Several years ago, Rajaa Abu Roken started working in her husband's photo shop in Ussifiya on Mt. Carmel southeast of Haifa. "Bit by bit," Abu Roken recounts, "I started to take over the business."

She decided to study photography, took courses and decided the time had come to expand the business. From a little shop, it grew and added a lab, a communications department and later a closed circuit department for security systems. The couple went into business with a partner and opened another branch in Haifa's Lev Hamifratz mall.

"Women have it tougher in the business world," Abu Roken notes, "and an Arab woman has it tougher still. Women are still not seen as capable of managing systems ... People think that most of the time, a woman should be at home."

Yesterday, Abu Roken came to Haifa, along with another 300 women, to attend the first national conference of Jewish and Arab businesswomen, organized by the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development in conjunction with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Empowering

Helmi Kittani and Zeev Jasper, co-directors of the CJAED believe that "just as the center focuses on empowering human capital, the need also exists to empower women. We recognized through our work the need for such an entity, a necessary network for businesswomen that will serve as a representative to other organizations, like banks."

The pair say "the center is acting out of the belief that Jewish-Arab economic cooperation and the development of healthy Arab society in Israel, are necessary conditions for Israel's stability and prosperity. We act out of the understanding that Israel's greatest resource is its people and its strength relies on pluralism, democracy and equality.

Answering an existing need

"The center strives to answer an existing need, maintaining the task it took upon itself - integrating business in Arab society into Israel's central economy. The main goal is integration, sometimes through separate activities in a weaker sector."

Sausan Kobetti recently opened an event design business in Nazareth. This is her second career, after studying bookkeeping and working for the post office. Kobetti was impressed with the field of design, which she became acquainted with traveling abroad. "The initiative has proven itself and despite the tough times, there is demand for the product," she says.

Kobetti is a member of the Nazareth-Upper Nazareth Businesswomen's Association, one of 30 such organizations with 4,000 members nationwide. Organizational consultant Tsippi Bar Noi said there is a huge need among businesswomen for access to information, professional-business training, loans, a Knesset lobby and networking. Some 66 percent of businesswomen are interested in a national forum.

Kittani and Jasper say they would be happy if the conference results in joint ventures between Jewish and Arab women. "We would encourage such enterprises, they are in everyone's best interest."

Women from the Menashe and Wadi Ara regions recently took an entrepreneurship course that taught skills integral to founding a business. The group has already generated three joint ventures between Jewish and Arab women.

The businesses are only just starting out. "In cooperation, there is both the social need to get acquainted with the other and also the economic need. Each brings her relative strengths to the joined forces," Kittani and Jasper say.