Booting up Arab access to Israeli high-tech jobs

Arabs make up 20 percent of the Israeli population, but only 1.4 percent of Israel's high-tech industry. One NGO is closing the gap by helping Israeli Arabs through the job search process.

Ammar Awad/Reuters/File
In March, Israeli Arab demonstrators carry a huge Palestinian flag during a demonstration marking Land Day in the northern town of Sakhnin. Arabs make up 20 percent of the Israeli population, but only 1.4 percent of Israel's high-tech industry.

Israel touted its flourishing high-tech industry to US President Obama during his recent visit, showing off innovations in search and rescue, robotics, and alternative energy that the president deemed "inspiring."

President Obama was also introduced to Saeed Kharouf, an Arab engineer at the Haifa plant of high-tech powerhouse Intel, who told him he wanted to one day become the company's president.

But presidential visits and photo ops aside, diversity is not a strong suit of Israeli high tech. Only 1.4 percent of Israel's 85,000 high-tech workers – who collectively command the highest salaries in the country – are Arab, even though Arabs make up 20 percent of the population.

An effort to break down the industry's barriers to Arabs is under way. Tsofen, an ambitious Jewish-Arab nonprofit organization based here in the heart of the Galilee, is working to increase the minority group's representation in the high-tech industry by providing Arab job applicants with skills, coaching, and connections.

At stake is the ability of Israel's Arab minority to overcome chronic poverty and to achieve equality with Israeli Jews, Tsofen's directors say. Fifty-three percent of Israeli Arabs are below the poverty line, three times the percentage of Jews, according to the Adva Center, a Tel Aviv social affairs think tank.

''It is a known fact that high tech is the engine of growth of the Israeli economy,'' says Tsofen executive director Smadar Nehab. ''We want it to be the engine of growth of the Arab economy in Israel.''

Israeli Arabs have faced economic and political marginalization for decades and remain excluded from ruling government coalitions by both right and left. The sense of being shunned is palpable among young people hoping to break in to high tech.

"Jews who graduated with me have work, while Arabs who studied with me couldn't find work in the field and are doing other jobs," says Bashir Atallah, who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Tel Aviv University last June and is at Tsofen enhancing his skills. "The truth is that there is discrimination."

A high-tech leap forward

It is in Tsofen's modest offices, located among car-repair shops in the drab Nazareth Industrial Zone, that the Israeli Arab high-tech leap forward has been conceived and is being waged.

Tsofen has its sights set not only on increasing the number of Arabs in existing companies in greater Tel Aviv but on creating a ''critical mass'' of Arab high-tech specialists to be based in Nazareth and other Arab cities and thereby transform entire communities, Ms. Nehab says. It puts a lot of effort into helping Arabs navigate the cultural code of the high-tech firms when they submit résumés and come in for interviews.

"'We teach how to be interviewed, how to respond to the personal questions about your points of weakness and strength. If they don't interview by the book, they won't be taken," spokeswoman Makbula Nassar says.

Both companies and the government have made changes for the better since the group began its work four years ago. The number of Arabs with jobs in high tech has grown from 350 to 1,200 in that period, according to Ms. Nassar. Eighty percent of graduates of Tsofen's three-month course find work and 100 more jobs have been created by the opening – with government support – of a branch in Nazareth of Amdocs, a leading Israeli high-tech company. Most of the branch's workers are Tsofen graduates. 

"There are a lot of companies with zero Arabs, but there are also companies with an open approach that want diversity. We have found genuine partners who do want to broaden," Nassar says.

The Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor has provided one-sixth of Tsofen's budget in each of the past three years, signaling that the government wants to encourage Arab representation in high tech, Nassar says. President Shimon Peres's office has also launched a program, known as Maantech, that works together with Tsofen to promote Arab representation in the industry.

Learning to 'show off'

Lina Choshha, a young Circassian Muslim recently hired by Galil Software, a Nazareth-based company that recruits through Tsofen and has a prayer room for its mostly Muslim staff, says she hopes to reach a leadership position in the field ''so I can use my connections to help others."

Ms. Choshha, a graduate of the Technion Institute in Haifa – Israel's equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – with a degree in industrial engineering and management, now works in customer support for cellphones. She initially struggled during the job search.

"I had interviews before Tsofen, and they didn't go well. I wasn't showing a real assertiveness in the interviews. In our culture, we are educated to be modest and not show off. In the Tsofen interviews, we learned to show off, but in an intelligent way." 

Galil CEO Dror Gonen says the company's work with leading firms Nice, Radware, Allot, and Amdocs is helping show that ''having Arabs in the industry is helping the industry as much as the Arabs.''

Israeli Jewish observers of the high-tech scene prefer to use the word ''homogeneity'' in describing the demographic state of the industry. Amir Teig, high-tech editor for the economic newspaper The Marker, stresses that much of the problem stems from the ''friend brings a friend'' method of hiring, in which team leaders choose people they know from the army, high school, or university. This, he says, cuts out both Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Nehab, the Tsofen director, says the government needs to do more to promote change, starting with hiring Arabs for its own IT systems, which she says have few, if any, Arab employees.

In response to this statement, government spokesman Mark Regev says that the government has an "affirmative action" policy on hiring and "actively supports efforts to encourage greater Arab participation in the high-tech workforce. This is a national interest.''

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