Jewish Jobs

Discriminatory advertisements underscore the broader problem of discrimination against Israeli Arabs in the workplace

By SHULA KOPF
April 25, 2011 08:14
Avoda Ivrit

Jewish Labor_311. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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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 Pages.

What he found threw a wrench in his equilibrium.

“When I 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.”

Gerlitz, 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.

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“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.”

Raluca 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 employ Arabs.”

Ganea wrote a letter to Dapei Zahav, a privately held company, and spoke with a representative on the telephone.

“They said 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 legitimacy.”

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.

“It is 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.

But Dapei 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.

“Even 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 advertising.”

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 history.”

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 passive.

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 hands.”

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 and services.

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 Employment Opportunities.

“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.”

IN RECENT 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 says.

The term may be anachronistic, but Shahira Shalaby, an Arab woman who lives in Haifa, encounters its manifestations in her every day life.

“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.

This 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 collective consciousness.

“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 against women.

With each incident the issue gets the headlines and then disappears. Avoda ivrit gives racism legitimacy. It puts a group outside the legitimate landscape.”

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 Koenig-Yair.

“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.

“I think it’s only a small percentage of the population who believe in things like avoda ivrit,” 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 economy.”

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 says.

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.

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