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‘For we are brothers’: Arabs, Jews in tech call for healing social rifts

Israel is ‘being tested’ and is at ‘edge of the abyss,’ says consortium of 35 VC funds and 130 startups; just as citizens fought COVID so must they fight for solidarity

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An illustrative image of solidarity at the workplace (fizkes; iStock at Getty Images)
An illustrative image of solidarity at the workplace (fizkes; iStock at Getty Images)

The bloody clashes Israel has witnessed between Arab and Jewish citizens in the past week have triggered a flurry of responses in the tech, business and healthcare world.

Leaders, both Jewish and Arab, from these sectors have issued statements expressing their commitment to a country that treats everyone equally under the law and calling for “healing Israeli society,” just as the nation has been largely cured from the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

Tensions between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities spiraled into mob violence in ethnically mixed communities over the past week, turning cities into veritable war zones, with police failing to contain the most serious internal unrest to grip the country in years.

A Jewish man in Lod died of his injuries after a brick was hurled at his head during the riots and several other people, Jews and Arabs, were seriously injured in shootings and beatings during the unrest, which has mostly subsided this week.

A firefighter is seen on the streets of the central city of Lod amid ongoing unrest, May 12, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“These days, Israeli society is being tested and we are at the edge of the abyss,” said the 35 Israel-based VC funds and 130 startups that make up the Power in Diversity initiative, which was set up four years ago to bring sidelined communities such as Arabs, ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian and others into the tech ecosystem.

“We have two options ahead of us: accept that we are a diverse society and rejoice in the beauty of that diversity or continue to demonize those who are different and decline into hate and violence,” the consortium said in a statement.

“We have no choice but to see these times as an opportunity for change — for the silent majority to disrupt the status quo, to take back the agenda from the extremes in our society,” the statement, which was published on social media in English, Hebrew and Arabic by the steering committee of Power in Diversity. Among the funds included in the initiative are Viola, Pitango, Qumra, Glilot, Vintage Investment Partners and 2B Angels.

“We, the undersigned members of the high-tech community, restate our commitment to building a country where every person, no matter what religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, has equality of opportunity, equal treatment under the law, the respect of both their political leaders and their neighbors and the freedom to go anywhere without the fear of abuse or violence,” the statement continues. “We commit to working with anyone from any community to make this country a light unto the nations that it can be and should be.”

“There is going to be a tomorrow after this conflict,” said Alan Feld, a Canadian-Israeli founder and managing partner of Vintage Investment Partners who set up the Power in Diversity initiative.

Alan Feld, a Canadian-Israeli founder and managing partner of Vintage Investment Partners (Courtesy)

“The way to overcome the conflict is the workforce, one of the few places where people from all communities work together, meet in a positive environment, and work together for a common goal,” Feld said in a phone interview. “Interaction allows people to break down barriers, build understanding, trust, respect.”

Feld said that Power in Diversity initiative has been working for years to help tech firms and VC funds recruit employees from diverse communities and overcome inbuilt biases, of which employers may not even be aware. The way forward, he said, is to intensify efforts to help people from different communities work together.

“We can’t wait for politicians and for our leadership to solve this problem because they are not doing it,” he said. At the end of the day, he said, success will come from grassroots efforts.

The events that unfolded over the past week have been a “wake-up call,” he said. “If we don’t solve this problem, if we don’t figure out a way to bring people together, this could become and small example of a much deeper problem.”

Healing the rift

Similarly, a group of Arab and Jewish professionals from Israel’s healthcare ecosystem — members of academia and the tech sector, and clinicians and physicians — have issued a statement of purpose called “Breaking the Barriers,” in English, Hebrew and Arabic, calling on the Israeli public to heal the wounds of society.

“We, women and men from across healthcare systems, medical research and the health-tech industry in Israel, a group that bridges across communities, societies and religions, call on the Israeli public to stand up against acts of incitement, violence and hatred and turn to healing the wounds,” the statement published on social media platform reads.

“We, who live the Arab-Jewish co-existence on a daily basis at the hospitals, clinics, research labs and Health-Tech companies, know that the alternative we live by is possible, as most citizens of this country know.

“In the past year we fought side by side against the COVID pandemic and prevailed, together. Now, all of us — Jews, Muslims, Christians, and those of other faiths — must act again together out of equality, respect and true partnership, to restore the peace and personal security for all. In the healthcare sector thוs is already a living and breathing reality. Let us make it so in all areas of life. For we are brothers.”

Dr. Tuvik Beker, CEO of precision oncology startup Pangea Therapeutics and co-founder of MedAware, a startup that helps reduce prescription errors (Courtesy)

The initiative was started by Dr. Tuvik Beker, CEO of precision oncology startup Pangea Therapeutics and co-founder of MedAware, a startup that helps reduce prescription errors.

Beker is part of the 8400 Network of healthcare professionals, investors, VC funds, startups, hospitals, academics, and the public sector who seek to make health-tech and bio-convergence the new growth engine for the Israeli economy.

“When I saw the violence last week, I wrote a post on the 8400 Network’s WhatsApp group, with some 200 members, saying that just as our joint effort is to heal, the most pressing mission now is to heal the horrible ruptures that are happening between Jews and Arabs in our country,” Beker said in a phone interview. “The post drew a lot of attention from within and outside the 8400 Network, and led to our call for action.”

In addition, the initiative has started creating a set of video interviews in which Jewish and Arab members of the healthcare and health-tech sector talk about their experiences of working together, their hopes and difficulties and how to make the vision of coexistence a reality, Beker said.

“The aim is to show Israeli society that there is an alternative,” Beker said. “We can forge a mutual life here together for mutual prosperity. And this is especially important when hatred is literally flowing in the streets.”

The Breaking the Barriers initiative was also hoping to hold a joint parade of Jewish and Arab hospital workers, but it has been put on hold because many were concerned they’d face retaliation. But the initiative has set out plans to help empower hospital leaders and company heads to “foster constructive dialogue” with workers from diverse backgrounds, to help “bring dialogue to the forefront, and make everyone feel safe to bring up disturbing issues,” he said.

In a text message posted among the members of the initiative, Dr. Abed Agbarya, head of the Oncology Institute at Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa, wrote that rather than a civil war, as it is being described by the media, what is happening on Israel’s streets is a “gang war” among groups that have “infested the streets on both sides.”

“We have been living together for over seventy years, with ups and downs, but have never crossed the red line that has been crossed this time and the reason is the entering of criminal players into the line. Arabs and Jews have been partners in building the state in all spheres, and today no person or group can take that away or erase it.”

Arabs today continue “to build and strengthen the country in all spheres: medicine, academia, high-tech, industry and construction. We play an active role in every field and area in the country and have great ambitions to move forward, connect deeper and make an impact.”

Dr. Abed Agbarya, the head of the Oncology Institute at Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa (Courtesy)

And just as Israel as a society “managed to lead the way out of the COVID crisis, and so too will we find a way to emerge forward, even stronger together, from this crisis.”

On Tuesday, several Jewish settlement councils and right-wing organizations said they were cutting ties with major telecommunications company Cellcom, after the company halted work for an hour to protest Jewish-Arab mob violence in Israel in the past week.

Also on Tuesday, Erel Margalit, the chairman of venture capital fund JVP, and Salim Jaber, head of the Abu Ghosh local council, convened a meeting of Jewish and Arab high-tech and social entrepreneurs for a joint demonstration calling for connection and cooperation between the communities and against violence, division and incitement. On May 26 a conference will be held in Jerusalem for dozens of startup entrepreneurs from Jewish and Arab parts of the city to promote cooperation, JVP said in a statement.

“Halas, Enough,” was the message in Arabic and Hebrew sent out by leading firms in Israel, and published on social media by the Economics Social Forum. “We can fix the cracks, we can rebuild from the shrapnel. This is our mission,” the message said.

Samer Haj Yehia, Bank Leumi Le-Israel’s first Arab chairman of the board, joined forces with CEO Hanan Friedman in a video message in Hebrew and Arabic, calling for tolerance, consideration, giving and peace.

Reem Younis, a co-founder of Nazareth-based medical device company Alpha Omega, said that just as doctors look at patients and seek their safety and health, so can the group of medical professionals who are part of the Breaking the Barriers initiative come up with ways to promote good values in society. As a Palestinian Israeli citizen, she said, she identifies with the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. “Many of us have families there,” she said. “And this is an important issue that the Jewish community is not able to internalize.”

“My goal in joining this initiative is to promote equality fairness and close the gap between the communities,” said Younis, who is not part of the 8400 Network but joined the Breaking the Barriers initiative.

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