportunities with some of the leading firms in Israel, and additionally, they will be able to work at a location in a major Arab city.

“Nazareth is only the beginning of the process,” says Smadar Nehab, who envisions the establishment of five hi-tech industrial parks in Arab communities in Israel. Nehab is executive director of Tsofen, a five-year-old non-governmental organization striving to increase the numbers of qualified Arabs working in Israel’s dynamic, flourishing hitech industry.

Key to the successful completion of the Nazareth facility was the investment by Israeli billionaire Stef Wertheimer, and his constant prodding of all involved – government, private sector, Jews and Arabs. Wertheimer shared a vision to conceive a venue for Jewish-Arab cooperation in a critical sector of Israel’s economy, in one of Israel’s major Arab cities. Its fruition is a hopeful sign, in marked contrast to the moribund peace process.

It is also a reminder that for all the endless backand- forth between the Israeli and Palestinian governments, relations between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens, and the integration of Arabs into the country’s expanding economy are critical. Much can be done on these fronts irrespective of the wider conflict.

Yet, such an ambitious project as the Nazareth industrial park has many partners, and the role of an NGO like Tsofen has been important to planting some of the seeds. Even before the park’s dedication last month, hi-tech firms were beginning, with some encouragement from Tsofen, to operate in Nazareth and hire Arabs.

“My vision was that mainstream global and Israeli companies will open branches in Nazareth,” says Nehab. “My number one achievement has been the Amdocs branch in Nazareth.”

Firms like Amdocs, Galil Software, and others have hired graduates of Tsofen training programs and have also taken space in the new industrial park. “We focus on job creation and enhancing accessibility of Arabs to hi-tech,” Nehab told me during a recent visit to New York.

Tsofen assists young Israeli Arabs, who, despite graduating from Israeli universities with degrees in the sciences, may not have the skills or knowledge for the highly competitive job search, especially in a field where the number of Arab workers is very low. While the number of Arabs working in hi-tech has grown from 350 in 2008 to 1,200 in 2012, there are a total of 85,000 Israelis in this field.

During Tsofen’s three-month program, students are exposed to hi-tech companies, given preparation for interviews, and provided assistance in placement with firms that have relationships with Tsofen’s Jewish and Arab leadership.

“We basically replace the natural support and knowledge network that their counterpart Jewish colleagues get from home, school, youth movement or army service,” says Nehab.

While Tsofen focuses exclusively on jobs and leaves the challenges Arabs face in higher education to others, it is likely that more Arabs will choose engineering and science majors in university when they see Arab graduates succeeding in those fields.

The road ahead will not be smooth. Opening one hi-tech industrial park in one Arab community does not ensure further development. “Government support is critical,” says Nehab, in encouraging and facilitating the creation of industrial parks in Arab communities and getting the companies to hire locally. For Tsofen, over the next few years the biggest challenge, as well as the biggest opportunity, will be adding thousands of Arabs to the hi-tech industry.

Israel’s National Economic Council has warned the Netanyahu government that the country’s future economic growth and success will require more fully integrating ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs in the workforce. Arabs are already participating in greater numbers in higher education, producing potential employees that will benefit their own families, local communities and the nation.

Arab youth in Israel are just as eager and talented as their Jewish counterparts to work in the increasingly connected world and contributing to the country’s prosperity. The Tsofen approach, together with the initiatives of private companies and the government, is contributing to building up the Arab capacity in Israeli hi-tech.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.

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