OK Computers: Bridging Israel’s Gaping Digital Divide

The computer literacy gap is widening, with severe implications for Israel’s future technology prowess. But there are also organizations trying to narrow it.

Michal Fattal

As a child growing up in the Negev desert town of Dimona in a household of seven with very limited financial means,Yishai Yakir’s prospects for success as an adult were limited. “Every time I went to the refrigerator, I opened it in the hope of finding a little food, but was forced to make do with margarine,” says Yakir, who until two years ago was chairman of Wikimedia Israel, a nonprofit that works to make information accessible on the Internet. “I was hungry, not just for bread but for knowledge,” he reflects. Things changed at home when Yakir’s sister got a computer, through the A Computer for Every Child program that the Prime Minister’s Office began promoting in 1996. “Thank God. The computer opened up a world of content to me,” says Yakir.

Like Yakir a generation ago, many Israeli children and adults from lower-income families have limited access to basic computer technology, a reflection of the digital divide that encompasses not just the Internet but technology use in general. As with other glaring social disparities in Israel, the digital divide is more of a presence now than ever.

“We like to tell ourselves that we are the world’s leading startup nation, second on the Nasdaq exchange only to the United States and, generally speaking, are a tech nation,” says Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli from the Graduate School of Management, University of Haifa, who has been researching the issue for 30 years. “In some instances, we have receipts to prove it. In some cases, the receipts are fake, and with respect to everything else, we were never a power.”

The digital divide in Israel as measured by access to technology is widening, he says, certainly when compared to other developed countries. “If we look at the number of computers per household in Shlomi, Sderot and Baka al-Garbiyeh,” he says, referring to Jewish and Arab towns in outlying areas of the country, “compared to Herzliya [just north of Tel Aviv], it’s as if they’re not on the same planet. I can’t tell you if the digital divide is more or less important than other things, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that it’s deeply entrenched [with] its economic, social and moral implications.”

The plain data from Internet service providers present a rosier picture. Hot Telecommunication Systems reports that it provides Internet services to 739,000 Internet subscribers, while Bezeq covers two million households. That’s more than 2.7 million Internet connections for a country with about 1.9 million households. So where’s the problem?

First of all, the fact that families pay for the Internet doesn’t necessarily mean they use it. “We go into families of Ethiopian background,” says a woman involved in an organization seeking to bridge the digital divide. “They have Hot’s three-part service” – a reference to a package that includes cable television, Internet and landline telephone service – “because that’s what they were sold, but they don’t have a computer.” In addition, communications companies include Internet connection for business in their figures, which also distorts the picture.

Figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics do show a digital divide, at least with the last data available, from 2011. The CBS found there were 168,000 households without an Internet connection, fully 132,000 of which were in the bottom 20% of income earners. In 2012, the bureau reported that 71% of Israeli households subscribed to an Internet service, compared with a European average of 75%. And 78.2% of Israeli households had a computer, the agency said.

Another survey from 2012, conducted by Yuval Dror and Sa’ar Gershon, found disparities in Internet use and access not only between those with low and high incomes, but also between Jews and Arabs, new immigrants and Israelis of long standing, and young people compared to older Israelis. More than 90% of high-income earners, for example, use the Internet on a daily basis, while only 75% of those with lower-than-average incomes do. The comparable average among Israeli Arabs is 60%, while for Jews it’s 70%. And among those 55 and older, the rate of daily Internet use is 50%, compared with 92% for those aged 12-17. Also, 40% of Israeli high schools don’t have a major in science, technology, engineering and math offered in their schools.

Increasing awareness

“We’ve been active since 1995,” says Aryeh Skop, the chairman of A Computer for Every Child and a former chairman of Microsoft Israel. “When we began, there were about 300,000 families without computers, while now we estimate that it’s 160,000,” he says. “The number went down, first of all because of the drop in the price of the hardware. When we started, a computer cost about 6,000 shekels ($1,700 at the current exchange rate), whereas now our computer package costs about 2,000 shekels.

“The second reason is an increase in awareness that everyone needs a computer at home,” he continues. “In addition, over the years we’ve distributed more than 60,000 computers, and every year we add 5,000 to 6,000. Currently, most of our work is with minorities – new immigrants, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews,” Skop notes. “We meet families all of whose electrical appliances were either donated or bought secondhand, and for whom the computer is apparently the only new equipment straight out of the carton.” All of the children get training on the use of the computer and don’t get the equipment if they don’t show up for the instruction, he adds. The Israeli government matches every shekel raised by Skop’s organization in its funding for A Computer for Every Child.

“In Jerusalem we started to work with the ultra-Orthodox community during the [mayoral] term of Uri Lupolianski, but only after approval for it was received from Rabbi Elyashiv,” Skop says, referring to the late Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a leading Haredi rabbi who lived in Jerusalem and died in 2012. Most of the work is done with girls, on the prevailing view in the ultra-Orthodox community that only women need to earn a salary while men study Torah. In some instances, the organization will install the computer without Internet, because many ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose it.

From the standpoint of Ornit Ben-Yashar – who runs Machshava Tova, which also works to narrow the digital divide – children’s mastery of computer games and Facebook are not a major priority. “The disparity in what is called access to hardware is really narrowing substantially over the years,” she says. “The divide remains wide in the capacity to get to know the equipment, to use it and leverage it in various areas of life,” says Ben-Yashar. “The purpose is to enable the child to research and learn through the computer, to do an appropriate Internet search, and not to use it just at the level of games and Facebook. On the Internet, there are computer programs for the study of math or Hebrew, but the child needs to be exposed to content in a proper setting.

“A second example involves looking for work,” she adds. “To find work, you need to know how to write a Word document, how to write a résumé properly, how to send it by email and draft it so they will pay attention to you. Knowing how to access Facebook on a cell phone doesn’t mean that I know how to leverage that knowledge to integrate into society. The divide exists in geographically outlying areas and in socially peripheral places.”

Creating social circles

When approaching a particular population group, Machshava Tova tries to understand its particular needs, Ben-Yashar says. “Take, for example, people with special needs – not necessarily physical disabilities, but rather emotional problems. The Internet can create social circles for them and locate a new group of counterparts.”

The best-known nonprofit working to bridge the digital divide in Israel is the Appleseeds Academy, which has been operating since 2000. The organization enjoys the support of companies such as Cisco and Bezeq, as well as Keren Hayesod, which raises funds around the world in support of Israel.

Appleseeds establishes community computer centers, where it offers a range of activities throughout the day, including morning courses for unemployed women, afternoon computer access to children from the community, and youth group activities relating to technology. Beginning at 8 P.M., there are courses for adults. The organization has been setting up four or five centers a year and currently operates 17 locations, Appleseeds CEO Dafna Lifshitz says, “in addition to a virtual one.”

“We believe that you can change people’s employment path through technology and effective training,” she says. “We are focusing on unemployed women and provide them with a computer course in cooperation with the [government’s] Employment Service, Microsoft and the Women’s International Zionist Organization. These are chronically unemployed women,” she notes, “but three to six months after finishing the course, 50% to 70% of them are finding work.”

Appleseeds also runs Net@, a program that focuses on technology and enrichment programming for youth, particularly in outlying areas of the country. Sixty-five percent of Net@ graduates are recruited into technology units for their army service.

The involvement of corporate support in the effort to bridge the digital divide has prompted the question over whether tech philanthropy by giants such as Microsoft, Intel, Google and Cisco is a misplaced priority when there are hungry children in Israel. Skop defends the high-tech groups. “The narrowing of the digital divide gives people fishing rods instead of fish,” he says, metaphorically. “I once spoke with a donor of ours – a Jewish man from Los Angeles – and asked him, ‘Why are you giving specifically to us?’ He replied that when he gives a dollar for food, it remains one dollar. When he gives us a dollar, it turns into three dollars.”

“There are a lot of problems in Israel,” Ben-Yashar acknowledges. “There is a nutritional divide and there is a digital divide, and a lot of other things,” she says. “We contend that bridging the digital divide can provide assistance in other fields, such as integrating marginalized communities in society.”