[Tira, Israel] – The gel in his hair, the designer jeans and ironed button down shirt make Aziz Kaden look like any of the thousands of high-tech workers in Israel. But until recently, he was the only Arab at E4D Mobile in the town of Petach Tikva, a suburb of Tel Aviv not far from Ben Gurion International Airport.
“I enjoy exchanging cultural knowledge with my co-workers, and we even go out for beer sometimes,” Kaden, told The Media Line. “But it gets uncomfortable when politics comes up. We usually don’t share the same political opinions.”
At age 20, Kaden has been a software engineer at the company for five months at an age when most of his Jewish contemporaries are still doing their compulsory military service. He attended an accelerated program at Haifa University and says he feels very comfortable in Hebrew—probably from watching a lot of television, he says.
When he completed his studies, Kaden turned to Tsofen High Technology Centers, a non-profit organization that is trying to get more Arab citizens of Israel into the high-tech sector. While Arab citizens make up 20 percent of Israel’s population, there are only about 1,200 Arab software engineers among Israel’s 80,000 high-tech workers.
“There are multiple obstacles [to Arabs joining the high-tech sector],” Roni Floman, who has recently written a book on the subject and volunteers at Tsofen told The Media Line. “Many Arabs live in villages that are fairly segregated. They study at school in Arabic so they don’t speak Hebrew well. They’re not that connected to the local [Jewish] culture and economy. In many cases, looking for a job, apart from university studies, is the first contact they have with Israeli society.”
Floman says some companies won’t even interview Arabs out of concern that their skill level won’t be high enough or they won’t integrate into the company. Other candidates are turned down because of cultural issues.
“Someone told me that she was flummoxed by the fact that people showed up with family members for interviews, or told her that his mother was waiting in the car below,” she said. “That is very legitimate in Arab society. It doesn’t signify any personal problem but is very uncommon in a Western culture.”
There can also be security barriers. Some high-tech companies work on military or defense projects and hire only those who have served in the Israeli army. While most Jewish Israelis are drafted, Arab Israelis can volunteer to serve. However, very few do.
Tsofen offers short courses for high-tech graduates on interview skills and acts as a go-between with various companies. There is a shortage of engineers in high-tech, Smader Nehab, executive director and co-founder of the organization tells The Media Line. There is no reason that Arab engineers cannot fill these positions.
“High tech is a major driving force for the Jewish economy,” she said. “It can also be the engine of growth for the Arab economy and contribute to the Israeli economy in general.”
Hasan Abo-Shally, 22, has just started a new job as a web/mobile developer and designer at Kola Technologies B.V. in Tel Aviv.
For a year, he worked as one of five engineers at an all-Arab start-up called iNorSoft in Umm-el-Fahm, near his home.
“As a startup it was hard to raise money,” he told The Media Line. “Here people see us as Arabs, but in the outside world, especially the Arab world, we are seen as Israelis. It’s hard to get investment from the Arab world.”
The company still hasn’t managed to raise enough capital to expand.
He says he enjoys the multi-cultural character of his new company, which has several workers from Vietnam and China. “I am exposed to different cultures and it’s fun,” he said. “We sit together during breaks and we learn about each other.”
Abo-Shally is also participating in entrepreneurship courses in Nazareth and Tel Aviv, and he and a few friends are working on a new mobile application on weekends.
Nehab says her 10-year goal is to have 10,000 high-tech workers in the sector. In the past three years, the numbers have grown from 300 to 1,200.
Tsofen also wants to bring more Arab women into the workforce. Only about 27 percent of Israel’s Arab women work outside the home, as compared to over 70 percent of Jewish women. In addition, the public transportation system in Arab areas of the country is far inferior to those on the Jewish side.
Tsofen’s solution is to bring the jobs to the women, encouraging hi-tech companies to open call centers for customer support in local villages. They are also encouraging joint Israeli-Arab industrial parks in Arab cities. The first park opened recently in Nazareth in northern Israel, funded primarily by wealthy Israeli industrialist Stef Wertheimer. The international telecommunication company Amdocs has opened a branch in Nazareth, and is employing hundreds of Arab engineers.
“By starting industry in Nazareth we broke strong stereotypes such as that an Arab city cannot be a high-tech center,” Nehab said. “It also changes the direction of traffic from being only from Arab bedroom cities to Jewish industrial areas. We are starting to see Jews coming from other places to work in Nazareth.”
The project is also subsidized by the Israeli government, and land in Israel’s “periphery” is far cheaper than in Tel Aviv.
Tsofen is also partially funded by the European Union, as part of its Partnership for Peace Program in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
“This is a real practical link helping Israeli Arabs find jobs and helping Jewish employers find the employees they need,” David Kriss, the press and information manager of the Delegation of the European Union to the State of Israel told The Media Line. “It is putting Jews and Arabs together in a productive environment.”
Kaden says he believes he shares a lot with his Jewish co-workers.
“In the end, we all sit in front of a computer all day and do this,” he says, miming typing. “I think both Arabs and Jews have a lot of stereotypes about each other. But if you put us together in one room, and let them share their stories, I get to understand you and you understand me.”