Arab entrepreneur: Hi-tech is the foundation for coexistence

While Arab citizens represent 21% of Israel's population, they constitute just 3% of the Israeli hi-tech workforce – a primary engine of Israeli economic growth.

Prof. Ziyad Hanna  (photo credit: EYTAN HALON)
Prof. Ziyad Hanna
(photo credit: EYTAN HALON)
Born in the northern town of Rameh to Christian parents displaced from Iqrit during the 1948 War of Independence, the hi-tech career of Prof. Ziyad Hanna is an all-too-rare Arab-Israeli success story.
The youngest of eight children, Hanna's parents may have lacked formal qualifications but values of persistence and a strong work ethic were ever-present during his modest childhood.
"My father started anew, built a family and worked hard in very basic jobs – construction, agriculture and olive-growing," Hanna told The Jerusalem Post. "Necessity might be the mother of invention. I believe persistence is the father."
Persistence has led Hanna to repeatedly break through academic and corporate glass ceilings for Arab minorities during his career, culminating in his current role as vice-president of R&D at Cadence Design Systems. Tasked with managing 10 offices worldwide, Hanna represents one of few Arab-Israelis to head global development at a multinational company in Israel.
Hanna, who was once the only Arab student in Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Exact Sciences and subsequently enjoyed a 17-year career at tech giant Intel, was appointed in 2016 as a visiting professor at Oxford University's Department of Computer Science.
"In parallel to my work, I feel an obligation to grow and invest in my community, after I did a lot for myself," said Hanna. "In a world of globalization, where competition is very strong, providing an opportunity for Arab talent in Israel has become an essential act. The current political extremism doesn't serve anything except to increase the gap between Arabs and Jews in Israel. I believe hi-tech is the foundation and the framework for coexistence."
While Arab citizens represent 21% of Israel's population, they constitute just 3% of the Israeli hi-tech workforce – a primary engine of Israeli economic growth. Today, approximately 6,000 Arab engineers work in Israel's hi-tech industry, primarily employed by multinational companies, but they remain significantly underrepresented.
"Hi-tech is one of the key platforms to bridge the gaps between Jews and Arabs. We enter into joint goals, joint agendas and joint dreams. People live together and become more productive. The walls can be destroyed in that framework," Hanna said.
"To continue growing and nourishing the whole economy, Israel needs to bid on hi-tech. To continue doing well and improve, the Arab community is a partner, and a very important one."
While working at Intel, in order to understand barriers to employment, Hanna decided to evaluate the reasons for the rejection of every Arab candidate. Many applicants were re-interviewed after eliminating relevant obstacles.
In partnership with former Intel executive Dadi Perlmutter, Hanna also co-chairs nonprofit Tsofen's Public Council for Promoting Hi-Tech in the Arab Society in Israel, bringing together leading stakeholders to advancing concrete programs and increase Arab participation in hi-tech.
"Over the years, we found that there are cultural gaps, economic gaps and issues of discrimination," said Hanna. "We worked together in several areas to bridge the gap – initiatives at a governmental level, in academia and the hi-tech industry."
Citing the Tuckman model of group development, Hanna believes the Israeli-Arab population is currently in its forming and storming stages. Millennials are increasingly listening to their peers rather than following family expectations, and growing numbers of Arab engineers are serving as role models and ambassadors for their communities.
"I keep analyzing hi-tech in Israel, and trying to understand what is the secret sauce? One element is hutzpah," said Hanna. "In the Arab sector, we are a more conservative community. In hi-tech, it's fundamental to fail, and we fail to fail. This conservativeness exists mostly among the old generation. The new generation has changed a lot with more initiatives, more motivation and passion to change things."
Arab culture, Hanna adds, also emphasizes individualism and independence, rather than collective impact and working together. In order to be part of Israel's hi-tech success, it is necessary to "change the mindset to work as a team and learn that success is the success of all."
While private entities and foundations have an important play to role in integrating Arab-Israelis into the nation's hi-tech success story, Hanna ultimately believes that long-term issues can only be resolved by the government. Key issues include improving infrastructure, education, decentralizing hi-tech from central Israel and "disseminating values of living together."
Hanna emphasizes that decentralization does not mean scattering hi-tech around the country, but instead securing government investment to build several innovation hubs. Strong hubs in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba ought to be complemented by similar centers in areas characterized by high Arab-Israeli populations.
"Bringing hi-tech to the Arab community has a tremendous effect. It's not only about empowering engineers but improving standards of living and improving the whole ecosystem," said Hanna, highlighting the rapidly-developing innovation scene in Nazareth. The same changes have not been witnessed in the so-called Triangle Area of northern Israel or the Negev.
"To do this is not just about putting companies in a certain area, but about the wider picture – accessibility, infrastructure and culture. In the Arab community, we are suffering from a nasty disease of crime and violence. More than 90 people have been killed since the beginning of the year. You cannot prosper, in hi-tech or other places, without solving the fundamentals."