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January 16, 2019 5:04 am

Meet the Two Most Optimistic People in the Entire Middle East

avatar by Ira Stoll

Paz Hirschmann (L) and Sami Saadi (R), joint co-CEOs of Tsofen, at the Awarding Ceremony of the Abraham Fund Initiatives Shared Life Award, 2018. Photo: Abraham Fund Initiatives.

“You are sitting here, probably, with the two most optimistic people probably in the entire Middle East,” says Sami Saadi, co-founder of Tsofen, an organization working to better integrate Israeli Arabs into Israel’s high-tech sector.

He’s speaking about himself and his co-CEO Paz Hirschmann.

In the Middle East, such optimism often collides unpleasantly with reality and is revealed as naiveté.

In Tsofen’s case, though, the results have been concrete and impressive. A decade ago, there were perhaps 300 Arab engineers or software engineers among the 140,000 such jobs in Israel’s high-tech workforce. Today there are 6,000. “It’s a huge difference,” Saadi says.

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More than 100 Israeli startups are either co-founded or co-owned by both Arabs and Jews, Hirschmann says.

Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed legislation allocating 25 million shekels, or about $6.8 million, to establish the first two high-tech parks in Israel’s Arab areas. “For us, it’s a historic decision,” Saadi says.

With support from Israel’s education ministry, part of the organization’s work has been exposing students in Arab high schools to the possibility of high-tech careers. Students and teachers at the schools tour Google in Tel Aviv and Facebook in Haifa. Tsofen — “code” in Hebrew — also hosts workshops for parents, who are influential in students’ choices.

Once students reach college, Tsofen sponsors externships in which Arab students in tech fields learn “soft skills” such as networking, resume-writing, and how to behave in a job interview.

A wind at the effort’s back has been the strong demand for tech workers in Israel’s economy. “The demand works on our side, the demand in the market,” Hirschmann says.

The group’s efforts were recognized in 2015 with an award from the speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Yuli Edelstein. And they’ve attracted funding from the Israeli government, the US State Department, and American Jewish donors and federations.

But they’ve also met occasional resistance. Saadi says his friends sometimes ask him what he’s doing, helping to improve Israel’s international image by hosting visitors from around the world and telling them about the group’s progress. “I’m not ashamed,” Saadi says. “Some people like to speak old history. Some people, like me and Paz, like to create new history.”

Next on the horizon, Hirschmann says he hopes, is a “big collaboration” between Tsofen and other groups that are working to integrate two other historically underrepresented groups into the high-tech workforce — Israelis of Ethiopian descent and fervently Orthodox Jews.

One Tsofen volunteer, Abed Asi, has a Ph.D. in computer science from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In his work at Microsoft’s research and development center in Herzliya, Israel, he is working on teaching machines to analyze video images to detect human emotion — a kind of “feelings recognition” that can, as a Microsoft blog post explains, find four cross-cultural emotional states: “anger, fear, joy, and sadness.”

You don’t need to be a Ph.D. computer scientist or high-powered artificial intelligence software to understand what Sadi and Hirschmann feel about a program that emerged in part as a response to violent riots by Arab Israelis in October 2000 that were met with a deadly response by Israeli police.

“Now the Arab community is so proud,” Sadi says. “We open the door for them.”

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