When Bassem Abdullah imagined his life 10 years ago, he saw himself making a difference. His degree in civil engineering would help pave the way.

Today, he finds himself making cappuccinos in a Jerusalem café – the only work he could find, despite having an advanced degree.

“Most of the Arab guys here have the same story,” says Abdullah, 36, who asked to use a fictional last name to protect his coffee-making job, where he earns little more than the NIS 22.04 per hour minimum wage. “I couldn’t find a job anywhere. Either you stay at home, or you take whatever you find, and so I’m here,” he sighs in an undertone, turning another foamy mug over to a customer.

The government has recently acknowledged that it is a well-known story – one on which it would like to turn a new page with a campaign aimed at getting companies to hire highly educated Israeli Arab graduates.

For the first time in the state’s history, the government ran television and radio advertisements earlier this summer, urging people in corporate positions of power to stop discriminating against Arabs when interviewing job candidates. In the TV ad, for example, the head of a Tel Aviv architecture firm is excited about a potential employee with handsome looks and great qualifications, but the would-be boss hesitates when he sees the name of the top of the resumé: Walid Abu Karim. Then comes the voiceover: “It would be a shame to forgo the right employee for the wrong reasons.”

Beyond the public awareness campaign, which was aimed at challenging Jewish Israelis to take a look at their fears and biases, the government also published tenders two weeks ago for a new incentives program – encouraging companies to hire more Arabs by paying for part of their salaries. Hi-tech companies hiring Arabs, for example, would be entitled to have the government pay 25 percent of their salaries for the first 2.5 years of employment. For this, the government has allocated about NIS 80 million, says Aiman Saif, director of the Authority for the Economic Development of Minorities, a division of the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The main reason we decided to do the campaign is that the employment of Arabs with advanced academic degrees, mainly in hi-tech and services, is very, very low. It’s a sad picture. If you look at the data, only 1.3% of the Arabs who studied computer engineering are working in this field, and 50% of them work as teachers at schools,” Saif explains. “What we have here is the great potential of Arab academics, and on the other hand, the Israeli hitech industry that needs great human capital.”

These affirmative action-style incentives were first floated in 2005, Saif says, but they met with only limited success because companies were required to hire at least 15 Arabs for a period of five years to qualify. In short, that was too large of a commitment and for too long, particularly for smaller start-ups. The incentives were adjusted in 2008, but this year in particular, the government is making a huge push – both by increasing the budget and by the campaign aimed at addressing Jewish Israelis doing the hiring.

The Prime Minister’s Office conducted surveys on the issue, and learned that attitudes were still perhaps the biggest barrier to change. For example, among employers surveyed, some 22% openly acknowledged that they discriminate against candidates from the Arab sector, and 25% expressed prejudice against such candidates. Only 65% of employers that have yet to employ minorities such as Arabs, Druse and other non-Jewish Israelis a expressed willingness to do so.

“One of the main problems that we discovered here is that there are a lot of psychological barriers among the Israeli public in taking Arabs into work,” says Yarden Vatikay, who heads the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“There are a few fields in which Arabs in Israel have achieved prominence, such as in medicine. But in other fields – economists, architects, computer scientists, for example – they have not penetrated as vastly as they should into Israeli society,” Vatikay says.

And although it garnered criticism, the Prime Minister’s Office was pleased with the results of the campaign. In short, it got people talking.

“This message – don’t reject someone good for the wrong reasons – is delicate but it’s harsh. It created a pretty big buzz,” Vatikay says. There will be more to come, focusing mostly on radio and Internet. Other advertisements in the campaign will focus on Arabic media as well. “We want Arabs to know that the government is investing deeply in them.

This government has excelled in investing billions of shekels in Arab communities, education, infrastructure.”

So far, says Saif, approximately 600 companies have stepped forward to say that they’d like to participate in the incentives program by hiring qualified Arab workers, but aren’t sure where to find them. The next step, now in process, is a website that will help match potential hirees with companies who want them.

The campaign isn’t a standalone program, but part of a NIS 5 billion, multi-year plan to integrate Arabs into the economy, Saif adds. This includes a plan, rolled out in March 2010, dedicating NIS 800m. for development in 13 Arab towns, money that is supposed to go to employment programs, improving public transportation and housing, among other issues. There are many Arab towns and villages with almost no public transportation to the coastal metropolitan areas, making it difficult to get to work, for example, in Tel Aviv, Haifa or Yokne’am, all hi-tech hubs.

It all sounds wonderful on paper, says Ali Haider, the coexecutive director of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel. The government is taking important, unprecedented steps, Haider says, but it has hardly gone far enough, and is itself failing to set an example by meeting its own goals of employing Arabs.

In the year 2000, he notes, the government set a goal of having 10% of civil service jobs filled by Arabs citizens. Twelve years later, the number is still less than 8%.

“This campaign is a good decision, but it’s not enough. The government itself should take responsibility to ensure fair representation in civil service, in government incorporations, in academics,” says Haider, in a phone interview from the organization’s Haifa office. For example, during his tenure, thenpremier Ariel Sharon said there should be an Arab on the board of directors of every public company; today fewer than 50% have met that goal.

Part of the government’s own incentive for the campaign, Haider notes, is to show that Israel is meeting its goals to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which accepted Israel as a member just over two years ago. Joining the club was a feather in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s financial cap, but it came with expectations.

“We cannot neglect that when Israel was accepted to the OECD, it committed itself to closing gaps in education and employment, between Arab and Jews, and between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of society,” Haider says. “One of the motivations of this campaign is to let the OECD know that the government is doing something to improve these economic gaps.”

Many young people, meanwhile, are skeptical about the campaign’s impact. Several said that it was hard to take the new initiative seriously, given that Netanyahu’s government includes Yisrael Beytenu, a party whose initiatives have included asking Arabs to sign a loyalty pledge to maintain their citizenship, cutting off funding to any organization that refers to the War of Independence in 1948-9 as the Nakba (the “Catastrophe”) and tamping down loudspeakers broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer.

“I see discrimination everywhere, and now you’re going to fix it by starting in hiring for hi-tech? What about schools and the huge disparity in budgets for the average Arab public school?” asks Mary Azzam, 21, a student from the Galilee who is earning a degree in psychology and English at the Hebrew University. “The problems are bigger than job market. We don’t just work for money. We have other goals in mind, the most important of which is to be treated as a human being. It’s as if now, if you give me a job, I have to appreciate it as a gift – as if I didn’t deserve it. I think the whole campaign is aimed at showing the world that yes, we’re giving Palestinian Arabs in Israel some opportunities to work.”

Her friend and classmate, Aya Abu Khtesh, says she and her friends laughed at the recent advertising campaign. “I didn’t like the ads – they just reinforce the image of the Arab as the ‘Other.’ It should already be obvious that we’re educated, productive people, but in this ad, it’s not,” says Abu Khtesh, who comes from Abu Ghosh and is hoping to go on for a master’s in psychology, which would help alleviate the shortage of Arab mental health professionals.

Ayman Najjar, who came to Jerusalem from Haifa to study electrical engineering, knows many older friends and relatives who earned their degrees, but never found work in their field. He’s hoping that by the time he graduates in two years, things will look different.

“If we can find employers who will want us, and who will accept that we won’t sound like people who learned to speak Hebrew as their mother tongue at home or who went to the army, then maybe we can succeed,” he says. “It’s a slim chance that this campaign will change things, but we can only hope.”

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