The day Uri Rosenberg decided to launch his pilot program for a tech and coexistence seminar, he did not expect him to deal with such a positive environment of curiosity. "I have never had to tell the Palestinian and Israeli participants to interfere, because they wanted that dialogue to take place," he says.
Rosenberg is the co-founder and co-leader of peace seminars at Tech2Peace, a summer course that takes place in the southern Israeli city of Yeruham. A seminar on IT and conflict resolution of two weeks for 30 young aspiring entrepreneurs from Israel and the West Bank ends Friday.
Unlike other hackathons and summer tech academies, Tech2Peace hopes to promote mutual understanding between Israelis, both Jews and Arabs and Palestinians, by adding peace-building activities to its design and programming curriculum. For the entire program, participants shared common areas in a dormitory.
Omer Segal, 27, a medical student at Ben-Gurion University in Be & # 39; there Sheva and director of seminars at Tech2Peace, explains that out of the 120 applications received priority was given to those who seemed potentially to the next generation to become IT leaders ready to make difficult talks about social cohesion in Israel.
"We want to create a collaborative network of future technology leaders who support each other personally and professionally, as well as role models for coexistence in their community," she says. Launching the seminar was a challenge, say the organizers.
"Until the last moment we did not know whether permits for our participants from the West Bank would be approved or not," says Segal. "It was stressful, but we were also hopeful that it would ultimately work."
The organizers are already working on the following editions of the program and dream of one day taking participants from Gaza.
"It was a difficult but rewarding first experience", adds Rosenberg. Two girls from the West Bank had to drop out after two days because their families did not approve their visit to Israel. "But I predicted that such a thing might happen, so we continued to follow our schedule despite this minor inconvenience."
Since the beginning of the 2000s, Israel's rapid economic growth and fertile breeding ground for startups has taken the headlines and attracted the attention of investors, giving it the nickname Startup Nation.
"IT has become the best career opportunity in Israel, both socially and economically, and the best working sector in this country," says Rosenberg. "No wonder it was the ideal goal to feel integrated here."
But the technical and coexistence field has also had to deal with a problem in the last 13 years that has slowed down the peace process: the boycott, divestment and sanctioning movement, which usually presses Palestinians to prevent them from working for Israeli companies. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs recently published a study on peace from below through economic cooperation in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control.
According to some Palestinian workers mentioned in the investigation, Palestinian Authority businesses do not offer the same benefits as Israeli companies, especially economic stability – which many consider a significant part of the path to peace. The technical sector has often received special treatment with regard to BDS; it is difficult to boycott technology in comparison with, for example, academia or food producers.
From this perspective, Tech2Peace offers a unique opportunity for Palestinians to come to Israel and to discuss and understand these challenges, along with the Israeli Arabs, Bedouin and Druze, as important elements in the debate on integration. As citizens, Arab Israelis are more likely to work on integration in the workplace because they are also faced with challenges related to employment opportunities.
Talent, no background
In the past five years many social entrepreneurs have begun to recognize the potential to create companies or NGOs that would also promote coexistence and integration of Arab citizens through employment in high-tech – a first step hopefully more Palestinians from the areas at a later stage.
" This industry is a global, fast-changing environment where people look at talent, not socio-economic background, "says Sami Saadi, co-CEO of Tsofen, a non-profit organization active in Nazareth and Kafr Qasem who tries to integrate the Arab community and understanding to promote through its tech program's and startup accelerators.
"We wanted to make a model for other organizations in the field," says Saadi. "I think that the best way to bring the two communities together is not only through lectures or inspiring conversations that are quickly forgotten, but by working side-by-side at the same table."
He says that many workplaces still do not allow this encounter to happen easily, but he believes that this approach can change things for the better.
In 2008, Arab engineers accounted for only 0.5 percent of Israeli high-tech workers. While that number is 3.5 percent today, Tsofen managers are targeting at least 10 percent by 2025. Graduates from Tsofen hope that technology and entrepreneurship are the way to improve integration.
"The high-tech mindset is goal-oriented and efficient, it gives you insight into the concrete skills you can put in. The same mindset can be applied to peace talks, which is why I think tech is a great tool to start a dialogue" says Amroo Amer, an Israeli Arab from Jaffa who participated in Tsofen's accelerator with his startup Post a Thing, a student platform for sharing intellectual opinions without judgment.
"Jewish mentors who work there always wanted to help us, regardless of our background, they overlooked race and religion and showed us that a different approach to the conflict is possible," he recalls. Amer also hopes to see more similar initiatives in Tel Aviv, where he now lives while completing an MBA. Most of Israel's technical and inclusiveness centers are actually a bit further away, not in the vibrant Mediterranean city.
" We want a startup – promote nation, not just startup capital. That is why many recent initiatives have decided to spread evenly across the periphery: to have the whole country developed, not just a selected part of it, "says Asaf Brimer, CEO of Moona, a learning center for advanced technology in the Arab city of Majd al .Krum in Upper Galilee.
He opened his hub, which focuses primarily on aerospace technology, in Galilee in 2013, shocked by the poor performance of Israel in the integration of the Israeli-Arab community. "That is a high price that Israel also pays, because we miss a lot of necessary and yet overlooked talent," he says.
Brimer says that achieving a socially connected society is in the interest of Israel because it would improve its economy. "We are the only place where Jews come to a Muslim city to work," he says. "Technology is the wealth of this nation, in many ways."
& # 39; Just like we & # 39;
Back in the Negev on Tech2Peace, the next generation of technology leaders enjoyed a dinner organized as one of their nightly activities. Arab participants from East Jerusalem put on some music and showed their Israeli classmates a few dabke steps.
Talia Breuer, a 22-year-old Israeli participant who just ended her military service, said she was looking for a fun summer activity while trying to determine her future path. "I also wanted a real chance to ask the tricky questions and to hear the opinion from the first hand firsthand," she says.
"I have learned that they are exactly like us, that they want the same things, want to live with their families and live a peaceful life, which may seem obvious observations, but I feel that during my military training the whole picture was not told me, so I wanted to find unbiased answers and create my own opinion. "
Breuer agrees that technology may not be the only answer – she notes that initiatives in the fields of art, sport and health have also tried to promote coexistence – technology "motivates people because this is currently a popular and useful field. "
During the training, Breuer met Sam, one of the eight Palestinians who were accepted by the 25 applicants from the West Bank. He applied for the program because he believes that the Israeli and Palestinian economies are closely intertwined. And because IT is the heart of the Israeli economy, he wanted to study something that could help him in the future. Since graduating from a Palestinian university two years ago, he is unemployed.
This was the first time he visited Israel. Before his arrival he remembers that he was nervous: "I was afraid that my strong opinion would not be accepted because I am very loud when it comes to the defense of my people and my country."
He says the Israeli-Jewish participants respected his opinion and showed that not everyone had the same views about Zionism that he expected to defend. Finding this meant a lot to him, given that he lost good friends during the second intifada.
"I think that now more than ever, with the current situation at the border with Gaza, the signs of corruption of the current PA government and the summer tensions in the settlements, it is necessary to promote concrete initiatives such as these. which I take part in, "says Sam.
He says he is happy to meet people who still want peace, or at least want to cooperate with the Arab side – even though the new national state law seems to have built a certain difference between Jews and non-Jews in the region.
"I will bring this message back to the West Bank," he says, "where I know that unfortunately it will not always be fully accepted or understood."
Stefania D & # 39; Ignoti is a freelance journalist who covers the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Economist, The Guardian, Politico, Forbes and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @stef_dgn.