Socially Oriented Israeli Geeks Try to Change 'Darwinist’ Spirit of Start-up Nation

Frustration felt by Israeli social activists over their inability to alter government policy has led to numerous initiatives aimed at changing the world from the ground up.

The frustration felt by Israeli social activists over their inability to alter government policy has led to numerous initiatives aimed at changing the world from the ground up, like cooperatives and new companies owned by workers or consumers. One of the more fascinating of these endeavors is Carmel, a programing cooperative that is challenging one of Israeli capitalism’s main sources of pride: the high-tech industry.

The founders of the Haifa-based cooperative, which was launched in August and is currently in the final stages of the registration process, are four high-tech journeymen who are also social activists. Noam Levy, 36, and Carmel Neta, 28, are active in the Democratic Workers Organization; Yosef Baruch, 38, was a leader of the Hazit Hatzfonit (Northern Front) group during the social protests; and Idan Kaminer, 42, is an activist in public broadcasting.

Met in protest tent

Nothing that can be found in their office, located on the sixth floor of a building in Haifa’s hiCenter high-tech park, hints at what their company was founded to do. The generic glass doors, whiteboards and programming books don’t give anything away. “Noam and I met when we studied computer science together,” says Baruch, who was unanimously voted CEO of the company. “During the protests of 2011, I came to the tents in Haifa to see what was going on. I saw smoke, heard drums and people screaming ‘the people demand social justice,’ but didn’t know what to think of it. Only when I saw Noam did I realize that there were serious people there, and it was worthwhile to sit down and talk. I sat down, and didn’t move from there for two years.”

Carmel employees say that not everything that glitters is gold in the startup nation. “The approach to high-tech is very Darwinist,” says Levy. “It used to be at Microsoft that the worst 5 percent would be sent home. There’s the well-known limit at age 40, after which you’re overqualified and the amount of positions open to you is very small, because you only need so many managers and department heads.”

“High-tech is a cruel world, unlike any other,” adds Baruch. “And startups are the cruelest. They expect the employees to work for free, but only one in 10 startups succeeds. You’ve got an expiration date, and it will come much sooner than you’ll reach retirement age. Even if I’m on a secure management path, some 25-year-old accountant can decide to cut the cost of my salary with one cold-hearted decision.”

According to Baruch, “Management flexibility is mostly an excuse to fire people over a certain age. The high-tech market in Israel has not reached its human potential because it’s mired in ageist thinking. The industry is training new programmers, even though there are programmers over the age of 50 who are willing to work for low pay.”

The idea to conduct their company differently came up during a course on cooperatives at the Social Economic Academy. Weeks before the course, Medingo, where Levy was employed, was sold for $160 million to the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche and had to close. He saw something absurd in the situation. “The company I worked for had to close because it was successful. Medingo was a very successful place, and it was actually the success that made it break up. Isn’t that stupid?” he notes.

“We thought about whether we should go in as employees in the industry or try to start something new − and we went with something new,” Levy continues. “Since we decided to work together, each one of us has received at least two job offers.”

The most important thing is making social action part of life, they say. “I don’t like social action that’s totally disconnected from politics,” says Neta. “No evenings-only social action, or Saturday night protests. The only way to make real change is through the workforce and the economy. Currently, our company is building an information system for a big university, and other companies’ websites, with the goal of generating initial income. For the future, our cooperative is planning to develop an agricultural product.”

In the meantime, the members are trying to formulate rules for the cooperative. They’d like to see all the employees join them as members of the cooperative, including maintenance workers. Also, the highest salary won’t be more than five times the lowest salary, in the worst-case scenario. In the meantime, the four partners have equal salaries.

“Rules sound technical, but it’s a declaration of intent as to how this place should function,” says Baruch enthusiastically. “We’re making breakthroughs into uncharted territory, trying to forge a new path, to have people follow our lead and take responsibility. The cooperative rules are also about mutual responsibility, for all the workers. If the ship hits a storm, we won’t start to throw sailors overboard. We’ll tighten our belts and make decisions together. Layoffs will be a last resort. All the workers will make decisions together.”

The work hours are also convenient in relation to the industry: four days a week, eight hours a day. “The high-tech stereotype, that it’s a place to make quick, easy money, then run away, seeps into the workplace. A high-tech employee who works 12 hours is doing something wrong. He won’t be able to do that for years on end, and will break at some point,” says Baruch.

A whiteboard in the office displays the hours that employees can’t work, like the times when Levy has to take his children to school.

Programming cooperatives have already sprung up in London and California. In September, another programming cooperative called Permatech was launched in Israel, bringing freelancers together to work in a loosely cooperative framework. Permatech created the Kifaya system to report racism, which was initiated by the Agenda organization. “We want as many socially oriented programs as we can find, and we give discounts to charitable organizations,” said Tailor Vijay, one of the Permatech founders, who said his cooperative has a waiting list of 100 programmers.

‘Quality products, too’

“It’s natural that people with skill and education would prefer to work on their own, without having people make profit at the expense of their talents,” says attorney Yifat Solel, who consults for both cooperatives. “These cooperatives are trying to bring sanity back to high-tech work, to set reasonable hours and a fair salary. This creates not only a pleasant, equal workplace, but quality products.”

“We decided to work from an office, so that the work would be taken seriously,” says Baruch. “You get up in the morning, go to work and clock in. It’s like a factory. I don’t want people to see our project as a social club. We’re just like Egged drivers who worked in a cooperative − we want to be the Egged of Israeli high-tech.”

Asked to describe reactions from the rest of the Israeli high-tech world, Levy says they vary. “I’ve gotten skeptical looks from many people − they didn’t know what to make of us. We got good reactions from workers, though.”

Avishag Shaar-Yishuv