In our May 17, 1985 issue, we profiled three Russian emigres making it big in Silicon Valley.
In our May 17, 1985 issue, we profiled three Russian emigres making it big in Silicon Valley.

Jews have been part of Silicon Valley from the start

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From its early days, Silicon Valley has been a place where Jews could succeed. As a place that valued brains and chutzpah, the nascent computer and tech industries that developed there may have actually been the perfect place for Jews to make their mark, which they’ve been doing since the name Silicon Valley was coined in the 1970s.

Of course, there have been many Jewish superstars of the tech industry, but behind every Steve Ballmer of Microsoft or Larry Ellison of Oracle was a host of Jews filling up the rank and file of what became the world’s innovation hub.

Their ranks included refuseniks. In 1985 we ran a profile by Paul Freeman of three Russian Jews, Vladimir Alexanyan and Lucy and Boris Zats, who had left the Soviet Union for the fertile tech grounds of California.

“We left because we are Jewish. In Russia, if you are Jewish, no matter how hard you work, you have no real future,” Boris Zats told Freeman.

The trio founded MenloSoft, which made “a user-friendly database programming that can ‘think,’ responding to ordinary English commands from a typewriter-like keyboard.”

It was innovative, explained Alexanyan — at least for the time: “The only other product you can get to do the same job comes in four or five diskettes, instead of one,” he said.

The Russian emigres were part of a wave of immigration to Silicon Valley, one that — like now — included a high number of Israelis. So many Israelis came to Silicon Valley that the government got concerned.

We left because we are Jewish. In Russia, if you are Jewish, no matter how hard you work, you have no real future.

In 1985, news editor Peggy Isaak Gluck reported on an initiative by Israel to steal back some of its talent that had migrated to Silicon Valley. In addition, the country hoped to entice some Jewish Americans, too.

“Reversing the brain drain from Israel to North America is one of the drive’s goals,” the article noted. “Attracting new immigrants and American university graduates is another. … Hi-tech is where the young Mideast country expects its largest economic development.”

And how was Israel going to convince them to come? Not with money.

“We’re not going to ‘buy’ [ex-Israelis] or bribe them, but we hope those who want to go will do it for the ideology, not for the money,” said Yigal Caspi, then an Israeli vice consul in San Francisco and later an ambassador to Korea and Switzerland.

Even a few years prior, in 1978, the government was recruiting in San Francisco: “Computer People Needed in Israel” read a headline in our paper.

According to a 1985 article in our paper straight from Israel, the high-tech scene was indeed booming in the small country.

“A visit to Scitex, a high-technology firm headquartered in Herzliya, is a culture shock to Israelis,” wrote Louis Rapoport, the future editor of the Jerusalem Post, in a special report. “Suddenly you are not in funky, run-down Israel, where offices and businesses have a Third World look.”

Even if the small country didn’t seem like a hotbed of innovation at first, the expected growth of the Israeli tech sector was likely to have a huge impact on the economy, the article pointed out.

“It is a study in chutzpah for a nation with a population the size of Queens and a lotus-eater work ethic to challenge Silicon Valley,” Rapoport wrote. “But the encouraging fact is that despite the primitive phone and mail services, the debilitating tradition of sinecures, and the prevalence of questionable business practices, Israel is a dynamic center of energy, blessed with a large number of highly educated and talented people.”

Back in Silicon Valley, it wasn’t all glory. In 1985, the rising tech sector also was experiencing a major slump. Layoffs were roiling the industry — this may sound familiar in 2023 — and the outlook was precarious.

In response, a 12-year-old Jewish Vocational Service set up a branch in Palo Alto. “A lot of computer companies have gone out of business, or production has gone overseas,” Susan Schenck, the manager of the new office, told reporter Marshall Krantz. “Now, even more so, I’m seeing people laid off who at one time were highly in demand.”

But Silicon Valley has been robust. The tech industry has experienced several ups and downs (including today’s), and has always rebounded, as has its Jewish workforce.

In 1992, we wrote about the “star-studded line-up” of Silicon Valley’s own Jewish organization, the Jewish High-Tech Community, founded in the late 1980s and still around.

Then and now, networking was paramount, but the group’s goals ran deeper. As JHTC President Sam Gill was quoted in the article: “We’re more than just a cavalcade of stars. We’re about Jewish involvement, rediscovery of identity, and Jewish pride.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.