If Muhammad can’t come to the mountain, then the mountain must come to Muhammad. And that’s exactly what Smadar Nehab and Sami Saadi set out to do when they established Tsofen (Compass) in Nazareth eight years ago. Tsofen is an Arab-Jewish NGO promoting job placement solutions for young unemployed Israeli Arab software engineers who graduated from Israeli universities.
Because they lack professional experience obtained during their student days or army service and do not participate in the social networks of the hi-tech sector, Israeli Arabs often have trouble competing equally with their Jewish counterparts for jobs with local and international hi-tech companies based in the Tel Aviv-Herzliya area of central Israel.
“Hi-tech is the engine that fuels the Israeli economy which after years of growth today experiences a growing shortage of skilled manpower,” said Nehab at a briefing for journalists at Tsofen’s training centre in Nazareth, a predominantly Arab city of 90,000 in Israel’s north. Nehab brings to her role 30 years’ experience from the Weizmann Institute and Los Angeles, where she managed start-ups. What could be more natural, she asks, than to bring hi-tech industries and investors to Nazareth and other economically depressed Arab communities in Israel which have an ample supply of unemployed Arab software engineers looking for jobs.
Diversifying the hi-tech company locations to Israel’s Arab periphery can also act as a strong catalyst “to reduce the social and economic gaps between Israel’s stronger Jewish economy and its weaker Arab counterpart where poverty runs at a rate of 51% compared to 19% in the Jewish sector of the Israeli economy,” said Nehab.
Tsofen plays an important role here encouraging the Israeli Government to invest in educated Arab graduates and in low-cost real estate for offices and workspace in Arab communities.
Nehab’s ambition is to accelerate the process of integrating the Jewish and Arab economies through the driving force of their shared hi-tech engine. Israeli Arab citizens comprise 20% of the population but contribute only 8% to its GNP, a potential annual loss of US$9.5 billion in revenue. In 2008 just 350 Arab software engineers were employed in Israeli hi-tech industries. Six years later that number has soared to 2,000.
Hi-tech spearheads social and economic integration
Tsofen is spearheading the Israeli hi-tech industry move toward full integration with its Arab communities. In Nazareth’s modern fledgling “Silicon Valley” the number of positions in hi-tech industries filled by Arab engineers rose steeply from 30 in 2008 to 600 in 2014; the number of local hi-tech companies jumped tenfold from one in 2008 to 10 in 2014. In the last three years three global companies set up offices in Nazareth’s hi-tech industrial park financed by veteran Israeli entrepreneur Stef Wertheimer.
“We know how to identify opportunities and timing has been on our side,” said Nehab, confident that Israel’s Arab citizens will supply the manpower reservoir to fill current shortages which are afflicting Israel’s hi-tech industries. In 2014 some 1,600 Israeli Arabs graduated in computer sciences from Israeli universities. “We want to reverse the traffic so that investors and Jewish software engineers come to Nazareth’s hi-tech centre, because that’s where a growing job market exists.”
With an annual budget of A$1.37 million, Tsofen operates 20 two-to-three month state-of-the-art technological internships for young Arab software graduate engineers. Here they obtain vital practical experience and exposure developing a creative project which they can either present to prospective employers or as an innovative start-up at Nazareth’s Business Incubator Centre.
Some 300 engineers, one-third of them females, have completed internships at the Nazareth and Tira (near Kfar Saba) training centres since the programs were initiated.
A third training centre replicating Nazareth is planned for 2016 in Shafaram in northern Israel and a fourth by 2020 in the Negev, probably in the Bedouin town of Rahat.
With a US$1 million grant from the US Agency for International Development, Tsofen aims to boost to 10,000 the number of Israeli Arabs in jobs in the hi-tech sector.
Arab pool of software engineers
Arab doctors employed in Israeli hospitals are as common as are Arab pharmacists working in Israeli medical insurance fund pharmacies and clinics or Arab judges appointed to the bench in Israeli municipal and district courts.
Arab hi-tech engineers employed in senior positions in Israeli companies, however, are less visible – but their numbers are growing.
Ameen Abu Lel is Vice President for Customer Projects in the Nazareth-based Galil Software company, a medium-sized Israeli-Arab provider of near-shore software R&D services to Israeli and global companies. The company employs 180 Arab graduates of major Israeli universities and academic colleges as software engineers, as well as 27 Jewish software engineers. He tells a personal story that is unfortunately widespread.
Abu Lel graduated in computer sciences from the Technion in Haifa. His disappointed parents wanted him to study medicine so when he told them of his decision to pursue computer science, they refused to speak to him for two weeks. His father had also studied computer sciences and didn’t want an embittered son ending up teaching mathematics and physics in schools, like he and many of his generation had. The job market, Abu Lel said, was a nightmarish shock. He sent out 1,015 copies of his CV to Israeli hi-tech companies and received zero replies. He finally found a position with Alpha Omega, a successful Nazareth-based engineering company started in 1993, today a global company with offices in the US and Germany specialising in pioneering medical applications for patient care in the field of functional neurosurgery. Three years ago he joined Galil Software.
“The difficulties Arab professionals encounter in seeking jobs with Israeli companies are frequently a function of stereotyped mindsets Israeli Jews have about their fellow Arab citizens,” said Tsofen’s Arab co-Director Sami Saadi. “We need to get to know each other on a personal basis. A shared workplace allows for this to happen, and as Jews discover our talents they will also realise that our professional qualifications are as good as theirs and that we share the same ambitions. We want to be part of a shared society integrated into the broad Israeli public.”
The focus of Nazareth’s sustainable hi-tech eco-system is its super-modern 12,000 sq. metre Industrial Park facing the biblical Mount of the Precipice, where the New Testament says Jesus jumped from a cliff. Since its opening three years ago in 2011, the park has already reached 40% occupancy with 70 companies employing 250 engineers, said the Park’s Deputy General Manager, Debbie Simmons. Within 10 years the Park aims to supply 1,000 new jobs in the software industry.
An auditorium on the third floor hosts regular cultural, musical, artistic and children’s events, and temporary exhibitions where Arabs and Jews from the surrounding districts can informally meet and mingle.
Back in the historic part of the city, off the main square below the Church of the Annunciation, a side entrance leads up a short flight of stairs into the Nazareth Business Incubator Centre (NBIC) for innovative startups. Arab entrepreneurs invited to the centre, including past interns of Tsofen’s technological programs, spend three years here attached to a mentor and with full access to the centre’s facilities and equipment to develop their projects.
Some 70 startups have passed through the centre to the funding stage for production and marketing by foreign investors – including Arab investors from the US and Europe referred to them by Tsofen, according to centre director Fadi Swiden. “Some 16% of investments in startups have been successfully completed and three have transferred to Jordan which has become a hub for Arab startups developing Arabic applications funded largely by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states,” he added.