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Nael Haddad’s electrical engineering degree from the Haifa Technion promised to open doors to Israel’s growing high-tech sector. But many of those doors remained closed to him because he is an Arab.
“It was 2003, the height of the intifada. It was very tense, very tough times,” Mr Haddad recalls. Jewish technology professionals, especially veterans of military computer units, eschewed coexistence niceties as victims died in suicide bombings. “There was a lot of anti-Arab sentiment. Sometimes I just wanted to give up.”
But Mr Haddad persisted. “I believe in coexistence and I believe that if it’s challenging, it’s interesting. I felt this was the way I could make an impact.”
Now he is the first Arab-Palestinian citizen of Israel, as he defines himself, accepted to the Sloan School of Management MBA programme at MIT. In March he brought 26 MIT students to Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Ramallah as joint leader of a week-long study tour to discover if businesses can promote coexistence in a dispute as deep and protracted as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We are coming here to talk about business that solves problems,” says Mr Haddad. “If we can have people working together on a larger scale and get to know each other and try to accept each other, I think it can make a big change ... it’s preparing the ground, preparing the people to live together and to coexist.”
Mr Haddad, with students from Israel, South Korea, Brazil and the US, created The Private Sector and Positive Societal Externalities, a course of five seminars that explored the background to the conflict, plus the field trip.
“MIT has a long commitment to what we call action learning,” says Roberta Pittore, a senior lecturer at Sloan, who supervised the seminars and accompanied the trip. “Part of our mission at MIT is improving the world. There are many things that a business can do that are a positive influence to the community.
“If by some magic the conflict was resolved, then how do you resolve the interpersonal conflict of generations of people who have been brought up separately?” she asks.
The focus of the trek was companies trying to break down the barriers that Mr Haddad encountered as a member of the country’s Arab minority, one-fifth of the population.
The students met Cisco executives who are leading cross-community initiatives and entrepreneurs in Haifa and Nazareth engaged in developing the Israeli-Arab tech sector. Israeli students Ben Hizak and Aliza Landes, joint leaders of the trip with Mr Haddad, visited areas they had never been to before in Nazareth, on the West Bank in Rawabi, a Palestinian new town, and Ramallah, normally off-limits to Israelis.
There they met Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American businessman and fierce critic of policies that Ms Landes spent six years defending in the spokesman’s unit of the Israel Defence Forces and the Israeli government body co-ordinating services to the occupied territories.
“Businesses have much more of an impact when they engage in the wrongs of this world instead of just accepting them and moving forward,” Mr Bahour says, describing Israeli obstacles to Palestinian development. “The reality on the ground will look different for Palestinians if they are employed.”
Ms Landes now has a new perspective on the potential business role in the conflict. “Increasingly, you have Arab-Israelis leaving companies to found start-ups with Jewish Israelis because they know they can trust each other because they’ve worked together and that’s a very different situation than 10 years ago,” she says.
Mr Haddad plans to return to help the Palestinian economy on both sides of the border. “I want to ... improve the situation of Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel and their integration with the majority Israeli community. When the Palestinian state is established I want to use my experience to help ramp up the Palestinian economy. I feel this obligation towards my people,” he adds.