Tsofen, a 10-year-old nonprofit company that aspires to integrate Israeli Arabs into Israel’s high-tech sector, has an unusual business plan: It wants to become obsolete within the next decade. While the company’s name is playful—tsofen means “code” in Hebrew and alludes to both cracking the code to a shared society in Israel as well as computer coding—its goals are substantial.
Co-CEOs Sami Saadi and Paz Hirschmann were recently in Boston presenting Tsofen’s business strategy and social vision to CJP and local family foundations. The men sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with JewishBoston about Tsofen’s successes and its future.
Saadi, a Palestinian, is one of Tsofen’s three cofounders. A CPA with a practice in Nazareth, he has been involved in Arab-Israeli dialogue for over 20 years. “We need to move from coexistence to collaboration, and Tsofen is the way we build a shared society with equal economic rights,” he noted.
Hirschmann came to Tsofen after a change in professional focus. Hirschmann, who had a thriving career in high-tech and Israeli start-ups, brought his skills to the social justice arena. He pursued a certificate in social leadership at the Mandel Institute in Jerusalem. From there he went to Tsofen, where he has been for over eight years. “I wanted to leverage my knowledge of the high-tech industry to create a more just and equal society between Arabs and Jews in Israel,” Hirschmann said. “We live with a systematic separation, including separate cities and educational systems. We first want to integrate the workforce, which will have a trickle-down effect to Arab schools.”
Added Saadi: “At Tsofen we believe we can achieve full integration of the Arab community into Israeli industry. Most important to us is to build up a high-tech industry in Arab communities. From the beginning that has been our vision and our strategy.” Tsofen’s literature echoes Saadi’s bold assertion. A company handout notes the organization is “driven by a vision of a shared society [where] we aim for a fair representation of Arabs in Israel’s booming high-tech industry. Our mission is to integrate Arabs into Israel’s high-tech sector and to bring high-tech firms to Arab cities.”
As the two CEOs laid out a vision of creating three high-tech centers in northern, central and southern locations in Israel, they also painted a picture of the reality on the ground. According to Tsofen’s research, 54 percent of Arabs in Israel live in poverty. The average income of Arab Israelis is 50 percent of that of a typical Israeli Jewish family. Tsofen’s goal is to improve those numbers through educational opportunities.
“We are 20 percent of the population,” Saadi pointed out. “There is an advanced Jewish economy, but not the same economy on the other side. Israel is fourth in the world for high-tech, but yet we have few engineers working from the Arab population.”
Over the course of a decade, Tsofen has moved the needle on those numbers by exposing over 4,000 high-school students in 80 Arab schools across Israel to careers in high-tech. There has also been an initiative to introduce young Israeli Arab women to STEM-related subjects. As a result, 800 undergraduate Israeli Arab students have completed 37 technological courses. Saadi said that in 2008, when Tsofen was founded, there were just 300 Arab engineers working in high-tech in Israel. With assiduous work on Tsofen’s part for the past decade, that number has jumped to 6,000.
While the social justice consequences of those numbers are impressive, Hirschmann emphasized: “Tsofen’s perspective is very business-oriented. We work and market to companies with the idea of opening up a branch in an Arab city or hiring more high-tech Arab employees. We don’t do that work from a social perspective, but from a business one. There is a lot of business wisdom to be gained by opening branches of companies like Intel, Google or Amdocs in Arab cities. By doing this we advance our social vision. But it’s important to note that nobody is doing us a favor by opening a branch in Nazareth—it’s the right thing to do, business-wise. Advancing a shared society is a wonderful bonus.”
Both men note that the high-tech operation in Nazareth marks a first in Israel’s history where Jews have commuted to work in an Arab community. “It’s also the first time that the Arab community has equality in the high-tech industry,” said Saadi. “This is a model of the kind of collaboration we are working toward.”
Twelve-hundred Israeli Arab and Jewish engineers are already working in shared space at a high-tech facility in Nazareth. “We want to change the direction so the Jewish community works in high-tech centers based in Arab communities,” Saadi said. “Then we will really have a shared and just society, and the Arab community can be part of the ‘Start-Up Nation.’”
In 2015, the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body, awarded Tsofen a “Quality of Life Prize.” In 2018 the Israeli government allocated about $6 million to develop high-tech parks in two Arab cities. More funding for Tsofen comes from philanthropy, which includes U.S. governmental foundations that support economic development and conflict mitigation, as well as family foundations and Jewish federations. The Israeli government funds 30 percent of Tsofen’s annual budget of $2.5 million, and 10 percent of that budget is self-generated income.
“For years,” said Saadi, “the Arab community wasn’t educated in high-tech. We didn’t know the industry. Through Tsofen, we’ve opened the door for them. Success stories are starting to happen.”