These Arabs Are Fighting the Old Boys Club of Israeli Hi-tech – With British Help

Only 1 percent of the Arab workforce is employed in Israeli hi-tech: 'We don’t serve in Unit 8200, so we need to strengthen our skills in other places'

Maria Rashed
Training for a career in high-tech
Israeli-Bedouins who participate in the course train for a career in high-tech.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Maria Rashed

The Israeli hi-tech industry’s explosion in recent years – and especially during the coronavirus pandemic – has also sparked growing fears that Israel will soon catch “Dutch disease.” This is the name for the economic phenomenon in which major success in a certain industry leads to a decline in others, or to the creation of great economic inequality. In other words: A blessing that is also a curse. This is exactly what a report from the Bank of Israel warned about last month.

But for the Arab community in Israel, these findings that the success of the Israeli hi-tech sector is both a blessing and a curse – for example it has increased inequality in employment – is no surprise. Another report from the state bank found that in 2019, only 1.2 percent of Arab salaried employees worked in hi-tech – compared to 10.7 percent for Jewish salaried employees.

A central factor for this low level of representation of Arabs in hi-tech is the already massive inequality between Arabs and Jews in Israel in the various educational frameworks – from childhood through university, as well as differences based on geographic factors, states the report. But another explanation offered by the researchers at the Bank of Israel was “the fact that many Arabs lack networks of connections of the type Jews have – for example through their mutual military service in technology units.”

The report provided details about this: “Various studies around the world have pointed out the importance of social networks and informal connections for employment opportunities,” as well as that “this difficulty is reinforced because many hi-tech companies recruit employees through the informal method of ‘friends-bring-a-friend.’”

A recent skit on the popular local TV comedy show “Eretz Nehederet” (It’s a Wonderful Country) highlighted this with a sketch about two hi-tech workers trying to kidnap officers from the elite military intelligence Unit 8200 for their company.

To promote the integration of Arabs in Israeli hi-tech, a not so obvious partner was recruited in recent years: The British embassy in Israel. Using the U.K. Israel Tech Hub center, the British began supporting sending delegations of Arab entrepreneurs to London.

In December 2021, the embassy – along with the nonprofit organization Hasoub – Promoting Tech and Entrepreneurship in Arab Society, organized a delegation of six Arab men and women entrepreneurs to travel to London to help them expand their contacts in the industry. “The entrepreneurs who participated in this delegation were already at an advanced stage and they only needed a push, support and the right connections,” Samar Hawila Bisharat, a political adviser at the British Embassy, told Haaretz.

Elinor Honigstein, the head of the U.K. Israel Tech Hub’s office in the U.K., said the embassy has created this platform for Arab entrepreneurs to make global tools and connections with potential investors accessible to them. Israelis who have served in the military and who have founded startups may invest more in one another, she said.

“The gaps between the Arab and Jewish communities begin in school, continue through college and end in the army,” Rabea Zioud, the CEO and co-founder of Hasoub, told Haaretz. “The entrepreneurship and hi-tech field in Israel is one of the main economic engines, and we as a society that makes up some 20 percent of the population take a very small part in this ecosystem.

“One of the points of weakness in Arab society is that Arab entrepreneurs have no connections overseas – and this delegation is one way to improve that.”

Zioud agrees that the “friends bring friends” culture in hi-tech hurts Arab entrepreneurs first and foremost: “When we are just a few percent of this world, it is hard for us to find friends in the industry. So we need to get out of our comfort zones, work on skills and build a network of contacts.”

Othman Alshekh, CEO of Siraj, and Enis Abo Alhasan, the head of biz-dev at the IoT firm. 'No role models' is just one of the problems preventing Arabs from finding work in Israel's booming tech sectorCredit: Maria Rashed

“Without a doubt, there are things that help members of [Israel’s] Jewish community enter the sector, but what is decisive in the end is the quality of the product, and it doesn’t matter if you were in [Unit] 8200 or not,” Othman Alshekh, one of the members of the delegation, told Haaretz. He is the CEO of Siraj Technologies, which develops products and solutions for the so-called Internet of Things.

“Arab Bedouin society is not represented, for example, in the hi-tech sector for the simple reason that there are not enough people to emulate. In comparison, it’s possible to find a very high percentage of doctors in the Bedouin community. Our goal in Siraj is to increase the percentage of those involved in hi-tech by creating role models that can be copied. I personally took part in the delegation because I always try to expand my connections and the British market is very strong,” said Alshekh.

“There are lots of challenges for an Arab in Israel in entering the high tech sector,” said another participant in the delegation, Maroun Bassam Maroun, the head of research and development for Haat Delivery, a firm from Umm al-Fahm that develops delivery services in the style of Wolt but tailed for the local Arab community, agreeing with Alshekh. The company says its mission is to “democratize” food delivery.

Like Uber, but with cash and no need for exact street addresses, Haat has broken into a virgin market in Israel - Arab communitiesCredit: Haat / Courtesy

“In addition to the technological challenge, there are also cultural challenges. Arab society has a lot of homework to do. Because we don’t serve in Unit 8200, we need to strengthen our skills in other places. For example, participation in this delegation helped me to improve my contact building capabilities,” he added.

Another participant from Siraj is Enis Abo Alhasan, the firm’s chief of business development, who said: “In our community, there is also a problem with asking for help. But there is nothing wrong with asking for help and learning from others. The opposite, it can help us move ahead. In my opinion, mayors also need to invest more in promoting awareness of integrating people into hi-tech.”

Out of the nine participants in the latest delegation, only one was a woman: Hanadi Said, the cofounder and CEO of Sensai, which provides AI based products for data centers. Said has over 20 years of experience in business consulting and strategy. “I have become used to being part of a minority, it’s nothing new for me. Of course, I’ve felt that the discrimination exists, whether it’s in a lack of representation of women in hi-tech, or in the wage gaps and investments,” she said.

“Arab women’s representation in this industry is a challenge for us because from the outset, the number of Arab entrepreneurs is small and out of that, the number of women is even smaller,” said Honigstein, from U.K. Israel Tech Hub, about the double challenge.

But Said is less pessimistic: “I personally lived in the north and would travel every day to the center [of the country]. In my opinion, it’s important to stop being in the position of the victim, to take responsibility for ourselves and not to wait for someone else to change things. I do see a new generation that is more willing to take risks,” she added.

Maria Rashad is a member of Haaretz 21, a journalism project aimed at amplifying underrepresented voices and stories of Arab communities in Israel. She accompanied the UK Israel Tech Hub delegation.

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