Israel’s Arab Citizens Series: The Arab Glass Ceiling

By | Nov 16, 2011

Blue-collar jobs are also scarce: Positions in agriculture, textiles and construction, traditional areas of employment for Arabs, are either being shipped overseas or going to foreign guest workers from places such as Thailand and Romania. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 41 percent of Arabs age 15 and older were employed in the civilian workforce in 2009, compared to 59.6 percent of their Jewish counterparts. Markedly, only 20 percent of Arab women were employed, compared with 60 percent of Jewish women.

Although he has a job, Abu Much has made helping other professional Arabs find employment his personal mission. He speaks about the need for diversity in the workplace in panel discussions sponsored by a group called Maala: Business for Social Responsibility; he writes occasional columns for the business daily Calcalist on the subject, and he volunteers at the employment center run by Kav Mashve, a non-profit organization that helps professionally trained Arabs find work in the business world. Last summer, Abu Much literally became a poster boy for the cause, allowing his photo to appear in Arabic-language ads for a private computer institute on the sides of buses and on the Internet, with the novel slogan “Yes, We Can.” He explains that “if it helps the Arab sector, I’m ready to do it.”

He is a calm man with a quiet voice, but as he speaks to me about the disparities between Arabs and Jews in Israel, he oscillates between great hope for the future—not just his own but for his people—and a weary, embittered frustration. He talks enthusiastically about Israel’s ethnic diversity, which he calls “amazing.” With the cultural and religious variety of the population, “we could really do something huge,” he says. But he also laments what he sees as Israelis’ perverse inability to see their country’s heterogeneity as an advantage. “Instead of presenting ourselves to the world as a diverse population, we spend our time trying to screw one another.”


Abu Much’s family has lived in Baka al-Garbiyah for generations. His parents, Muslims, run a minimarket next door to the family’s home. Like them, Abu Much plans to raise his family in town. He is building a house nearby for himself and his fiancée, Sama Ejmiel, who is completing her master’s in physiotherapy. It is common for Arabs, even those who have found work in other parts of the country, to make their homes and raise their families in the towns where they grew up, returning there on weekends, if not each evening.

Like most Arab towns, Baka al-Garbiyah does not have the amenities that Jewish towns of a similar size do. Arab municipalities receive smaller budgets from the state and none or little of the largesse bestowed by Diaspora Jewry on Jewish communities. With less money at their disposal, they have weaker governments (though that problem is not limited to budgets; mismanagement and corruption are also issues) and by extension, infrastructure—schools, streets, community centers and parks—is inferior.

National programs to spur development have generally been lopsided in favor of Jewish communities, says Ron Gerlitz, the co-executive director of an organization called Sikkuy [Hebrew for “chance”], which was founded in 1991 to advance the cause of equality between Israeli Jews and Arabs. The government, he says, has long helped establish industrial parks in Jewish municipalities. The placement of such zones, a source of both employment and local tax revenues, is decided at the national level, and as Gerlitz notes, “only 1.5 percent of the country’s industrial and infrastructure lands are situated in Arab towns.” There are even cases of industrial zones, such as in Kafr Qassem, near Tel Aviv, and in Sakhnin, in the Galilee, being established within the geographic jurisdiction of Arab towns but annexed for tax purposes to the adjoining Jewish communities they serve.

As Israel has become more prosperous, so have its Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the population, but not nearly at the same rate as Jews. While they are economically better off than their counterparts in many other Middle Eastern countries, they lag behind Jews by almost every social or economic measure, a fact that was driven home earlier this year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an organization of developed countries, in a report issued shortly before it welcomed Israel into its ranks in May. Entitled “Israel: A Divided Society,” it pointed to the growing gaps between Israel’s richest and poorest citizens and noted that two substantial population groups, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, have been left behind as the national economy has expanded dramatically. Among the worrying trends the OECD pointed to: The rate of Arab families living below the poverty line in Israel (some 50 percent) is three times higher than among Jewish families.

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