Israel’s high-tech prowess has been receiving major recognition in recent weeks, most recently by US president Barack Obama, who praised Israeli innnovations as “inspiring” during a recent visit.
Israeli leaders showed the American president advances in robotics, search and rescue, and alternative energy and introduced him to Saeed Kharouf, an Arab engineer from computer chip giant Intel. Mr Kharouf told the president he aspires to become company CEO.
Despite such photo opportunities, diversity is far from being the forte of Israel’s tech sector. Just 1.4 per cent of Israel’s 85,000 high-tech workers – who, as a group, command the highest salaries in the country, come from the Arab minority, which makes up 20 per cent of the population.
The explanation an Israeli tech company recently gave Farid Abu Salih, an Arab citizen, for cancelling its offer of employment was brief. “Changed the profile,” he was told.
Mr Abu Salih, who holds a degree in computer science from a college in northern Israel, speculates that there was another reason. He told The Scotsman: “There is no way of knowing, but the feeling is that this was because I’m Arab.”
Israeli Jewish tech industry observers use the word “homogeneity” in describing its demographic state. Amir Teig, high tech editor for the economic newspaper The Marker, stresses that much of the problem stems from the “friend brings a friend” method of hiring, which is prevalent in the sector. Team leaders choose people they know from the army, high school or university. This leaves out Arabs and also ultra-orthodox Jews, he says.
An effort backed by the UK and Israeli governments is under way to help Arabs break the barrier. Tsofen, a Jewish-Arab non-profit organisation in Galilee is working to increase the percentage by providing further skills, coaching and connections to Arab job applicants.
At stake is the ability of the Arab minority to overcome poverty and to achieve equality with Israeli Jews, Tsofen’s directors say. The British embassy in Tel Aviv and the London-based Portland Trust that promotes economic development as a spur to Israeli-Palestinian peace, are among Tsofen’s financial supporters.
It is in Tsofen’s modest offices, located among car repair shops in the Nazareth Industrial Zone, that the Israeli Arab high-tech breakthrough plan has been conceived.
Spokeswoman Makbula Nassar said there have been changes for the better on the part of companies and the government since the group started its work four years ago. The number of Arabs getting jobs in the industry has grown from 350 to 1,200 in that period, she says.
About 80 per cent of graduates from Tsofen’s three-month course find work and 100 jobs have been created by the opening with government support of a branch in Nazareth of Israeli high-tech firm Amdocs Nassar
“There are a lot of companies with zero Arabs but there are also companies with an open approach that want diversity. We have found genuine partners who do want to broaden”, Ms Nassar says.
Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the government has an “affirmative action” policy on hiring and “actively supports efforts to encourage greater Arab participation in the high-tech workforce”.