On my mind: Arab employment progress

Meeting the government’s targets for 2020 will require creating 300,000 more jobs over the next eight years.

Palestinians shopping during Ramadan 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians shopping during Ramadan 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
How are Israel’s Arab citizens faring 10 years after the Or Commission report? That government document called for increasing the number of Arabs in the workforce as a way to narrow the long-standing socioeconomic gaps between Israeli Jews and Arabs and integrate more of that minority into Israel’s advancing economy.
A new report on Arab employment in Israel, prepared by the New York-based Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues (IATF), presents an encouraging portrait of progress made to date, along with a reality check regarding the challenges that still lie ahead.
“Initiatives aiming to enhance Arab employment need to address factors that both increase the supply of Arab workers qualified for Israel’s advanced economy and to make advanced employment more accessible to Arab citizens,” states the IATF report.
The Israeli government has already allocated NIS 4.5 billion for large scale development and employment initiatives that specifically target Arab society, and the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druse and Circassian Sectors, created within the Prime Minister’s Office in 2007, has been working on several key issues, including employment, housing and transportation for Arab communities.
That commitment at the highest levels of the Israeli government, and the energizing creativity of Israeli non-governmental organizations – some operating in partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office and other government ministries – have been the principal drivers of change.
NGOs such as Tsofen, Kav Mashve, Yad Hanadiv and JDC-Tevet have developed and implemented important initiatives preparing Arabs for 21st-century jobs.
And other efforts have been launched to support Arab entrepreneurs.
For example, a partnership between the Authority for Economic Development and private-sector investors led to the creation of the Al Bawader Investment Fund, which has invested in Arab companies dealing with Internet and software products. And a microfinance fund set up by the Authority and Koret Israel Foundation is helping the development of small businesses owned by Arab women.
The late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in his 1992 inaugural address to the Knesset, said, “it is proper to admit [that] for years we have erred in our treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens.” Rabin promised that his government would do everything possible to close the “substantial gaps between the Jewish and Arab communities in a number of spheres.”
The pledge remained unfulfilled, and in October 2000 there was violence and clashes with the police in which 13 Arab citizens lost their lives. This was a wake-up call to the Israeli government and for American Jews, who reacted with alarm. Ongoing education by the IATF through briefing papers, conference calls and assistance with visits to Israel has helped keep American Jews engaged with the concerns of the Arab minority, 20 percent of Israel’s population.
The IATF’s Arab employment report, (available at www.iataskforce.
org), is a comprehensive catalog of the efforts by government and civil society organizations to address the challenges of preparing Arab citizens for jobs and encouraging employers to hire them.
“Arab citizens are underrepresented in most advanced industries and professions, in the academia and in the public sector,” the IATF reports.
It also looks to the future. Meeting the government’s Arab employment targets for 2020, for example, will require creating 300,000 more jobs over the next eight years, around 175,000 more than the Israeli market’s natural growth.
Progress is also hampered by the time lag between the development of a new program and its implementation.
The IATF report notes that it can literally take years from the day the government resolves to create and fund a new initiative for Arab employment to allocating the budget and then to actual implementation.
A resolution to increase the number of Arab employees in the public sector, a move long advocated by Sikkuy and other NGOs, was passed in November 2007, but the budget was only allocated in January 2009. Implementation is moving slowly and, as with other initiatives, bears close monitoring.
The challenges of narrowing the gaps are not solely the responsibility of the government or the Jewish majority. There are also cultural barriers within Arab society to overcome, particularly in encouraging Arab women to seek employment outside their villages and towns. As norms evolve in Arab society, the Israeli government is also investing in child care, as well as improving transportation in Arab communities, that can help more women take advantage of employment opportunities.
Recent progress gives hope that the country is on the right path.
The IATF, meanwhile, is planning events in New York and across the US in the Fall, as a follow-up to its report to spur interest in and discussion of the issues surrounding Arab employment in Israel.
The author is the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Director of Media Relations.