Why Israel wants more Arab women earning a paycheck

Less than 25 percent of Israeli Arab women are formally employed. Economists are warning they could become a major economic burden if they aren't integrated into the workforce.

Oded Balilty/AP/File
Israeli Arab Maram Faour, a teacher from the Arab town of Kabul gives an Arabic class to Israeli schoolchildren in a school at the northern Israeli village of Yokneam, Dec 20, 2011. Less than 25 percent of Israeli Arab women are formally employed.

The low-profile Alfanar employment center sits on the margins of this Arab town in northern Israel, but on a recent morning it was buzzing with a gaggle of job interviewees and computer trainees. Nearly all were women with stories like Arab-Israeli Hanady Diab, who said she was looking to find a job after taking a five-year break to raise her daughter.

"I’ve been married with a child. Now that’s she’s six years old, I want to work again," says Ms. Diab in broken Hebrew she waits to interview for a position in a local fish factory. "I’ve been looking for a long time."

That's no simple prospect. Within Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up a fifth of the total population, between 20 and 25 percent of women have jobs. Economists inside and out of the government fear that Arab underemployment, particularly among women, threatens Israel’s ballyhooed start-up economy with a rising welfare burden and a widening social gap. 

So, after decades of ignoring economic development in Arab towns and villages, Israel’s government is spending $1.2 billion over five years on programs aimed at better integrating its minority citizens into the mainstream. But economists and other experts describe the process as a major challenge that requires significantly more money from a slow moving bureaucracy.

"We have to understand this is a macro-economic problem. It’s not the problem of a small minority," says Eran Yashiv, a Tel Aviv University economics professor who recently published a study on the chronic underemployment of Arabs in Israel’s economy.

Among Arab men, employment rates are much closer to those of Jews, but the vast majority are laborers rather than white collar workers – another problem. The failure of Israel to effectively integrate Arab citizens into the work force "is unprecedented among developed economies," Mr. Yashiv said. 

Tradition and distance mount obstacles 

One of the government responses was to establish Alfanar (Arabic for "lighthouse"), a network of 21 job placement centers offering training, career counseling, and a clearinghouse for employers and job hunters.

At the Alfanar office in Tamra, about 20 miles northeast of Haifa, 75 percent of the clients are women, says office manager Jihad Awad.

"Twenty years ago, almost no Arab women worked. It was only the men," Mr. Awad says. "Now that Arab women want to work, it is difficult for them to integrate in the job market because of a variety of obstacles."

Arab women – who typically remained in the towns and villages, where job opportunities are fewer – have the largest gap to bridge. They have to overcome traditional social mores that discourage working and years of government neglect to education. With less access to cars, a lack of public transportation and nearby industrial zones become a major hindrance. Most of the jobs are in predominantly Jewish metropolitan areas and require long commutes on public transportation lines that are few and far between in Arab towns and villages. And there are few options for day care.

About 50 percent of his 1,300 Arab women clients have yet to find jobs, mostly because they are still expected to be primary caregivers, and therefore have less flexibility with work hours, Awad says.

A snapshot of the challenge could be found near the commercial center of Tamra, where a group of four women from the Diyab family were cleaning, doing laundry, and preparing lunch. 

"There’s no work around. I’ve looked,’’ says Ameenah Diyab, an unemployed teaching assistant. When asked if she’s reached out to the Alfanar employment center, Ms. Diyab says she’s never heard of it.

The sub-standard public education system in Arab towns creates other barriers. Arab students aren’t required to perfect skills in conversational Hebrew, limiting their options with Jewish-owned companies.  Lacking any career counseling, many focus their studies on preparing for jobs in education, a field in which there are precious few jobs. Many Arab students graduated without learning how to use a computer or send an e-mail.

Back at the Alfanar offices in Tamra, a group of about 10 women experiment with Hebrew-language job search websites. A slide projector displays on a large screen a Hebrew list of online employment job banks. The four-part course is designed to teach pupils everything from turning on a computer, to creating spreadsheets, to using Facebook.  

"I’ve been looking for work. I know that they would like for me to know about computers," says Ameena Ashkar, a mother of one, as she tries out an Internet search. "After this course I’m going back to look for work."

She admits she doesn’t know exactly what she is looking for. 

Opening up

Still, there has been progress. In the last five years, call center company Babcom Centers has hired hundreds of Arab women at offices established near their towns. And with Arab girls outperforming boys in the classroom and women now accounting for more than half of the Arab student population in Israeli universities, the potential for improvement is clearly there. But college graduates still have a difficult time finding work in their fields.

"It's amazing to see they do so well in university and school, but you don’t see them in the employment market," says Yael Cahan of Kav Mashveh, a nonprofit that seeks to help Arab Israeli college graduates find work in Jewish professional companies.

At least part of the problem is rooted in discrimination fanned by nationalist tensions and the de-facto segregation of Jewish and Arab communities. Despite a government campaign encouraging businesses to hire Arab college graduates, progress has been slow.

"The Jewish business sector – especially with regard to Arab college graduates – isn’t cooperating," said Ayman Seif, the official in the prime minister's office who is responsible for the push toward economic integration. "It isn’t open."

In addition to setting up the Alfanar network, the government has added public transportation lines and set aside money for micro-finance loans for small businesses, Mr. Seif says. A scholarship fund is being set up to help Arabs attend university.

Foot soldiers like Mr. Awad say his employment center doesn’t have enough staff to handle the number of job seekers.

Despite that, he expresses optimism that Israel’s government finally understands the challenge.

"If they don’t help Arabs develop," he says, "they’ll be stuck with an undeveloped country."

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