IT BEGAN WITH THE CLOGGED kitchen sink in Ron Gerlitz’s home in Srigim, a moshav
near Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. His wife, then 39- weeks pregnant, pressed
him to get it fixed pronto, so Gerlitz let his fingers do the walking in the
Dapei Zahav (Golden Pages), the Israeli equivalent of the Yellow
What he found threw a wrench in his equilibrium.
opened the section for plumbers I saw that some promote themselves with the
slogan ‘avoda ivrit’ [Hebrew labor]. I was horrified. It was very clear what was
meant – only Jews work here – no Arabs. I was very upset.”
co-executive director of Sikkuy, an NGO that aims to advance equality between
Arab and Jews, found five more such ads in as many minutes.
A few weeks
later Gerlitz presented his discovery in a bi-monthly meeting of a forum called
Shutafut Sharakah, established in 2009 by 10 civil society organizations with a
commitment to the advancement of democratic values and the promotion of an equal
and shared society for all Israeli citizens.
Forum members agreed to
publicize the issue in order to underscore the broader problem of discrimination
against Israeli Arabs in the workplace.
The fact that there are only a
few dozen such ads among the more than 40,000 in the Golden Pages does not
lessen the vitriol for Gerlitz and the others.
“The bigger issue, of
course, is that people discriminate against Arabs without advertising it,” he
tells The Jerusalem Report. “If you want to change society, you first have to
make racism illegitimate. If it’s legitimate to publish something like that in
Dapei Zahav, then it makes it legitimate not to employ Arabs.”
Ganea, media coordinator for the forum, investigated the ads by phoning the
businesses and pretending to be looking for a plumber.
“I asked what
avoda ivrit means. They were very clear. They said, ‘We don’t employ Arabs, only
Jews,’” she tells The Report. “This gives legitimacy to businesses that don’t
Ganea wrote a letter to Dapei Zahav, a privately held
company, and spoke with a representative on the telephone.
that they are only the medium and that they are not responsible for what is
published in their guide,” she says. “They are playing innocent. They are
running away from responsibility. It’s not a legal issue, it’s a matter of
public responsibility. When we allow these kind of ads they give racism
Dapei Zahav spokesman Benny Cohen says those complaining
about the ads are “barking up the wrong tree. Racism is abhorrent and Dapei
Zahav condemns it with all force,” he responds in an email to The Report. “But
you must keep in mind that the term avoda ivrit has not been made illegal...
there is no reason to complain to Dapei Zahav. The right address to deal with
these ads, in order to uproot racism, is to complain to the Ministry of
Industry, Trade and Labor or to the police so that they will decide if the
client is advertising in an illegal way.”
THE QUESTION OF THE LEGALIty of
the ads is not clear-cut, says Tziona Koenig-Yair, the Industry, Trade and Labor
Ministry’s Commissioner for Equal Employment Opportunities.
illegal to discriminate against Arab workers, and if you place an ad recruiting
Jewish workers to work as plumbers and you can’t prove that it is a mandatory
criterion for the job to be Jewish, then it’s discriminatory.
Zahav are not the employers.
They are the advertisers and the law
discusses the responsibility of employers and not advertisers,” she says.
However, she does not let Dapei Zahav completely off the hook.
though they are the advertisers, they are also subject to the law in Israel and
they should assume a certain amount of responsibility for what they’re
Gerlitz couldn’t agree more. “We are sure they would not
publish ads that say that women or Ethiopians need not apply. In today’s world,
big companies must have social responsibility. Ads that advertise that a
business does not employ Arabs remind us of unpleasant things in our own
The term avoda ivrit has specific historical connotations and came into common parlance during the period of the Second
Aliyah, between 1904 and 1914, which brought some 40,000 Jews into Ottoman
Palestine, says Oz Almog, professor of Israel Studies at Haifa University. The
new arrivals sought jobs on the agricultural plantations of earlier arrivals,
but those preferred hiring cheaper, more proficient Arab agricultural workers.
Eventually the new immigrants successfully unionized under the banner of avoda
ivrit. The predominant ideology maintained that Jewish labor was vital for
national revival and that Jews must ‘redeem’ themselves by building a new type
of Jewish society, says Almog. Manual labor was prescribed as good therapy for
Jews as individuals and as a people. For pre-state leader David Ben-Gurion,
Jewish labor was “not a means but a sublime end” and around 1920 he called for
Jewish labor in the entire economy.
“It was an essential symbol of
Zionism to create a new, self-sufficient, independent Jew,” Almog tells The
Report. “At the time we needed avoda ivrit for our survival. It symbolized the
ideal of building a new character, a new Jew who is active, not
The major asset of the Jewish people has been their intellectual
ability. Jewish culture admired not physical activities, but rather spiritual
and intellectual activity. The idea behind avoda ivrit was that Jews would no
longer be the pale, passive Diaspora Jews, merchants or intellectuals, but
rather downto- earth Jews who can build things with their own
During the British Mandate, the Jewish and Arab economies were
separate; the Jewish economy was characterized by a powerful trade union – the
Histadrut. The Arab sector lagged behind with considerable disparity between the
urban and rural communities, between landowners and the landless. There were
large gaps in wages for Jews and Arabs. In 1930 the Hope Simpson Report, which
investigated the issue of future immigration to Palestine, blamed the Jewish
labor policy for unemployment in the Arab sector. Arab farmers displaced by
Jewish land purchases could not find jobs in Jewish enterprises. But even the
British Army paid wages on a scale that differentiated between Jews and Arabs,
says Almog. The Histadrut, while supporting the principle of Hebrew labor,
opposed wage discrimination against Arabs by the Mandate government.
After Israel’s founding, the principle of
Hebrew labor began to fade as Arabs became members of the Histadrut and received
social benefits, says Almog.
Although the Israeli job market was opened
to Arab workers, it was mostly at the bottom of the wage ladder: construction
Economic inferiority was compounded by the low
participation rate of Arab women, a hindering factor to this day. In 2009, 57.9
percent of Jewish women worked while only 21 percent of Arab women did so,
according to the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry’s Commission for Equal
“There is a correlation between the status of
women and the wealth of a society,” says Almog. “There is a pure correlation
between feminism and the standard to living.
In the traditional Arab
society we are still waiting for the feminist evolution. They are changing
gradually, but there is a long way to go, and if they will change their approach
towards women, and women take their own rightful place in society, it’s going to
advance them dramatically in the labor market. It’s already happening – the
level of education of Arab women is higher than the men.”
YEARS, THE KNESSET passed a series of laws meant to prevent discrimination
against Arabs. Selective hiring practices are illegal under the Act of Equality
in Employment. Many employers, however, cite overriding security concerns in
justifying selective hiring.
According to Almog, the idea of avoda ivrit
no longer has a place in Israeli society.
“It’s anachronistic,” he
The term may be anachronistic, but Shahira Shalaby, an Arab woman
who lives in Haifa, encounters its manifestations in her every day
“Until the avoda ivrit issue came up, I myself didn’t notice it,”
Shalaby, who is director of the “shared society” program in Shatil, an NGO
promoting pluralism in Israel, tells The Report. “A few weeks ago I was walking
around in the Carmel and I saw a small pizzeria with a sign that said “Waiters
needed, after military service.” Haifa is a city that has a mixed population of
Arabs and Jews. Why does a waiter need to have military service experience? I’m
a part of a minority that doesn’t do military service.
discrimination is a part of the landscape, and when it’s part of the landscape,
we tend not to notice it. These things are ingrained and they form the
“We tend to have forgiveness towards these
phenomena that have nuances of racism. We dismiss these small things. But
something is happening that is worrying me in Israeli society; our ability to
live with hurting minorities, children of the immigrants, Ethiopians, violence
With each incident the issue gets the headlines and then
disappears. Avoda ivrit gives racism legitimacy. It puts a group outside the
Fighting against phenomena like the avoda ivrit
ads and bringing them to light is changing the public discourse in Israel, says
Koenig-Yair. According to her, employment recruiting ads that list military
service as a job requirement are illegal unless the army experience is directly
relevant for the job.
The Labor Ministry’s Commission for Equal
Employment Opportunities that Koenig-Yair heads was established in 2008 and
takes precedent-setting cases to labor court.
In 2009, for example, the
commission helped fight for 40 Arab railway employees who were dismissed by
Israel Railway for not having served in the IDF. The workers served as lookouts
at level crossings to prevent collisions between trains and vehicles and the job
did not involve bearing arms. “We submitted an amicus curiae (Friend of the
Court) brief with the opinion that the actions on the part of Israel Railways
were discriminatory and illegal and the court accepted our professional
opinion,” she says.
In 2010, only 2 percent of the complaints filed with
the commission were for discrimination on the basis of nationality, “but that is
in no way indicative of how much the Arab sector is discriminated against,” says
“There is no doubt in my mind that different forms of media
have taken upon themselves to take up the issue as well as Knesset committees,
the private sector and various NGOs, and all that put together is changing the
discourse in Israeli society,” she says.
Aiman Saif, general director of
the Authority for Economic Development of the Arab Sector in the Prime
Minister’s office, views the avoda ivrit
ads as a marginal issue.
think it’s only a small percentage of the population who believe in things like
,” he tells The Report. “My focus is the larger picture. Both on the
Arab side and the Jewish side we have a mutual interest of living together and
developing the economy so that our country will grow at a higher rate in the
future. There is s significant change regarding integrating the Arab sector into
Israeli economy. I can see it on the governmental level. We have a lot of
support from the government. We can see it in the private sector with an
increase in awareness and interest in hiring Arabs and investing in the Arab
sector. Several companies are looking for investments in the Arab sector and
it’s a very positive trend that we as a government must strengthen. And, of
course, all these activities in the end will ultimately benefit the Israeli
Ganea, who investigated the avoda ivrit
phenomenon, finds an
upside to the situation: “This is a very annoying example of racism, but it’s
something we feel we can change quickly and we think it’s a good start,” she
Nowadays agriculture work is performed by foreign workers brought
in from Thailand and the prevailing creed is to seek redemption in high-tech and
start-ups rather than manual labor Ironically, plumbers are among the few Jews
who still work with their hands.