Miracle in Yokne'am

From a town mired in poverty and neglect, Yokne'am is now a hive of high-tech. How did this turnaround take place?

Yokne'am's luck has changed for the better, and after the dream of many of the inhabitants had shattered. The Soltam plant, which produced weapons and where it was everyone's dream to get a job, fired 700 employees overnight. The unemployment rate climbed to 35 percent and threatened to topple the council's welfare services.

As long as the Soltam plant flourished, the town flourished. Yokne'am was identified with Soltam and Soltan with Yokne'am. Simon Alfasi, the council head, related that for years students in the town were educated towards the day they would join the rest of the inhabitants and become production workers at Soltam. "They had no other dream," he said, "but to work at Soltam." Every family in town had a representative who worked at Soltam. The father, a brother, a son or a relative. In the 1980s, the golden age of the plant, more than 2,700 workers were employed there, many of them inhabitants of Yokne'am.

In September, 1990, the dream shattered. Following a sales crisis, the plant management announced its intention to lay off hundreds of workers. The upset workers barricaded themselves into the plant and refused to leave. The heads of the company, which was owned by the Histadrut labor federation, pulled no punches and hired security guards to nip the proletarian uprising in the bud. For the first time in the history of labor relations in Israel the guards used aggressive Rottweiler dogs that were brought there in the dark of night and cast fear into the hearts of the barricaded workers.

The inhabitants will never forget that night. They came out of their houses in the middle of the night and were frightened by the sight of their family members being dragged out of the plant by force. The screams of the men who were evicted were swallowed up in the barking of the dogs. "I'll never forget that night as long as I live," recalled Alfasi in an emotional voice.

"The night of the dogs," as the evacuation of the workers from the Soltam premises was called, shocked the country. Soltam CEO Uri Simhoni was forced to submit his resignation to the Koor management. Histadrut secretary general Yisrael Kessar established an investigation committee to examine the hiring of a private evacuation company and the use of attack dogs against workers.

"When I saw those horrible sights I made a vow," added Alfasi. "There will not be plants like that in Yokne'am. I said that as long as I serve as the head of the council, I will not allow a single plant to hold an entire town hostage. I also made myself another vow: No more dirty work. It is unacceptable that people invest their lives in a production machine and in the end find themselves without a job, without a trade and without a future."

During those years Yokne'am was considered one of the poorest places in the country and numbered 5,000 inhabitants, most of them immigrants from North Africa, Iran, Romania, Yemen, Iraq and Kurdistan who settled there at the beginning of the 1950s. Negative migration increased and every year 20 percent, moved elsewhere. People registered their children at schools outside of Yokne'am in protest against weak education system. The welfare services collapsed, kindergartens emptied, the number of the poor increased, the price of a two-room apartment sank to less than $5,000 and despair spread.

Seeds of recovery

But Yokne'am was saved. The Soltam trauma engendered a new Yokne'am. There are those who attribute the miracle to the entrepreneurial personality of council head Alfasi and there are those who say that it was Yokne'am's convenient location that helped it attract new plants. And there are also those who say that the factor responsible was the atmosphere of prosperity that spread through the country in the 1990s and did not skip over Yokne'am.

In any case, there is agreement in the town about two specific events that determined the fate of Yokne'am: the first appearance of high-tech plants on the ruins of Soltam and the first appearance of new immigrants from the Confederation of Independent States.

Within less than a decade Yokne'am experienced an unprecedented turnaround in the crowded landscape of development towns in Israel. Its population quadrupled - from 5,000 to nearly 20,000. From a location with a single plant it became a town where 100 high-tech plants were built. The first immigrants from the 1950s were joined by new immigrants from the CIS, young couples seeking quality of life and professionals who are employed in the high-tech campus. Alongside the decrepit and faded Jewish Agency housing projects of the veteran immigrants new neighborhoods of townhouses and villas have gone up.

The new immigration brought new blood to the town and shook up the clan structure that had prevailed for decades. The immigrants had no alternative but to organize on the basis of a common origin. They had been settled there at the beginning of the 1950 to serve as working hands for the moshava (cooperative village) of Yokne'am, which had been established on the land in the 1930s people from Germany and Holland.

The social and cultural combination of the two communities did not work out well. The immigrants of Upper Yokne'am aspired to blend with the farmers of the moshava Yokne'am, but unsuccessfully. The latter saw themselves as pioneer workers of the land and did not conceal their contempt for any mark of urban life, as developed among their new neighbors. In 1967 the two communities were separated and each of them was given its own geographical boundaries.

The split left a scar among the new immigrants who lived on the hillside. They were filled with feelings of shame and felt rejected by the people whom they saw as the embodiment of rooted Israelis. "It hurts to this day," explained Alfasi, who had immigrated to Israel from Morocco five years earlier as a boy of 16. He considered himself a resident of Yokne'am in every respect and as part of a social fabric of veterans and newcomers. "The strong people in the moshava did not want us," he added. "They did not want to be on the side of the weak."

Today, 36 years after that split, Alfasi is striving to reunite the two entities in the framework of the unification of locales or in any other way. The vagaries of fate have led to a dramatic change in roles. The weak of yesterday have become the strong of today, and the strong of yesterday have become the weak following the serious crisis that has affected agriculture. "If we don't read the map well, we will remain stuck," warned Roni Sela, a native of the moshava Yokne'am who owns Dag Bekfar, a fishing park for families that is located at the entrance to the moshava. "The whole region is going to develop mightily, and we in the moshava must make a switch in our minds. Otherwise, we'll remain on the outside."

Recently Alfasi, in an almost piratical act and at his own initiative, decided to change the original name of his town to Yokne'am. Without Upper. "Everywhere I go I introduce myself as the head of the Yokne'am council," he stressed. "Even on the new council forms the name `Yokne'am Local Council' appears. This is how I think it ought to be."

When he dropped the word Upper, he was not surprised to find many partners in the town to the scheme to eradicate the shame of the split from consciousness. "I wanted to get rid of the image of a development town and I think I've succeeded," added Alfasi. "Today Yokne'am is identified with high-tech and quality of life. Upper Yokne'am is identified with the past, when we were a poor and inferior development town. In our case `Upper' Yokne'am does not symbolize anything that is elevated but rather something that is stuck down below."

The poverty and inferiority, alongside the split from the moshava, engendered in the Yokne'am of those days a politics that was based on clans. As in Druze and Bedouin locales, the clan determined the identity of the candidate and forced its members to vote for him en bloc. For years, council heads were elected in this way and in this way Ilan Gavrieli, Alfasi's predecessor as council head was elected. Although Gavrieli represented the Labor Party, his hold on the position of council head for 20 years straight had more to do with is clan identity (Iraqi) than his connection to the Labor Party.

In the 1998 elections Alfasi enlisted the Labor Party on his side and harnessed the Moroccan clan against his former ally, Ilan Gavrieli. Once again the clan war got underway. Clan came out against clan and enlisted other clans in a merciless battle in which Alfasi ultimately defeated the others when he won 41 percent of the votes. He needed less than 1,200 votes to be elected to head the tiny, poor town.

Rabin to the rescue

Not a year went by and the Soltam affair struck Upper Yokne'am. Alfasi targeted the education system as the first step in the revolution he planned. He bore with him bitter childhood memories from Morocco. Because of difficulties in earning a living in his family, he had to leave school when he was 13 and since then he never went back. The educational lack left him scarred. His language is meager and to this day, almost 40 years after he immigrated to Israel, the Hebrew he speaks is not fluent. His lack of education served political rivals who tried to exploit his weakness in order to embarrass him. At first he was deterred and developed feelings of inferiority. With time, he let his supporters and his rivals know that his strength was not in words but in actions.

During his first year as council head he discovered that the comprehensive high school symbolized the ills of the town. The students there were members of the second generation of immigrants from the 1950s, in various metalwork trade programs that prepared them for their life's work: to get a job at Soltam. It was clear to him that if he did not break through this occupational tracking, the town would continue to wallow in its distress.

Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was the first person to come to the rescue of Yokne'am. This began in a political deal and culminated in a decision that was to bring about a revolution in the history of the town. This was in 1999 when there was a battle raging between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin for the leadership of the Labor Party. Peres' strength in the party machine, which included council heads and local politicos, threatened to trounce Rabin. After his victory, Rabin wanted to do well by those who did well by him. Alfasi had been one of the few council heads who had supported Rabin. "Simon, what can I do for you?" he asked.

"I wanted Development Area A status," replied Alfasi. In August, 1993, the month when Israel signed an agreement on principles with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Oslo, Yokne'am set out on its new path.

"Take, and we'll see what you do with this," Rabin challenged him. To maintain inter-party balance, Rabin granted similar status to Or Akiva, which was headed by Yaakov Edri of the Likud.

Alfasi contacted entrepreneurs and industrialists and proposed that they set up plants in Yokne'am. He offered them an attractive package that was hard to resist. If they moved to Yokne'am or set up plants there, they would receive a grant of 38 percent of their total investment, or alternatively a tax exemption that would spread over the first 10 years.

The response was beyond expectations. High-tech plants sprang up like mushrooms after rain and took in thousands of new workers, most of them from outside the town. New companies attracted new populations, more educated and of a higher socioeconomic status. The new immigrants quickly integrated into the new employment and raised the standard of living in the town. During the past decade well-kept neighborhoods were build that absorbed the hundreds of Israelis who made their homes in Yokne'am.

The new inhabitants made education their top priority. Surveys carried out in local councils have shown that employment and education are the most dominant factors in parents' decision to select a locale. This, perhaps, is the reason the elementary education system, which was about to collapse, changed its face beyond all recognition. The new inhabitants themselves took part in developing a high level education system that gives their children the stimuli and enrichment that children in strong locales in the center of the country receive. An engineer who is a resident of Yokne'am related that he volunteers to give computer lessons every Friday at the school in his neighborhood. "Lot's of people here do the same," he added.

In this framework the children of Yokne'am are able to spend time in the adult world through unusual attractions. For kindergarten children, an information and media center has been built where 600 youngsters are exposed to the marvels of science, communications and art. Children from third through sixth grade spend a week during the school year at a science and industrial technology center that has been built for them. This week they are learning how sciences and technology are applied in industry. "I can't describe what I got as a girl in Yokne'am and what the children are getting today," enthused Zahava Shushu, the director of the center. "We are doing this because we aspire to having people who grew up in the town working at all the high-tech plants in Yokne'am. This is our goal."

They don't live here

For the moment, this is a goal that seems ambitious. "Until such time as the employees live in Yokne'am, the companies will be nothing but a milch cow for the town," says Dr. Zvika Merom, the CEO of Batem, which produces switching systems for innovative communications protocols. The company employs hundreds of workers around the world, about 200 of them in Yokne'am. Merom employed (now Finance Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu as a marketing consultant for more than two years after he lost the elections for prime minister.

From the window of the laboratory Merom looked out over the dozens of companies that have sprung up here during the past decade. According to him, a natural connection has not yet developed between the high-tech culture and the town. As he spoke, workers who had finished their work for the day were getting on buses that would take them out of the town. Other employees were making their way in cars toward the exit from town. "We came to Yokne'am because it's a convenient place geographically," explained Merom, "as it's not far from Haifa and not too far from Tel Aviv. I would say that Yokne'am is still a development town where there are advanced industries. The buses that you see below demonstrate the lack of connection between the employees and the locale. From my experience in other countries, here too the wasteland will not bloom if people don't live in the places where they produce. If they live in a place, they change it."

Merom believes that Yokne'am blossomed thanks to the human capital of the immigration from the CIS to Israel. According to him, the unemployment and the Israeli bureaucracy are likely to accelerate negative migration by the good immigrants, many of whom have already returned to their native countries or have immigrated to other countries. "Without this human capital we will become a third world country," he warned.

Merom works in Yokne'am, but he lives elsewhere. This is also the case for Elyakim Bossak, one of the founders of the Odine plant that produces imaging equipment with magnetic resonance technology that is used in brain surgery. And also for Michael Kagan, one of the founders of Melnox, a company that produces components for high-speed communications and for Nehama Aharon, the financial manager. Kagan lives in Zichron Yaakov, Aharon in Gush Segev and Bossak in Zichron Yaakov. Nearly all the executives of the companies that operate in Yokne'am live in Haifa, Zichron Yaakov, Caesarea and the center of the country.

"I must admit that when we began to work in Yokne'am, we counted on hiring local cleaners and warehouse workers," related Bossak, whose company employs 50 workers, only five of them from Yokne'am. "Today this has changed. We have already begun to hire development workers from the town. Today Yokne'am is a magnet for young couples who come to work in high-tech and stay here to live."

Melnox, which employs about 150 workers, also came to Yokne'am to take advantage of its proximity to the Technion and the technological campus that is located in Haifa. A drive of less than 20 minutes separates the two locales, and many entrepreneurs moved to Yokne'am in order to take advantage of the benefits the place grants. "The Technion is the best incubator for our technology," explained Kagan, "and the fact that Yokne'am is located where it is helps us maintain the closeness to the Technion and to Haifa."

Aharon sees light at the end of the tunnel. According to her, she has discerned an increasing trend in recent years at the advanced companies that are located in Yokne'am. "The veteran executives live outside of Yokne'am, but the young engineers are already living in Yokne'am," she explained, "and therefore I think that in the future most of the employees will live in Yokne'am."

"I agree with Nehama," nodded Kagan. "I see how Yokne'am has grown from a development town into a modern city. The high-tech is a significant development lever and it is bringing progress to the locale. This is what happened to Zichron Yaakov. From a small settlement, it has become a high-tech power." Kagan is convinced that the miracle of Yokne'am is just beginning.