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“Immersion is a win-win; exclusion is a lose-lose”

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

While 21% of Israel’s population is Arab, only 1.2% work in the country’s booming hi-tech industry. A new government plan is seeking to narrow the gap, but it is not without its challenges

Goal is to quadruple number of Arab engineers in 5 years' time. Photo: Unsplash
Goal is to quadruple number of Arab engineers in 5 years' time. Photo: Unsplash

Nearly two million Arab citizens live in the State of Israel, amounting to roughly 21% of the general population, and representing the largest minority in the country. But in 2019, only 1.2% of all employed Arab citizens worked in the hi-tech industry, compared to 10.7% of Jewish employees. This, according to a recent Bank of Israel study.

In 2018, The share of Arab citizens among degree recipients in hi-tech professions only 4%, and they represent a mere 3% of all young workers in hi tech. And this is just part of the whole story. There are major socio-economic disparities between Israel’s Jewish and Arab society, in all walks of life: education, income and earning potential, health, transportation, personal safety and more.

But now, it appears that change is finally on the horizon. The government recently approved a multi-billion NIS 5-year plan called called Taqadum (Arabic for “progress” or “moving forward”), whose objective is to reduce the gaps between Israel’s Arab society and the general one (namely, the Jewish sector). 600 million NIS (about $193 million) will go towards increasing participation of the Arab sector in the country’s hi-tech industry, which amounts to 15% of its GDP.

All photos courtesy Tsofen
Photo courtesy Tsofen

“This is the first time a 5-year plan regarding Israel’s Arab society addresses hi-tech integration issues, and we are incredibly excited about this,” says Revital Duek, Co-Executive Director of Tsofen (“code” in Hebrew), a non-profit organization whose goal is to facilitate the integration of Arab citizens into hi-tech firms, as well as expand the industry’s presence in predominantly Arab areas. Tsofen also co-authored the governmental plan, together with the Forum of the Heads of Local Arab Authorities.

”There is so much hope here, and this plan is feasible. With our partners, we can make it happen” Duek says.

Overcoming multiple barriers

Founded in 2008 and operating from Nazareth and Kafr Qasim, Tsofen’s developed a programmatic model that includes candidate recruitment, training and placement, while collaborating with corporate and government leaders. Over the past 12 years, Tsofen has placed more than 2,500 engineers in hi-tech positions. There are currently some 5,000 Arab engineers nationwide. The goal is to have 20 thousand in five years’ time. But many challenges lie ahead.

“There are multiple barriers that we are working hard to overcome,” says Dr. Ramzi Halabi, Tsofen’s Chaiman of the Board. “First, there’s the geographical barrier. Most Arabs in Israel live in periphery areas, in places that are relatively far from hi-tech’s main hubs in central Israel. There is also the psychological barrier, concerns about firing in as a minority.

“Also, in hi-tech, the Bring-a-Friend method is prevalent – but do date, there still aren’t enough Arab employees who bring their friends, Halabi continues.” It’s different from the Jewish hi-tech employees who often serve in elite military units that open doors for them.”

Revital Duek and Dr. Ramzi Halabi
Revital Duek and Dr. Ramzi Halabi. Photo courtesy Tsofen

And then there’s the biggest elephant in the room, the Jewish-Arab relationship crisis. “Every time something happens, like Guardians of the Walls in May, it sets us back, further damages the joint society we are hoping for” says Halabi, adding with optimism that “we can overcome these barriers, but it is not something that can happen on its own. There’s a lot of work to do.”

Halabi and Duek appear to truly work well together, completing each other’s sentences in the joint Zoom interview we held last week. Their different backgrounds and perspectives on Israeli society complement each other in creating Tsofen’s holistic, inclusive approach. Duek is Jewish, with two decades of hi-tech work under her belt. Halabi, whose PhD thesis examined economy and employment in Israel’s Arab sector, is the former mayor of Druze town Daliyat al-Karmel and veteran politician.

I always say that if 21% of Israeli population isn’t incorporated enough in the society, then it’s a lose-lose situation, while incorporation and immersion is a win-win. And you can’t discuss true integration without hi-tech,” says Halabi.

Duek adds, in honesty, that “in my 22 years in hi-tech, I didn’t recruit enough Arab talent, and now I understand how critical this is. But diversity is only one aspect. Executives need to recruit real talent, which is ample in the Arab sector, but they need the to help them recognize this talent.”

Between optimism and concern

On the surface of things, this plan sounds great. But can it really work and foster real change, or are you worried it might just fizzle out?

I’ll answer you as a politician, who has a lot of experience with multi annual plans,” says Halabi. “There are many people in government ministries who are experts on how to just shift money from side to side without actually doing much, but regarding this plan, I’m generally optimistic. However, I don’t think that the realization percentage will be what the government committed to, I doubt it. And I think that we’re going to have to work very hard.”

“This program is built on four pillars,” says Duek. “Education; human capital, which includes various programs like internships; entrepreneurship and innovation – and a great deal of cooperation needs to take place inside the ecosystem for that; and digitization and improved infrastructure. So there is a lot to do, and things are interconnected. We need everyone’s cooperation.”

“There are many other potential setbacks and reasons this can fail – due to lack of available land for the innovation centers we want to build, problems within the education system, financial concerns, planning that isn’t authorized…there’s a lot,” adds Halabi.

“The plan as it stands is very important. In the past, on the municipal level, we spoke more about infrastructure, basic stuff, roads, public buildings, sewage. Now we’ve moved further along,” he says, also stressing the need for cooperation “on all levels, from government offices through local municipalities to the private sector, with the help of the non-profits, like ourselves, who connect it all.”

Q: Let’s discuss the position of women in this new plan. A sore spot as it is, as women’s integration in hi-tech, especially in top positions, is notoriously low worldwide

“In the Arab society, there’s so much untapped potential,” says Duek. “Research shows that Arab girls in Israel do better in science at school , but unfortunately that doesn’t translate to employment. H-tech hubs are usually far from traditional Arab communities and so many women end up working at what’s availably close to home, which is mostly being a teacher. There is a surpluss of 11 thousand Arab teachers, and some of them could have definitely been diverted to hi-tech.”

“However, women are no less talented, and once the employment area is accessible, many women join,” says Halabi. “In Nazareth’s hi-tech center, for example, there are currently more than 1300 Jewish and Arab engineers working together, and 25% are women.” This is above the national average of Israeli women in hi-tech, which stands at 20%.

Photo courtesy Tsofen
Photo courtesy Tsofen

“70% of Arab university students are women. We received data from the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology, a highly esteemed public research university, MK) which indicates that 55% of freshman computer science students are women. So if this isn’t a revolution – I don’t know what a revolution is.

“Also, the Arab society is becoming more modernized, more accepting of the fact that women can leave their town or village to study or work, immerse themselves in general society. The conservatism index is constantly decreasing.”

The watchdog’s role

Going forward, how to you see Tsofen’s role?

Duek: we’re not done. This plan and will rise and fall on realization, of which there is so much potential. We’ve discussed the challenges in implementation ahead, and I think Tsofen needs to serve as a watchdog, liaising everyone, finding was to make sure things happen.”

“Halabi: “Let’s not forget that while we’re discussing hi-tech, specifically engineers, there’s a much greater system around. Hi-tech centers generate a lot of employment around them – catering, shuttle services, low tech and so on – so it’s not just engineers, it’s a whole ecosystem that supports this industry. We need to make sure things don’t remain on the declarative level.”

“We’re building a community, an ecosystem on both the national as well as the local level,” adds Duek.

“And here’s another issue we’re trying to be part of, the important question of whether once the socio-economic status of the country’s Arab population is improved, together with Jewish-Arab cooperation, will we be able to overcome the gaps of politics and identity?” asks Halabi, only to immediately answer that he hopes that “If the Arabic society sees it has a lot to gain from this cooperation, and that it will miss out by not taking part, then this will provide motivation for the younger generation.

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