The low participation of minorities in the labor market presents one of the greatest obstacles to economic growth, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Tuesday.
He made his remarks in Kiryat Ono at a conference dealing with populations excluded from the workforce. It was held following publication of a study by Kiryat Ono Academic College that found significant levels of discrimination against haredim, Israeli Arabs and Ethiopian immigrants among employers in the upper echelons of the job market.
The study canvassed hundreds of workers and employers in banking, media, advertising, finance, accounting and the public sector and found that 83 percent of employers preferred not to hire Arabs, 58% rejected haredim and 53% would not employ Ethiopians, no matter what their educational credentials were. The main cause for the discrimination, the study found, was cultural differences.
"The research shows a grim picture of a labor market that embraces those who are familiar and similar and rejects those who are different," wrote the study's authors. "The cultural differences are seen as a real threat that is likely to disrupt the businesses' normal functioning. There is a real concern about the awkwardness of shaking hands with a haredi Jew, telling army stories in front of an Arab and the 'coarse' Israeli mentality in front of the Ethiopian."
Steinitz said: "If we want to return to growth and to continue to advance the Israeli economy and society, one of the main issues is the relatively low rate of participation in the labor market. The rate of participation of two large and important groups - haredim and Israeli Arabs - is low, even very low."
Steinitz said the phenomenon could be seen most clearly in haredi men and Arab women.
"These are the two groups that we have to include in the general labor pool and in the educated job market in particular, but it is not a simple task," he said. "There are obstacles of culture and tradition blocking the way for full participation, and in many cases the obstacles are created by the very populations that we want to include."
Among haredim, it was customary for the man to study Torah, and if he had to go out to work, he was often considered a failure, Steinitz said. For Muslim women, it was a similar matter, he said, as tradition kept them in the home instead of at work.
The Finance Ministry has begun looking into the matter because it affects Israel's economic clout, Steinitz said.
"Our gross domestic product could have been higher if we had better integrated the haredim and Arabs into the education-based professions," he said.
The next in line to be hurt by the exclusion were the communities in which the excluded populations lived, Steinitz said. "Fewer and lower salaries means less income from taxes, which in turn means fewer services and amenities," he said.
Steinitz offered a note of optimism, citing Israel's achievements in integrating women and new immigrants.
"Steinitz is the most optimistic finance minister in the history of the state," Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini said at the conference. "I haven't read the report in full, but I am not surprised by its findings. You don't see haredim or Ethiopians anywhere you go; maybe the occasional Arab."
Eini likened the exclusion of certain populations to Israel's treatment of the periphery in general. He cited high unemployment numbers and the lack of hi-tech jobs as evidence that the government was abandoning the periphery.
"Instead of strengthening the cities and towns on the outskirts, the government is cutting budgets," he said. "How are they supposed to invest in education if they have no money?"
"Fifty years ago we were facing similar problems with Jews of Northern African and Middle Eastern descent, and it appears that things have improved," Eini said. "Apparently it takes time. Our role is to shorten that time."
Former education minister Yuli Tamir, who attended the conference as a spectator, said: "We live in a society where segregation is growing in all fields. There is no doubt that action needs to be taken to remedy the situation. The report shows that all the education in the world won't help you find a job if you are in one of the populations mentioned, and education alone won't do the job. The solution is in an overarching viewpoint tackling many problems at once. Education is very important, but it's not everything."
Dr. Amir Paz Fuchs of Kiryat Ono Academic College's law faculty, one of the study's authors, said there was a paradigm difference between what Steinitz had discussed and what the study exposed.
"Steinitz talked about growth, [and] we are looking at whom that growth impacts," he said. "People want to hear that though there are gaps in society, things are getting better. But I'm telling you, friends, things are not getting better."
Fuchs said the researchers had chosen the sectors in question because they were the sorts of jobs that every Jewish mother would want her children to find.
"We are on a ticking time bomb," he said. "People get an education because of their desire to be included in the quality segments of the job market and society. If the promise of inclusion is not fulfilled, there will be a rise in frustration, which is dangerous to society, the economy and social cohesiveness."