Discrimination against non-Jewish taxi drivers is illegal - and widespread.
By EETTA PRINCE-GIBSON, JONATHAN SCHNEIDER
There are 44 registered taxi stations in west Jerusalem, 24 in east Jerusalem and dozens of independent cab drivers who prowl the roads of west Jerusalem at all hours of the day and night. It would seem that - unless you desperately need a cab right now - calling for or finding a cab is a simple and convenient way to travel from one place to another.
But who are the drivers?
Based on reports by cab companies and passengers alike, In Jerusalem decided to investigate whether owners and dispatchers of Jerusalem's main cab companies discriminate against legally licensed Arab drivers.
A telephone survey of the largest local companies revealed that 11 of 12 companies investigated maintain an openly acknowledged policy of refusing to employ Arab drivers.
Such policies are in clear violation of Israel's Equal Opportunities Law, but this does not seem to deter the companies. When asked whether they employed non-Jewish drivers, dispatchers and company officials often respond, as if with incredulity, "God forbid!" or "Are you being serious?"
Although none would allow IJ to cite their names, owners, dispatchers and drivers cited reasons and explanations for their discriminatory polices.
Some acknowledged a policy - patently illegal - of hiring only "Jewish labor" for "ideological" reasons.
"This is a Jewish city and this is a Jewish country," says Y., employed by one of the largest cab companies and one of several which uses hi-tech systems to dispatch cabs efficiently. Angrily, he continues, "If Arabs want to work, let them work among themselves."
Others cite economic reasons.
"We operate on Friday night, Saturday, and holidays," says the head of another large company. "So sometimes it's hard to get Jewish drivers. I don't employ Arabs regularly, but I'll take them on a a part-time basis, if I need to."
He then adds, "I only hire, even part-time, Arabs who speak Hebrew fluently and 'look Jewish,' so that the passengers won't know that they are Arabs."
When asked what 'looking Jewish,' means, he evasively responds, "People know. That's how it is."
And most would agree with C.,a veteran driver and dispatcher in a well-respected company, who explains that he is "merely responding to passengers' demands."
The policy of not hiring non-Jewish drivers, which he admits to, stems from the reality of the situation in Jerusalem, he said.
"We get calls all the time from passengers who tell us that they only want Jewish drivers. People on the street stop one of our cabs and check if the driver is Jewish. People are afraid of driving with an Arab. They don't know who the driver is, they don't know if he has a knife or will be driving them to a pigua [terrorist attack] or kidnap them and kill them. It's sad, but that's what it's like here since the first Intifada."
In contrast, Maalek Abad, owner of Palmah Taxis, based in Old Katamon, says that he makes a point of hiring Arab workers and that over 20 percent of the 70 drivers employed by the company are non-Jewish.
An Arab himself, Abad says he understands the reason why his competitors are not doing the same is because "certain Jewish customers are afraid." But he hastens to add that his company has "definitely not lost out financially" due to its non-rejectionist policy.
However, even Abad, when asked whether or not he accommodates specific requests for Jewish drivers, acknowledges that he does.
"It makes no sense to lose a client," he says.
Neither the Transportation Ministry nor the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry responded to IJ's queries for this report, and IJ was unable to speak with The Association of Jerusalem Taxis, a quasi-official group.
The cab companies, however, report anecdotally that since the outbreak of violence in October 2000, there has been a sharp increase in the numbers of passengers who, when they call a cab, specifically request a Jewish driver. In response, companies have cut back on or fired non-Jewish drivers.
Although there have been several instances in Israel in which taxi drivers, knowingly and unknowingly, drove terrorists to their destination, according to a source with the police, there have been no known instances in which cab drivers involved passengers in terrorist activities.
That does not reassure Yonat Bleicher, 47, a resident of downtown Jerusalem who uses cabs frequently.
"As long as there's terror, I can't feel safe driving in a cab with an Arab," she says angrily. "OK, so it hasn't happened - yet. But I don't take any chances."
Khaled Husseini, an independent taxi driver unaffiliated with any company, sighs and says, "There have been so many times people get into the taxi, see I'm an Arab and decide that they actually 'need to get out again.'"
"And sadly I know that there is nothing I can do about it."
He's right: there's not much that he can do about a potential passenger who closes the door in his face.
The situation of the cab companies, however, is different. Israeli law categorically prohibits discrimination on the basis of "age, race, religion, nationality, land of origin, opinion or party." And according to Yoav Loeff, spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, while customers may demand that the driver be Jewish, it is illegal for the cab dispatchers and companies to agree to their request.
But he acknowledges that enforcement is difficult at best.
A spokesman for the municipality, while deploring the discriminatory policies, notes that the municipality is responsible for licensing of the taxi companies and issues such as safety levels, but not for enforcement of hiring policies, over which the Transportation and Industry, Trade and Labor ministries have jurisdiction.
Concludes C., "The law isn't realistic. They're trying to force us to make things equal, but this city isn't equal. There's lots of fear and racism in this city. The law isn't going to make that better. You can't solve the problem in a taxi."