Arab Israelis in the start-up nation

Unrealized potential is a tragedy for those whose talents are left uncultivated and for the society at large, which loses out on benefiting from its human capital.

March 13, 2017 22:17
3 minute read.
nazareth hi-tech

PARTICIPANTS FROM companies around the country learn about opportunities for Israeli Arabs in hi-tech at an event in Nazareth, March 11, 2015. (photo credit: PELI HANAMER)


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There have been a number of initiatives in recent years to integrate Israel’s Arabs into the hi-tech sector and the efforts seem to be paying off.

Ze’evi Bregman, former CEO of NICE Systems and Comverse and Jimmy Levy, a veteran manager of hi-tech firms, founded Galil Software, probably the first hi-tech enterprise that actively sought to employ Arab computer engineers.

Inas Said, an Arab Israeli who left Israel to pursue a hi-tech career at Nokia, first in Germany then in Boston, hooked up with Levy and Bregman after being abroad for two decades and became CEO of Galil.

Tzofen, an Arab-Jewish organization created in 2008, has worked to promote the integration of Israel’s Arabs into hi-tech.

A recent study by the Chief Scientist’s Office found that 50% of the rise in the number of Israeli students learning computer science and engineering in universities and colleges is attributed to the Arab population, which makes up 20% of the population.

If in 2012 Arab Israelis made up just 10% of the students enrolled in one of the degrees that prepare for a career in hi-tech, in 2016 that percentage grew to 14% or 1,562 students.

This is good for the Arab population and good for Israel. It’s good for the Arab population, because Israeli hi-tech is the engine of the economy, making up a large percentage of the GDP and exports. Since productivity is high, so are salaries. Integrating more of Israel’s Arabs into hi-tech will improve the socioeconomic situation of the Arab population, which has a higher poverty rate than the national average.

But integrating Israel’s Arabs into hi-tech is also good for Israel. Quality manpower remains the main obstacle to economic growth in Israel. There is a dearth of computer engineers and scientists. Instead of outsourcing or importing foreign workers, the start-up nation should be working to exploit the potential at home.

More needs to be done to combat obstacles to the employment of Israel’s Arabs in hi-tech. Cultural differences represent one of the central obstacles to the employment of Arab Israelis in hi-tech firms.

Given a choice between a Jewish Israeli who served in the IDF and lives in central Israel and an Arab Israeli who is not a veteran and who lives in the so-called Arab Triangle towns, the vast majority of employers will feel more comfortable hiring the Jew. (Incidentally, haredim face similar obstacles, because they did not serve in the IDF and because potential employers are concerned that the haredim’s religious demands will cause problems in the workplace.) Ultimately, people want to work with those who are similar to themselves.

One solution is to create homogeneous working environments in which Arab Israelis are predominant. This can be done on the level of an entire firm, as in the case of Galil Software, or it can be done in a single branch of a firm or a department or a room. A similar model has been used successfully to integrate haredi women into hi-tech firms.

About a year ago, Tsofen opened offices in the Lev Haaretz Industrial Zone of Kafr Kasim about 20 km east of Tel Aviv, with the objective of transforming the area into a hub for predominantly Arab Israeli hi-tech innovation. A model like it has already succeeded in Nazareth and there are plans for a project in the South as well, as reported by Sharon Udasin, The Jerusalem Post’s technology and sustainability correspondent.

Old boy networks also exist within many hi-tech firms. Israelis who served together in the IDF or grew up in upper-class neighborhoods help each other out finding work. Arab Israelis tend to lack this social capital.

The rise in the number of Arab Israelis enrolled in computer sciences and engineering is a sign that more are seeing hi-tech, not just medicine and pharmacology, as a feasible career option.

But more needs to be done to break down cultural barriers where possible. Unrealized potential is a tragedy for those whose talents are left uncultivated and for the society at large, which loses out on benefiting from its human capital.

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