There are many reasons to increase career opportunities for Israel’s female Arab citizens in its burgeoning high-tech workforce. Growing Arab women’s stake in the start-up nation will not only help them and their families out of poverty, but will also help fill a drastic shortfall of engineers in the Jewish state.
That was the message of Ramzi Halabi, chairman, and Paz Hirschmann, co-CEO, of Tsofen, an Israeli nonprofit with the mission of increasing the presence of Israeli Arabs in Israel’s tech sector. Halabi, who is Druze, and Hirschmann, who is Jewish, spoke last Thursday at a lunch and learn sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Women’s Philanthropy, the Jewish Women’s Foundation and the National Council of Jewish Women at the Center for Women in Squirrel Hill. The men were in town following presentations at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Washington, D.C., earlier in the week.
Halabi, who is also the former mayor of Dalyat Karmel, the largest Druze town in Israel, told the group that the economic success spurred by Israel’s tech boom “must be shared with all the population of Israel.”
Although Arabs account for 21 percent of Israel’s citizenry, they currently contribute only 8 percent to its gross domestic product, and although Israel’s overall poverty rate is 21 percent, Arabs are disproportionately affected, with a poverty rate of 54 percent.
The Arab community faces several disadvantages, Halabi said, including the fact that the majority does not serve in the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF, he said, is one of the “incubators” of tech society. Also, because most Arabs do not live in the business hubs of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, they have less access to high tech jobs.
Arab women face even more challenges, he said. Only 32 percent of Arab women are in the workforce, and because of cultural prohibitions, they are often not permitted to work outside their own communities, further limiting their opportunities.
While Tsofen provides training, mentoring and placement to help recent Arab graduates gain the skills they need to succeed in the Israeli job market, the organization is placing a particular emphasis on the training of Arab women.
“If the men and women both work,” Halabi projected, “there will be a decline in poverty from 54 percent to 10 percent.”
Arab workers in Israel currently earn about 65 percent of what Jewish workers earn, Halabi said. That discrepancy, he said, is not due to discrimination, but to the types of employment common among Arabs.
“Arabs traditionally work in low-paid branches of the economy,” he explained. “But when we have more Arab engineers working in high tech, they will somehow feel they are part of the Israeli miracle economy.”
In 2016, 46 percent of Israel’s export product came from the tech sector, Hirschmann said, and Tsofen is aiming to increase the number of Arab engineers working in the industry to 10,000 by the year 2025.
Tsofen is encouraging high tech companies to open industry branches in Arab cities or to outsource work to those Arab cities, Hirschmann said. Having high-tech jobs in their own communities will make it possible for Arab women to be hired by those companies.
Arab women are being drawn more and more to high-tech, according to Hirschmann. Of the 900 engineers working in the Arab city of Nazareth, 25 percent are women.
“This is huge,” he said, adding that 60 percent of Arab high school students in STEM programs are girls.
“The good news,” Hirschman said, “is that Israel high-tech in the last two years is becoming more aware of the untapped talent in the Arab community, especially among women.”
While there is a current shortage of 6,000 engineers in the Israeli high-tech industry, Hirschmann continued, that shortage is expected to grow to 10,000 in the next two to three years.
Arab women could fill many of those spots, and Tsofen is helping to prepare Arab women to do just that. Tsofen holds workshops that are geared especially to Arab women in addition to the tech events and conferences that are open to Jews and Arab men as well.
“We want 25 percent of our graduates to be Arab women,” Hirschmann said.
Tsofen is working to bring about a “culture change” in Arab Israeli society, said Halabi. “Like the Jewish society, we are putting high-tech at the center of Arab society.”
Andrea Glickman, the executive director of NCJW, Pittsburgh Section, was impressed with the work of Tsofen.
“It’s exciting to see there are organizations in Israel that are working to support all people in the population, and to help provide access to meaningful employment opportunities,” Glickman said.
The work that Tsofen is doing in Israel is aligned with the missions of the three women’s organizations that got together for the lunch and learn, according to Judy Greenwald Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation.
“All of our organizations focus some way on women and girls,” she said. “You don’t always hear about what’s happening in Israel, and about the marginalized women in the state of Israel. I thought it was important to educate our community on these issues.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.