Global Matters: Nazareth today

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Most of us think of Nazareth, the boyhood home of Jesus, as a quaint little village in an idealized diorama of the Holy Land.

Nowadays, however, it’s a bustling, hot and dusty city in which a cacophony of car horns, buses and construction equipment assaults the ears while shopping malls dot the surrounding hillsides.

The overwhelming majority of Nazareth’s 65,000 residents are Arabs. Neighboring cities and smaller municipalities in the vicinity comprise an agglomeration that exceeds 200,000, of which nearly 60 percent are Arab Israeli citizens.

Overall, Israel’s Arab sector comprises some 1.4 million citizens. Most live in the north or around Jerusalem, and, by and large, live lives separate and apart from the Jewish majority, and certainly far removed from the much ballyhooed technology boom that has catapulted Israel to the highest rankings in global research and development.

For most visitors to Israel, too, whether tourists or high-tech entrepreneurs, Israel’s Arab citizens are seen, if at all, in the background.

A recent study revealed that while Israel’s Arab citizens comprise 20 percent of the population, they account for only 8 percent of the gross national product. Whether owing to lack of opportunity, discrimination, internal cultural pressures, geography or a combination of these factors, the fact remains that the Arab sector is “underperforming” economically in relation to its numbers and its capacity.

Unless one clings to the truly untenable belief that Arabs are somehow constitutionally ill-suited to high-tech success, it’s clear that there is something seriously wrong with this picture.

In fact the continuing economic disparity between Israel’s majority and Arab populations has long been a troubling condition and a festering source of discontent. In recent years, however, a number of initiatives have been undertaken that may finally help generate the kind of economic opportunity and encourage the kind of social mobility that will not only help create a foundation for future prosperity, but help to promote a level of security, based on opportunity, that can change the face of the nation.

There are dynamic organizations in Israel working to bridge the opportunity gap, but of particular interest in the current environment, in which Israel’s admirers proudly refer to her as “Start-up Nation,” is a technology incubator in Nazareth, where, for Christians, the greatest story ever told has its roots.

It is true that Israel boasts more technology start-up ventures, per capita, than any country in the world, and the most, in absolute numbers, of any country except the United States. Israel also has more Ph.D.’s per capita than any country in the world, and publishes more scientific papers per capita than any country in the world. Israelis hold more patents per capita than any nation in the world.

But left behind in this dynamic technology environment are Israel’s Arab high-tech entrepreneurs. They do not benefit from lifelong networks formed by military service in the Israeli Defense Forces, since, if they serve, they are seldom admitted to elite units. Nor, if they venture out of predominantly Arab cities, are they offered positions in leading technology companies.

Enter the NGT (“New Generation Technologies”) Incubator in Nazareth. Founded (and funded) by Israeli Arab entrepreneurs and the government Office of the Chief Scientist, NGT today houses some 18 start-up ventures, most in the life sciences, headed by Arab and Jewish entrepreneurs, as well as some companies with joint management and ownership.

Entrepreneurs admitted to the incubator benefit from grants, investor and management networks, lab facilities and an environment conducive to collaboration. Arab and Jewish scientists and technology developers work side by side, confronting on a daily basis many of the challenges that the nation faces as a whole, but overcoming them where possible by a shared focus on science, research and, one hopes, profit.

NGT is not a panacea, of course, and Arab technology entrepreneurs continue to face challenges. One shared her frustration (“A degree in physics from Technion, and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Ben Gurion … and not a single job interview”) with me, while another said, “I hate to disappoint you, but as a M.D. and a Ph.D., I have had no problems whatsoever in Israel.”

The truth, as always, is complex, and in future columns I will further detail efforts to nurture Israel’s Arab high-tech sector.

It’s interesting to note that among the many Jewish Israelis with whom I spoke regarding the economic situation in the country, I found unanimity: Israel will be a better, more secure and more prosperous society if it can foster an Arab high-tech entrepreneurial class.

Achieving unanimity in Israel on any point – especially one concerning the need to bolster Arabs economically – is noteworthy in itself.

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Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe.