Why Jewish Israeli High-tech Entrepreneurs Are Commuting to This Arab Town

Klika QasemHub is the first government-funded co-working facility to open in an Israeli Arab town. It is becoming a role model for a shared Jewish-Arab society

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Jewish-Arab work-sharing hub in Kfar Qasem, November 28, 2019.
Jewish-Arab work-sharing hub in Kfar Qasem, November 28, 2019.
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

In a glass-enclosed conference room, about half a dozen women and men – a few of the men sporting kippot – are settling into their seats and pulling out their laptops. Outside, in the large open area, a woman with a hijab on her head is showing prospective clients around. At the desks lined up in rows, small business owners and independent high-techies are answering emails, dreaming up algorithms and devising ways to grow their customer base. A few are also sitting at the bar enjoying their midmorning coffee.

From the inside, it looks like any one of dozens of co-working hubs that have sprouted up around Israel in recent years. The address is what sets it apart: This shared work space is smack in the center of the Arab town of Kafr Qasem, northeast of Tel Aviv. Inaugurated in February, Klika QasemHub is the first government-funded co-working facility to open in an Israeli Arab city or town. No less remarkable is the fact that many of the people renting space here are Jewish.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 51Credit: Haaretz

In addition to work spaces, the 600-square-meter (6,460-square-foot) facility, located in a mixed residential-commercial neighborhood, offers mentoring services and a conference room for meetings. In fact, the workers convening in the conference room this morning are all employed at a high-tech company about a five-minute drive away; they just needed to hold an offsite meeting somewhere convenient.

Of the 13 entrepreneurs who have already rented space at the hub, more than half are Jewish, management says. The $400,000 investment in the center was funded by the government, through the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, as well as the Kafr Qasem municipality, the newly established Kafr Qasem Economic Corporation, the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society and several other private foundations. It’s one of about half a dozen government-funded co-working hubs recently set up in out-of-the-way venues around the country, all part of the Klika network.

Arab citizens of Israel are much less likely to be employed in high-tech – a main engine of economic growth in the country – than are Jews. What originally motivated the visionaries of this project was a desire to help overcome this gap and thereby promote greater equality for Israel’s Arab citizens. What hadn’t been planned was that Jews from neighboring cities and towns would take advantage of the opportunity to rent an affordable work space close to home and that this little entrepreneurial hub would become a role model for shared Jewish-Arab society.

Jewish-Arab work-sharing hub in Kfar Qasem, November 28, 2019.

“For the first time, we have Jews coming to Kfar Qasem, and it’s not to eat hummus,” says Adel Badir, who’s serving his second term as mayor. “They’re actually coming here to work.”

Local advantage

The establishment of the entrepreneurial hub represents the first step in his vision of turning this town into the “Arab high-tech capital” of Israel. Recently, he notes, the government approved the establishment of a high-tech park just outside town, expected to be completed in five years and employ 1,300 workers in high-tech – at least half of them Arab citizens.

Among those renting space these days at QasemHub are a handful of local residents, two entrepreneurs from the nearby Jewish city of Rosh Ha’ayin, one from Tel Aviv and one from a settlement in the northern West Bank.

Nazareth, located in northern Israel, is the largest Arab city in the country and home to a bustling high-tech park. A year ago, the multinational company Regus, now also known as IWG, opened a shared workplace downtown, a first in the Arab community – but unlike its cohort in Kafr Qasem, it was a completely private initiative.

Although Kafr Qasem is much smaller, with barely 25,000 residents, Najeh Amar, the executive director Kafr Qasem Economic Corporation, believes it has one key advantage over Nazareth.

“Location, location, location,” says Amar, who also chairs the newly established Kafr Qasem Foundation. “We’re right near two major highways and a short distance from Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Herzliya.” Kafr Qasem is part of a cluster of Arab towns known as the Southern Triangle and about a 20-minute drive from Tel Aviv.

And as Regev Avner, the economic corporation’s business development manager, added during a recent tour of the co-working hub: “And our prices are far more attractive than those in Tel Aviv.”

Jewish-Arab work-sharing hub in Kfar Qasem, November 28, 2019.

In the past five years, most of the big international shared work space companies like WeWork and Regus, have found fertile ground for expansion in Startup Nation but have focused mainly on Tel Aviv and its environs. QasemHub rents out work stations (including amenities) for 500 shekels ($144) a month, which according to Regev is about one-third of what it costs in Tel Aviv.

‘Politics doesn’t interest me’

Mohamed Arar, from the nearby town of Jaljulya, has been renting space here pretty much from day one. The 24-year-old graduate of Tel Aviv University develops Arabic-language educational apps for children.

“One of my dreams has always been to build a high-tech company in an Arab city,” he says. “So when I heard that this hub was about to open, I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be the launching point for it.’”

Many Jewish Israelis, he notes, tend to avoid Arab towns out of fear for their safety, even when they live close by. “But at the end of the day, business is business, and there’s no denying the fact that many of those who share the space with me are Jewish,” he says.

That would include Amir Barnoy, a software developer from Sha’arei Tikva, a West Bank settlement about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. “I discovered this place by coincidence,” he says.

“There was some event going on here that I’d been invited to, so I checked it out and saw that it had potential.” Asked whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever enters this shared work space, he says: “Politics doesn’t interest me, but what I can say is that I haven’t met anyone here with horns on their head.”

Sharona Tzadok, from nearby Rosh Ha’ayin, uses this place as her office when she’s not traveling the world. “It’s a great way for me to separate my work and family life,” she says. Tzadok runs a company that specializes in exotic adventure tours for women.

Was she apprehensive about commuting to an Arab town for work? “I’ve been to the most remote corners of the earth on my own, so nothing scares me,” she says.

The shared work space, Avner says, may have already created its first Jewish-Arab business collaboration. “We have a guy here who used to work in the defense industry and who’s now involved in a drone-related project,” he says. “There’s a young guy from Kafr Qasem some of the people here knew who’s completing his university studies and is also into drones. So we hooked the two of them up and it looks like they’re about to set up a partnership.”

Jewish-Arab work-sharing hub in Kfar Qasem, November 28, 2019.

Yasmeena Taha, 26, is in charge of organizing social events at the hub. Last week, for example, she asked a religious Jewish woman who rents out space here and owns her own bake shop to conduct a pastry-making workshop. “Everyone loved it,” she reports.

Arab Israelis often commute to work in Jewish towns, but it’s rare for Jewish Israelis to commute to work in Arab towns. “To me, that’s what makes this project so unique,” she says.

“For the Jews who come work here, it’s a real educational experience. We in the Arab community, always know when the Jews have their holidays and how they celebrate them because we go there to work. The same is happening now for the Jews who come here to work. I think that’s a wonderful side benefit of this project.”

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