Hi-tech Trailblazers: The Druze heart of the start-up nation

If, as they say in Africa, it takes a village to raise a child, in Israel it takes many villages to make the “Start-Up Nation.”

Future Druze engineers and scientists: (in orange)  Sewar Gadban and Moran Amer; (in blue) Tamar Ganem, Hdeyee Hihi and Yareen (Rose) Ganem. (photo credit: HISHAM BADER)
Future Druze engineers and scientists: (in orange) Sewar Gadban and Moran Amer; (in blue) Tamar Ganem, Hdeyee Hihi and Yareen (Rose) Ganem.
(photo credit: HISHAM BADER)
What’s this? Another story about Israel, the Davidic start-up among the economic Goliaths of the world? Old hat, no? Read on, jaded reader.
If, as they say in Africa, it takes a village to raise a child, in Israel it takes many villages to make the “Start-Up Nation.” Not only villages, of course, but innovative schools, hi-tech parks and, most of all, ingenious entrepreneurs. All these can largely be found in cities in the country’s center. But, given the nation’s relatively diminutive size, it is precisely the input from the periphery that makes Israel’s start-up moniker all the more intriguing.
Take the case of the settlement I shall call Perach Yafe. “Beautiful Flower,” as its name means when translated to English, has only 6,000 souls or so and is two hours away from Tel Aviv. In the past, its economy was almost exclusively based on agriculture.
A few of its inhabitants excelled in school but the general ethos of the community was work hard, keep your head down, serve in the IDF, then return home and raise a family.
Now, thanks to a science and technology initiative, three students from Perach Yafe took second place in Microsoft’s I4G (Innovate for Good) competition, two students grabbed first place in the Haifa Teen Tech international competition, and one 12th-grader is so advanced that SanDisk has taken him on as a part-time employee even as he finishes high school. Not to mention the internationally renowned medical researcher from Perach Yafe, who made his multi-million shekel exit by developing a protein to modify genes that trigger hard-to-cure diseases.
Nu? What’s the big deal? This is the Jewish state, after all, the world-famous “Start-Up Nation.”
The kicker is that none of the aforementioned hi-tech trailblazers are Jewish; Hebrew is not any of their first languages; and these are among the smallest of Israel’s ethno-religious minorities. In fact, “Perach Yafe” is really Horfesh, a Druze outpost within eyeshot of Lebanon. The internationally known professor of medicine, whose phenomenal $480 million exit from the biomed company Frolor is an inspiration to many Israeli Druze and non-Druze healers, is Dr. Fouad Fares.
Yet it is not as if the Israeli government has made investing in the Druze sector a priority. Over the years, The Jerusalem Report itself, reporting on the Druze, has consistently acknowledged the infrastructural and general economic gaps between neighboring Jewish and Druze municipalities in the Galilee. Residents of Horfesh unhappily compare their village to the similarly-sized Shlomi, not to mention the relatively bustling Maalot-Tarshiha. (But even in that combined Arab-Jewish municipality – the only one in the country – some perceive imperfect parity between the allocations in Jewish Maalot vis-à-vis the Muslim and Christian Tarshiha.) As loyal citizens who serve in the IDF at a higher proportion (among males) than any other ethnic or religious group in Israel, protesting inequality does not come easily to the Druze. Only slowly, and particularly among the young, are the Druze realizing that it is the squeaky wheel that gets the most attention – and, eventually, a healthy dose of oil.
Here in Horfesh, the young men are also beginning to realize that their future success lies elsewhere than in what their parents have envisioned for them. (In this regard, the girls have been ahead of the boys for some time – for every young man of the village who eventually goes to university, two to three of their sisters and cousins have.) Until recently, traditional avenues of career success have been mostly perceived as limited to the construction and security sectors, be it in the military, police, or prison services. But the message from the school administration is this: There is opportunity for you in the private sector. Just as important, this shift needs to be linked to social advancement for the community as a whole – and further, not just the Druze sector but for Israeli society and the nation as a whole.
“In the past,” says a village school administrator, “every parent wanted his son to be an officer. It was secure, prestigious, and lucrative – relatively speaking. But now, a career in the army is not what it used to be. Even officers are discharged earlier than before. At the age of 30 they have to begin again practically from scratch. And now there is much more money to be made in the private sector.”
And for that, the key is higher education. “After all,” continues the administrator, “a single multimillion biomedical exit by a Druze scientist is worth no less than one thousand Druze conscripts. Not just the financial aspect, but the recovery it can provide to countless patients.”
Not that security and entrepreneurship are mutually exclusive. To the contrary, Technion BSc graduate and mechanical engineer, Lt.-Gen. Hussein Salame of Horfesh has contributed mightily to the nation, and to his family and village pockets, by supervising the production of both the Merkava-3 and Merkava-4 tanks. Brig.-Gen. Tarif Bader – the first villager to finish his medical studies in Israel itself, at Ben-Gurion University – is the highest ranking medical officer (surgeon general) for the entire IDF. That recognition came, in part, from his research into child obesity and his revolutionary transfer of fresh dried plasma use from hospital to battlefield conditions. (Tarif also helped lead Israeli humanitarian rescue missions following natural disasters in Haiti, Thailand, and Nepal.) In this way engineers and doctors from the village are joining war heroes as central role models for young Druze.
What nobler profession is there than healing? Pathbreaking genetic discoveries by Dr. Fares will eventually benefit countless sufferers, way beyond Horfesh.
Sons and daughters of Horfesh pepper the University of Haifa and the Technion. (One of the pioneers of this other Druze model of success is still popularly recalled in the village as the “Socrates of the Technion”!) But more and more venture beyond the Galilee to succeed: There are currently three young men from Horfesh who are studying medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Two of them will become dentists; the other is currently studying general medicine.
STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses in school are not the only paths leading to success. The Druze village has experienced a growing status competition among parents that take the benign form of enrichment programs. And so they send their children to learn art, painting, music – even chess – in neighboring (mostly Jewish) communities. Horfesh’s own matnas, or cultural center, unfortunately folded a decade ago.
A measured dose of competition can be healthy. Within Horfesh, there is that cultural enrichment race of parents for their children. But there is also inter-village competition. In terms of educational achievement as measured by bagrut (matriculation) passing rates, all of Israel has heard – thanks, in part, to previous Jerusalem Report articles – of the spectacular success of nearby Beit Jann. Can Horfesh best its much bigger neighbor by some other qualitative measures of educational achievement and post-graduation career success? For four successive years, for example, Horfesh high school graduates have put Horfesh among the top 10 schools in Israel in terms of percentage of students earning the highest matriculation grades in mathematics and English. The race is on – even if it does not take on the same intensity as that between fans of Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv.
But Tel Aviv is far away. Brute geographical facts constitute a major obstacle to the absorption of this “start-up village” into the “Start-Up Nation” writ large. And since Druze culture still frowns on girls sleeping outside of the village, most female university students attending Haifa University must forego 24/7 campus life in favor of life as commuters. Horfesh remains, and will forever remain, on the geographic periphery of the Israeli nation. The challenge is to bridge the geographic barrier of isolation that contributes to the psychological one.
When all is said and done, this is not a Druze story alone. The successes of the sons and daughters of Horfesh point to the possibilities of all Israel. Just as compelling as who they are, as Druze, is what they are doing, as innovators. Horfesh high school graduates Fadi Bader and Razi Kher Eldeen have been working on a cyber project through which, even in the absence of telephonic or digital network, users can still remain in contact with one another. Microsoft I4G silver winners from Horfesh Moran Amer and Yarin Ganem have helped come up with a social app to enable organizations – especially non-profits – to match NGOs with volunteers, and to follow their accomplishments even after they have moved on. “The major goal is to use technology to help fill the needs of society,” says 17-year-old Moran, a sometimes shy and sharp girl who specializes in physics and computer programming in class and with Yarin studies chemistry on the side. (The successful Horfesh I4G team also includes students Siwar Gadban, Tamar Ganem and Haja Hihi.)
Happy that your children have learned to swim but something in your head keeps asking if they are all right in the water? Thank coed seniors Aya Bader and Siwar Gadban, the Haifa Teen Tech winners from Horfesh, for inventing with their teammates from elsewhere in Israel (and one from China!) robotic gloves for swimmers. By monitoring the oxygen level in the blood, these gloves can alert monitors outside of the pool in the event that anything awry occurs to their submerged loved ones. As a non-swimmer herself, the sprightly Aya – whose classes include chemistry as well as physics and programming – well intuits the reassurance provided by, and the life-saving potential of, her team’s invention. That virtually all of these crack science students are girls points to another positive development in Israeli society.
It’s just the beginning. And even if no scientific invention will ever physically eliminate the many miles between Druze settlements in the far north and the privileged children of “the Center,” the youth of Horfesh are starting to reshape the mental map of attentive Israelis. Not just as uniformed defenders of the State of Israel, which many also continue to be, but as cyber strategists whose technological victories prove how Druze brains match Druze brawn. 