Across The Tech Divide


For Sami Saadi and Paz Hirschmann, helping Israeli Arabs get jobs in Israel’s high-tech industries is not just about offering opportunities to underprivileged young adults. Nor is it just about helping the Arab economy or about shrinking the socioeconomic gap.

They see the mission of the nonprofit they founded, Tsofen, which means “code” in Hebrew, as helping Jewish Israelis just as much.

“When we started, it was about helping the Arab economy or helping the Arab municipalities or assisting the Arab community to integrate into Israel’s Startup Nation. I think that today, the winds are changing,” Hirschmann, who was here with Saadi recently, told The Jewish Week.

When Saadi, an Arab CPA with a long history of working with NGOs that promote Jewish-Arab coexistence, was approached about founding Tsofen 11 years ago, he said he would, on the condition that the integration be “in two directions.”

“I said: ‘It’s OK to integrate the Arab community into the high-tech [industries], but I want also to bring the high-tech industry to the Arab community. … It’s not enough that Sammy and Mohamed go working in Haifa or in Tel Aviv. We want Paz and Moshe to work in Nazareth or in Kafir Qasim,’” he said.

Bringing high-tech companies to Arab communities yields many economic returns. “Every job that we create in the high-tech field, it will create another three jobs in other services,” Saadi said. It will also bring government investments in infrastructure to Arab communities, and, perhaps most importantly, it will provide municipalities with tax income from industry, something that is currently “almost zero … very low in Arab cities,” said Hirschmann.

The severe shortage of high-tech workers makes the industry particularly receptive to the nonprofit’s mission right now. “There are 15,000 missing software developers in Israel,” Hirschmann said. “So today what we are doing actually is helping the Israeli economy to prosper and helping the startup nation keep on being the startup nation.”      Tsofen’s mission also has a political component: to bridge two groups that currently have little overlap. By integrating Israel’s high-tech sector, the nonprofit aims to foster not only coexistence but also collaboration.

A decade ago there was no industry in Arab towns, Saadi said. If Jews came to an Arab area at all, it was as tourists. But, he said, “If we bring them to work every day in the Arab towns, that’s the way that they can work together, that they can [get to] know the culture, the way of life of the Arab community. And then they can accept each other.”

Since Tsofen began a decade ago, other nonprofits have followed. Siraj: Advancing High-tech in Israel’s Bedouin Society, was founded two years ago (and featured last week in a story headlined “Tech Boomlet for Bedouins”).

A 2017 study by the Israeli Ministry of Finance found that while Israeli Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population and 17.4 percent of the country’s workforce, they hold only 1.4 percent of Israel’s high-paying tech jobs.

Tsofen addresses the problem by using mentoring and education to prepare Arab youth for the startup world, not only in terms of technical training, but also by teaching college students “soft skills” — how to write a resumé, approach a job interview and how to network, something that Israeli Jews have a significant head start on.

“The Jewish community is very much networked around technology,” Hirschmann said. “We have it in our high school, our neighborhoods [and] in the technology units in the IDF — and all of these things are not part of the Arab community. So what we are trying to do is bridge these gaps.”