Under the Looming Threat of BDS, Israel’s High-tech Sector Is Bridging the Arab-Jewish Divide

It’s harder to boycott technology than academia; either way, Tech2Peace and similar academies hope to apply the tech mindset to peace-making

Number crunching at a Tech2Peace summer academy in Yeruham, August 2018.
Micha Silverman

The day Uri Rosenberg decided to launch his pilot program for a tech and coexistence seminar, he didn’t expect he’d be dealing with such a positive environment of curiosity. “I never had to tell the Palestinian and Israeli participants to mingle with each other, because they wanted that dialogue to happen,” he says.

Rosenberg is the co-founder and co-leader of peace seminars at Tech2Peace, a summer academy taking place in the southern Israeli town of Yeruham. A two-week IT and conflict resolution seminar for 30 young aspiring entrepreneurs from Israel and the West Bank ended on Friday.

Unlike other hackathons and summer tech academies, Tech2Peace hopes to foster mutual understanding between Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, and Palestinians, by adding peace-building activities to its design and programming curriculum. For the whole program, participants have shared common spaces in a dormitory.

Omer Segal, 27, a medical student at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva and director of seminars at Tech2Peace, explains that among the 120 applications received, priority was given to those who showed potential to become the next generation of IT leaders ready to have tough conversations about social cohesion in Israel.

“We want to create a collaborative network of future tech leaders who will support each other, personally and professionally, and also be role models of coexistence in their communities,” she says. Launching the seminar was a challenge, organizers say.

“Until the last moment we didn’t know if permits for our participants coming from the West Bank would be approved or not,” Segal says. “It was stressful, but we were also hopeful it would work out eventually.”

The organizers are already working on the next editions of the program and dream of including participants from Gaza one day.

A meeting at a Tech2Peace summer academy in Yeruham, August 2018.
Micha Silverman

“It was a tough but rewarding first experience,” Rosenberg adds. Two girls from the West Bank had to drop out after two days because their families didn’t approve of their visit to Israel. “But I predicted something like that could happen, so we kept following our schedule despite this small inconvenience.”

Since the early 2000s, Israel’s rapid economic growth and fertile ground for startups has made headlines and attracted attention from investors, giving the country the nickname Startup Nation.

“IT has become the best career option in Israel, both socially and economically, and the best work sector this country has to offer,” Rosenberg says. “No wonder it became the ideal goal to feel integrated here.”

But the tech-and-coexistence field has also had to deal with a problem over the past 13 years that has slowed the peace process: the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which usually pressures Palestinians to avoid working for Israeli companies. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs recently published a study about bottom-up peace through economic cooperation in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control.

According to some Palestinian workers quoted in the research, Palestinian Authority companies don’t provide the same benefits as Israeli companies, most importantly economic stability – which many consider a significant part of the path to peace. The tech sector has often received special treatment regarding BDS; it’s hard to boycott technology compared to, say, academia or food producers.

From this perspective, Tech2Peace offers a unique chance for Palestinians to come to Israel and discuss and understand these challenges, along with Israeli Arabs, Bedouin and Druze, also important elements in the inclusion debate. As citizens, Arab Israelis are more inclined to work on integration in the workplace, since they also face challenges related to job opportunities.

Talent, not background

In the past five years, many social entrepreneurs have started noticing the potential of creating businesses or NGOs that would also promote coexistence and integration of Arab citizens through employment in high-tech – a first step that could hopefully involve more Palestinians from the territories at a later stage.

A team picture at a Tech2Peace summer academy in Yeruham, August 2018.
Micha Silverman

“This industry is a global, fast-paced environment where people look at talent, not socioeconomic background,” says Sami Saadi, co-CEO of Tsofen, a nonprofit group operating in Nazareth and Kafr Qasem that tries to integrate the Arab community and foster understanding through its tech programs and startup accelerators.

“We wanted to create a model for other organizations in the field,” Saadi says. “I think the best way to bring the two communities together is not only through lectures or inspirational talks that are forgotten quickly, but by concretely working side by side, at the same desk.”

He says many workplaces still don’t make this encounter happen easily, but he believes this approach can change things for the better.

In 2008, Arab engineers accounted for only 0.5 percent of employees in Israeli high-tech. While today that number is 3.5 percent, Tsofen executives are targeting at least 10 percent by 2025. Tsofen graduates hope that tech and entrepreneurship are the way to improve integration.

“The high-tech mindset is goal-oriented and efficient. It makes you understand the concrete skills you can bring to the table. That same mindset can be applied to peace talks; that’s why I consider tech a great tool to begin a dialogue,” says Amroo Amer, an Israeli Arab from Jaffa who took part in Tsofen’s accelerator with his startup Post a Thing, a student platform for sharing intellectual opinions without judgment.

“Jewish mentors working there always wanted to help us regardless of our background. They overlooked race and religion and showed us that another approach to the conflict is possible,” he recalls. Amer also hopes to see more similar initiatives in Tel Aviv, where he now lives while completing an MBA. Most of Israel’s tech and inclusiveness hubs are actually further afield, not in the bustling Mediterranean city.

A presentation at a Tech2Peace summer academy in Yeruham, August 2018.
Micha Silverman

“We want to promote a startup nation, not only startup capital. That’s why many recent initiatives decided to evenly spread across the peripheries: to make the whole country develop, not only a selected part of it,” says Asaf Brimer, CEO of Moona, an advanced-technology learning center in the Arab city of Majd al-Krum in the Upper Galilee.

He opened his hub, which focuses mostly on aerospace technology, in the Galilee in 2013, shocked at Israel’s underperformance in integrating the Israeli-Arab community. “That’s a high price Israel pays as well, because we miss out on a lot of necessary yet overlooked talent,” he says.

Brimer says that achieving a socially connected society is in Israel’s interest, as it would improve its economy. “We’re the only workplace where Jews come to a Muslim city to work,” he says. “Tech is the wealth of this nation, in many respects.”

‘Exactly like us’

Back in the Negev at Tech2Peace, the next generation of tech leaders enjoyed a dinner organized as one of their nighttime activities. Arab participants from East Jerusalem put some music on and showed their Israeli classmates some dabke steps.

Talia Breuer, a 22-year-old Israeli participant who just finished her military service, said she was looking for a fun summer activity while trying to decide her future path. “I also wanted a real chance to ask the hard questions and hear firsthand the opinion of the other side,” she says.

“I learned that they’re exactly like us, that they want the same things, to live with their families and have a peaceful life. These might seem like obvious observations, but I feel like during my military training I wasn’t told the whole picture, so I wanted to find unbiased answers and create my own opinion by myself.”

While Breuer agrees that technology might not be the only answer – she notes that art, sports and health care initiatives have also tried to foster coexistence – technology “motivates people because right now this is a popular and useful field.”

At the training, Breuer met Sam, one of the eight Palestinians accepted out of 25 applicants from the West Bank. He applied to the program because he believes that the Israeli and Palestinian economies are closely intertwined. And because IT is the heart of Israel’s economy, he wanted to study something that could help him in the future. Since graduation from a Palestinian university two years ago, he has been unemployed.

This was his first time visiting Israel. Before his arrival, he remembers being nervous: “I was worried my strong opinion would not be accepted because I’m very vocal when it comes to defending my people and country.”

He says the Israeli Jewish participants respected his opinion, showing him that not all of them have the same views on Zionism that he was expecting them to defend. Finding this out meant a lot to him, considering that he had lost close friends during the second intifada.

“I think now more than ever, with the current situation on the Gaza border, the signs of corruption of the current PA government and the summer tensions in the settlements, it’s necessary to promote concrete initiatives like this one I’m taking part in,” Sam says.

He says he’s happy to have met people who still want peace, or at least want to cooperate with the Arab side – even though the new nation-state law seems to have set up a solid difference between Jews and non-Jews living in the region.

“I will bring this message back to the West Bank," he says, "where I know it won’t always be fully accepted or understood, unfortunately.”

Stefania D’Ignoti is a freelance journalist covering the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Economist, The Guardian, Politico, Forbes and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @stef_dgn.