The Missing Arab in High-tech

Today the unseen people of the 1950s are the hope of the Israeli economy. Without them, in Silicon Valley they will look for high-tech workers in India.

A high-tech workplace in Israel.
Ilya Melnikov

Whoever designated the Arabs to chopping wood and drawing water in the 1950s gets them today as outstanding high-tech workers. I recently completed reading the shocking book by Roni Floman “Good Intentions − Arab High-Tech in Israel.” Floman tells of the Sisyphean struggle of Arab individuals in a society that has designated traditional jobs for them; and of the establishment, public and private, which excluded them from the courts of the new world.

Floman is not writing about the proud, upright Arab − after all, standing straight and tall causes herniated discs or collapse − but of the old-new Arab, whose perseverance is the secret of his success.

When I finished reading the book, Haaretz actually published a story by Inbal Orpaz in which she reported an increase in the number of Arabs in high-tech companies. Based on figures from the Tsofen High Technology Centers organization, whose goal is to integrate Arabs into high-tech so as to create a more just and equal society, in 2013 1,200 to 1,500 Arabs worked in the high-tech sector, compared to 350 three years ago. Gai Hetzroni, the director of corporate social responsibility at Cisco Systems in Israel, estimates that the number of Arab engineers reaches 2,000. Either way, and even though these are still small percentages, the train is already racing ahead.

What is annoying in this matter − to the embarrassment of Israeli high-tech − is that international companies are those who broke the siege, so that even Intel in the 1980s opened its gates to Arabs. And that is how the “cultural barrier” collapsed. Whoever wants to hire Arabs should not roll their eyes and claim that Arabs and high-tech are seemingly two parallel lines that will never meet.

In her book Floman tells of a CEO of an Israeli high-tech company in the Sharon region who decided that the percentage of Arabs among his few hundred workers would be 5 percent. Since then he has acted decisively, with an appropriate system for hiring employees, and the goal − no surprise − has started to be achieved in part.

Among the Arab population you can find those for whom the acceptance of government aid for business entrepreneurship − including that of high-tech − is a sort of donation to beautify the way the country looks in the eyes of the world, at the same time that in other areas the lives of Arabs are in bad shape. Floman, in an identical context, formulates an authentic and impressive statement: “And in general, how is it possible not to cooperate with life itself? Is [the Arab high-tech worker] meant to suspend his life so as to collaborate?”

The Arabs said: “If we act benevolently with the benefactor, we will win his heart; and if we act benevolently with the bastard, he will revolt against you.” The Arabs are part the first group.

It is important to praise the contribution of President Shimon Peres, especially because he established − along with Cisco and others − the Ma’antech coalition, an organization that works to integrate Arabs into the economy. But no less important are the good people from Tsofen, with its Arab and Jewish leadership. With a very small pick axe, these “weird” people started to undermine the huge stone wall that choked the Arabs.

The story of Arab high-tech is first and foremost the story of young people who fought alone, in an exhausting process that pulls toward desperation more than hope. Despite all this, they held on. They are the heroes of tomorrow. I am writing about them also to say that we must not ignore the bright corners in the heart of the darkness. We are allowed to exaggerate in prettifying reality; that is how we will also scare the evil ones who are laboring to reinforce the walls of the past, and how we will encourage the good ones to work even harder.

There are those who view the Arabs as a burden − “Excluding the Arabs and the Haredim, our situation is excellent,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Today the unseen people of the 1950s are the hope of the Israeli economy. Without them, in Silicon Valley they will look for high-tech workers in India. The presence of Arabs in high-tech has increased from a third of one percent to 2 percent. With a Jewish-Arab effort that will reach the level of 20 percent.

After all, the two peoples have no alternative but to cooperate with life.