The Limits Of Israeli High-Tech Success

The central urban areas of Israel are a proven Silicon Valley success in the Middle East. But the country must find ways to bring the high-tech industry to the north and south.

Intel and Google buildings in Haifa
Intel and Google buildings in Haifa
Esther Luzzatto

TEL AVIV — Over the past few weeks, Israel has witnessed some impressive "exits" of local software startups. The fact that the giants in the technology industry like Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Facebook and Google are building development centers in Israel, and are expanding their activity in the country, is proof of Israel’s status as a high-tech superpower and recognition of the quality of human capital.

Furthermore, the wealth earned in the exit sales is bound to be used to further develop the industry and expand investments throughout the country.

However, not everything is roses in the world of Israeli high-tech. The success that all are hailing has mainly come thanks to companies working in software, Internet and other digital applications. In these fields the development period is short, the amount of capital required for development is relatively small and the barriers to entry are low. In other fields, like sciences and medicine, the high-tech challenges are a lot more complex, the development time is a lot longer and the size of the investment and the risk required for the development of the invention is enormous.

There are various high-tech issues around technology that should worry Israelis, but one stands out most of all. The fruits of Israeli high-tech success reach only a very limited part of the population. Moreover, the so-called "Exits Industry" has created a new class of rich people, which has deepened inequalities in the Israeli society.

Wage disparities mix with social, geographical and demographic inequalities, and the situation could worsen if the divide grows between the center of the country and the periphery.

The high-tech community and the industries that come with it, (financing, credit, law, foreign trade, etc...) are all in Tel Aviv, and the rest is left with crumbs.

In order to assure that the fruits of success of the technology companies will extend out from the overprotective elite class, a new approach is needed. Legislation that encourages investment alone will not solve the problem. The government needs a new strategy specifically aimed at building the high-tech industry beyond Tel Aviv.

Southward bound

This could be done by giving perks to high-tech workers so they would follow the company, and go live in the periphery, including tax cuts, credits and grants. This would have just one goal: to encourage owners to move their company to the nation's peripheries by using salaries as a motivator.

Israel's Qiryat Gat industrial zone — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Moving high-tech companies is not as complicated as moving factories; there aren’t any heavy materials or the need to establish infrastructures for an industrial zone. Most of the capital of these companies is human, there is only the need of office buildings, which often already exist and are just waiting to be occupied.

The moving of high-tech companies to more remote locations in Israel will be beneficial in several ways: it will create new economic centers that will draw a population with a higher purchasing power to cities far from the center. This will bring growth to these cities, and will lower local taxes.

In fact, there are already many young couples from a high socio-economic background who even without government incentives are moving to escape a rising cost of urban living, crowds and pollution in order to enjoy the lifestyle advantages in the Negev desert area in the south or the northern Galilee.

Indeed, the south of the country is already evolving as far as employment is concerned. The transferring of Israeli army bases to the Negev since 2011 will completely change the employment situation in the area by creating many new work opportunities in the domains of the most advanced technology.

The arrival of new citizens will force the government and the local cities to upgrade services, including housing, health, education and culture. Transportation is already undergoing a massive expansion in the south of Israel.

All of this might motivate more workers to follow the first flocks who moved to the south, which would help achieve the long-term objectives of the government to lower the inequalities between outlying regions and the center.

There is no doubt that high-tech will remain a crucial part of Israel's economic growth, but its fruits must be shared by every part of society — and every corner of the country.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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