Israel’s finance minister was accused last week of trying to deflect attention from discriminatory policies keeping many of the country’s Palestinian Arab families in poverty by blaming their economic troubles on what he described as Arab society’s opposition to women working.
A recent report from Israel’s National Insurance Institute showed that half of all Arab families in Israel are classified as poor compared with just 14 percent of Jewish families.
Yuval Steinitz, the finance minister, told a conference on employment discrimination this month that the failure of Arab women to participate in the workforce was damaging Israel’s economy. Eighteen percent of Arab women work, and only half of them full time, compared with at least 55 percent of Jewish women.
He attributed the low employment rate to “cultural obstacles, traditional frameworks and the belief that Arab women have to remain in their home towns,” adding that such restrictions were characteristic of all Arab societies.
But researchers and women’s groups pointed out that employment of Arab women in Israel is lower than almost anywhere else in the Arab world, including such employment black-spots for women as Saudi Arabia and Oman.
“Most Arab women want to work, including a large number of female graduates, but the government has refused to tackle the many and severe obstacles that have been put in their way,” said Sawsan Shukha of Women Against Violence, a Nazareth-based organization.
That assessment was supported by a survey this month revealing that 83 percent of Israeli businesses in the main professions — including advertising, law, banking, accountancy and the media — admitted being opposed to hiring Arab graduates, whether men or women.
Yousef Jabareen, an urban planner at the Technion technical university in Haifa, who has conducted one of the largest surveys on Arab women’s employment in Israel, said the problems Arab women faced were unique.
“In Israel they face a double discrimination, both because they are women and because they are Arabs,” he said.
“The average in the Arab world [for female employment] is about 40 percent. Only women in Gaza, the West Bank and Iraq — where there are exceptional circumstances — have lower rates of employment than Arab women in Israel. That gap needs explaining and the answers aren’t to be found where the minister is looking.”
He said a wide range of factors hold Arab women back, many of them the result of discriminatory policies by successive governments to prevent the 1.3-million Palestinian Arab minority, which comprises one-fifth of Israel’s population, from benefiting from economic development.
These included widespread discrimination in hiring policies by both private employers and the government; a long-standing failure to locate industrial zones and factories in Arab communities; a severe lack of state-supported childcare services compared with Jewish communities; a shortage of public transport in Arab areas that prevented women reaching places of work, and a lack of training courses aimed at Arab women.
According to a study by Women Against Violence, 40 percent of Arab women with degrees are unable to find work.
When interviewed, Jabareen said, 78 percent of non-working women blamed their situation on a lack of job opportunities.
Maali Abu Roumi, 24, from the town of Tamra in northern Israel, has been looking for a job as a social worker since she finished training two years ago.
A report by Sikkuy, an organization promoting civic equality in Israel, revealed this month that Israel’s Arab population received 70 percent less government funding for social services than the Jewish population, and that Arab social workers — in a poorly paid profession that attracts mainly women — had a 50 percent higher workload.
Abu Roumi added that, in addition, cash-strapped Arab schools, unlike Jewish schools, could not afford to employ a social worker, and that Israel’s Arab minority lacked the equivalent of the welfare institutions and foundations funded by wealthy overseas Jews that offered work to many Jewish social workers.
“Most of the Jews I studied with have found work, while very few of the Arabs on my course have been employed,” she said. “When a job comes up, it’s usually part time and there are dozens of applicants.”
The Alternative Planning Center, an Arab organization that studies land use in Israel, reported in 2007 that only 3.5 percent of the country’s industrial zones were in Arab communities. Most attracted small businesses such as workshops for car repairs or carpentry that offered few opportunities for women.
“Israel’s private sector is almost entirely closed to Arab women because of discriminatory practices by employers who prefer to employ Jews,” Jabareen said. He added that the government had failed to provide leadership: among governmental workers, less than two percent were Arab women, despite repeated pledges by ministers to increase Arab recruitment.
Shukha said: “The civil service is a major employer, but many of these jobs are in the center of the country, in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, a long way from the north where most Arab citizens live.”
She noted that there were no regular buses from Nazareth, the largest Arab town in the country, to Jerusalem. “The transport situation is even worse in the villages where most Arab women live.”
In addition, she said, most could not travel long distances to find work because of the scarcity of child-care provision. Only 25 government-run daycare centers have been established for preschool children in Arab communities out of 1,600 operating across the country. Shukha also criticized the trade and industry ministry, saying that, although it had invested heavily in training for Jewish women, only six percent of Arab women were attending courses, and then mostly for sewing and secretarial work.
Jabareen said that, according to his survey, 56 percent of non-working Arab women wanted to work immediately.
“Since 1948 Israeli governments have been blaming poverty on ‘cultural barriers’ stopping Arab women from working, but all the research shows that the argument is nonsense,” he said. “There are hundreds of Arab women competing for every job that comes on the market.”
He said Arab men faced massive discrimination, too, but found work because they filled a need in the economy by doing hard manual labor that most Jews refused, often traveling long distances to work on construction sites.
“Women simply don’t have that option,” he said. “They cannot do that kind of work and they need to stay close to their communities because they have responsibilities in the home.”
Jabareen added that on average Arab women in Israel had a higher number of schooling years than those in Arab countries and the Third World. There were even slightly more Arab women at Israeli universities than Arab men.
“All the research shows that the more educated the population, the more it should be able to find work. The case with Arab women in Israel breaks with the trend. It’s unique.”
A study by the Bank of Israel published this month suggested additional reasons for the high levels of poverty among Arab families. It showed that Arab men were typically forced into retirement in their early 40s, at least a decade before Israel’s Jewish workers and workers in Europe and the United States.
The researchers attributed Arab men’s early unemployment to the fact that most are restricted to physically demanding laboring jobs, and because they are rapidly being replaced by foreign workers who are paid less than the minimum wage.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.