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On My Mind: Boosting Arab employment
By KENNETH BANDLER
09/07/2012
How to improve the economic conditions of minority populations is a challenge for any democracy.
 
How to improve the economic conditions of minority populations is a challenge for any democracy, all the more so for one as young as Israel. The country’s non-governmental organizations devoted to advancing Jewish-Arab relations have long advocated concrete steps to integrate Arab citizens into the nation’s workforce.

In recent years some government officials have called for measures to increase the numbers of qualified Arab workers.

Recognizing that the government itself can play a positive role, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) last month launched a public campaign to encourage private employers to hire Arab citizens. A two-week ad blitz on TV, radio, Internet sites and in newspapers, as well as featuring the campaign on the PMO website, aimed to convey to the Israeli public, Jews and Arabs alike, that the government considers promoting Arab employment a priority.

The TV ad showed a young man at an interview for a job as an architect. The smiling interviewer imagines the prospective employee as excelling, drawing much admiration as he designs glamorous buildings.

But the employer’s pleasant dream suddenly ends when he glances at the top of the resume and sees the Arab name.

“It would be a shame to forgo the right employee for the wrong reasons,” concludes the TV ad. The campaign’s message is so simple. Should an individual’s ethnicity be a disqualification? Of course not.

Integrating more Arabs into the workforce can bring positive change in Jewish- Arab relations and enhance economic productivity.

Yet given the history of Jewish- Arab relations, the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, and current tensions within Israel, it will be an ongoing, uphill challenge to change perceptions.

The campaign is directed by the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sectors, an arm of the Prime Minister’s Office. Created in 2007, the Authority is a permanent body, and thus not dependent on this particular government.

Its mission marks a commitment from the highest levels of government to develop programs to improve the lot of Israel’s minorities. So far, the Authority has initiated transportation, housing and public safety projects in 13 Arab communities.

The initial response from employers and prospective employees to the campaign “was very positive,” said Hagit Cohen of the Authority. The government offers financial incentives, such as paying part of the salaries, to encourage Jewish employers to hire qualified Arab university graduates. Job training programs for certain positions in industry are also available. How many apply and are hired in the coming months will largely determine the success of this groundbreaking program.

The Authority will launch a separate campaign to encourage Israeli Arabs to apply for 350 positions in government ministries in September. The initiative is a response to longstanding complaints that Arabs are underrepresented in government jobs.

“The government is sending a message that it is serious about helping Arab citizens,” says Ron Gerlitz, co-director of Sikkuy, a leading Jewish-Arab advocacy organization that has long promoted government action to advance civic equality. The PMO program to hire Arabs was one of the major recommendations in Sikkuy’s annual equality index report three years ago.

For Gerlitz, however, current efforts fall short. “If the government is serious about hiring Arabs in the private sector, it has an easy tool,” Gerlitz told me. “Companies with government contracts should be required to hire Arabs. This is a cheap, practical, very effective step.” Gerlitz suggests setting an initial goal of five percent of contractor hires.

All of this makes eminent sense. Increasing the percentages of Arab employees in a variety of sectors would be good for their self-esteem, for the country’s productivity and, importantly, for advancing positive Jewish-Arab relations. In the private sector, where the current campaign is focused, Jews and Arabs working together can help alter preconceived stereotypes.

Coincidentally, when the hiring campaign began in mid-June, the national service issue came to a head with the Plesner Committee report. Unfortunately, the heated rhetoric between Jewish and Arab political leaders over Arab national service has distracted the conversation away from practical solutions to a dilemma that has existed since the founding of the state. The government's non-discriminatory campaign deserves wide support across the political spectrum, and in both the Arab and Jewish communities.

The government’s anti-discrimination campaign, however, is a more tangible, and immediate, partial solution to boosting Arab employment. It deserves wide support across the political spectrum, and in both the Arab and Jewish communities.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.
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