Opinion |

Israel, the Driverless Nation

This week’s milestone for Israeli technology was also a reminder that Israel is increasingly divided into a high-tech elite and those who have no way in.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Mobileye President & CEO Ziv Aviramon, CFO Ofer Maharshak, and Chairman Amnon Shashua, prepare to ring a ceremonial bell as their company's IPO begins trading, on the floor of the NYSE, Aug. 1, 2014.
Mobileye President & CEO Ziv Aviramon, CFO Ofer Maharshak, and Chairman Amnon Shashua, prepare to ring a ceremonial bell as their company's IPO begins trading, on the floor of the NYSE, Aug. 1, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Take a look at the pictures of the jubilant faces of the employees of Mobileye being told this week that that their tech company had just been purchased by Intel to the tune of $15.3 billion. Not one of them walks or even takes a bike to work. Mobileye, on Mount Hotzvim in northwest Jerusalem, is bordered on all sides by Haredi neighborhoods. Ramat Shlomo to the north, Sanhedria to the east and Kiryat Belz, Kiryat Sanz and Ezrat Torah to the south. Encircled by the tenement blocks and yeshivas that make up the bulk of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox population - the engineers and software developers of Mobileye commute each day to work from the west, arriving via Golda Meir Boulevard. During the day they either eat at their desks or go out for lunch in the restaurants within the high-tech park. They couldn’t be further away from the hundred thousand men, women and children who live around them.

One day in the not too distant future, when the Mobileye team arrive in a fleet of autonomous vehicles, browsing their tablets and sipping cappuccinos while the Intel chips they’ve designed navigate them swiftly and safely to work, they won’t even notice the homes on the opposite ridge where people living a very different culture to theirs reside. Two very different Israels in separate centuries.

This week I asked a friend who worked closely with Mobileye’s co-founder, Professor Amnon Shashua, about the divide between the company and its neighbors. “Amnon is actually very supportive of the various initiatives to help Haredim find work in the tech sector,” he said. “But it’s pointless to expect they’ll find work in Mobileye.” Thousands of young Haredi men and women are now training as computer programmers in a string of colleges set up around the country, and they are beginning to work their way in to some tech firms. But few if any of them fit the profile of what Mobileye is looking for: developers with advanced degrees from Israel’s top universities who can work at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence and advanced sensor integration.

At the end of the day, no matter how bright and motivated you are, without the kind of scientific education and engineering experience that begins in high school and continues with IDF service in an elite technological unit and then a couple of university degrees, there’s only so much you can do. There are plenty of companies that can employ Haredim as programmers and technicians and some are gradually doing so. As willing as potential employers may become, the barriers to the best jobs and most advanced companies will remain as long as a more significant change does not take place within the Haredi community and in Israel as a whole.

Both the rabbinical and political leadership of the Haredi community have steadfastly opposed all attempts by successive governments to make all Haredi schools teach even a very basic set of core subjects, including mathematics and English. This government is not even trying. Two weeks ago it boosted the budget for Haredi yeshivas to a record 1.22 billion shekels ($336 million). That’s only two percent of the sum Intel paid for Mobileye, but it’s enough to sustain an upward trend in the yeshivas budgets’ and dissuade more Haredi men from joining the workforce at an earlier age.

There is a limit to the amount of lost time than can be made up when you start your technological education in your mid-twenties at the earliest. Some Haredi parents understand this and the tiny handful of high schools combining ultra-religious learning with math and science are in high demand, but it’s still a drop in the ocean. And Yam Ha’torah - the Sea of Torah - is not the only ocean into which Israel’s tech river does not flow.

Tech doesn't bring peace

Beyond the Haredi neighborhoods surrounding Mobileye is another ring of communities - Beit Hanina, Shoafat and Anata, which are all easy commuting distance as the crow flies, on another planet as far as working in Har Hotzvim is concerned.

When the Israeli tech boom was just starting in the early 1990s, the Rabin-Peres government of the time claimed that the early successes of Israeli technology companies were proof that Israel was “opening up to the world” through the Oslo peace process. The fact that the boom has been going on despite global crises and recessions for over two decades, while the peace process has bogged down and stagnated, has instead become a justification for Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing not to make any concessions to the Palestinians. The world will still come knocking at Israel’s door. Forget international pariahdom and BDS – the world wants driverless cars and the Palestinians can go to hell.

If it wasn’t fully clear yet, tech doesn’t bring peace. It doesn’t even bring widespread social mobility. The startup-nation myth of young Israelis developing an app in their parents’ basement and going on to sell it for millions only extends to those who had the good fortune to be born in the right Israeli community. Tech doesn’t always tear down barriers. In Israel it has often, too, created new elites and then emphasized how far other communities are from joining them.

There is hope yet. Dire predictions of the shortage of qualified tech workers in the coming decades, coupled with deep changes within the Haredi and Palestinian societies, could create the conditions for both communities’ integration. But it’s not the job of the tech entrepreneurs to be creating those conditions. They’re busy developing their technology and building their companies. It’s the job of the political leadership.

Netanyahu takes the kudos for the latest multi-billion acquisition of an Israeli company, hosting Intel’s CEO for a photo op. Meanwhile his government is doing nothing to make sure that broad parts of society can start up themselves. For political survival he is collaborating with the Haredi leadership to deny another generation scientific education. To appease his right-wing ministers he delays and depletes budgets to improve the integration of the Arab community. In the long-term this could harm the tech sector as well – as the next Mobileye will have a shrinking potential reservoir of talent to draw upon. Israel may become the country that will develop the autonomous vehicle, but for now it is a driverless nation.

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