Monday, November 23, 2009

Arab Israeli Women At Work

As explained by Himmat Zoabi in Haaretz, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz recently sought to explain high unemployment amongst Arab Israeli women. Citing low female employment across the Arab world, Minister Steinitz partially blamed conservative Arab culture.

However, Zoabi argues that this argument obscures a more important truth. Namely, not only do Arab Israeli women work less than other Israeli women, but they even suffer from higher unemployment than woman in other Arab countries. According to Zoabi, 21.1% of Arab Israeli women are employed compared to 51.3% of all Israeli women. Meanwhile, 29% of Saudi women, 27% of Omani women and 42% of Moroccan women are employed.

The question, therefore, is, "why do fewer Arab women have jobs in Israel than Saudi Arabia?"

Zoabi primarily blames the Israeli government and its "policy of deliberate and consistent discrimination against Arab citizens." Specifically, compared to their Jewish counterparts, Arab villages have insufficient access to public transportation and employment training programs. Furthermore, Zoabi cites:

the shortage of day-care centers in Arab towns (of 1,600 day-care centers for children under 3 that receive government assistance, only 25 operate in Arab communities) and government-supported industrial zones (only 3.2 percent are in Arab areas). In addition, Arab women constitute a mere 3 percent of civil servants, even though the civil service is the largest employer of women in Israel.

Importantly, Zoabi does not dismiss the problems posed by Arab culture, but urges the government to "leave the social barriers to us." And, in fact, I have personally seen the efforts undertaken by Arab Israeli women to make a better life for themselves and their families. During a recent trip to Israel, I visited the women of the Sharikat Haya program, which trains Arab women and helps find them employment. Specifically, the women learn a range of practical skills, such as how to write a resume and use a computer, as well as Hebrew language courses.

But the truly inspiring part comes from listening to their stories. Most of them are under the age of 25, already have at least one child, and have decided to attend the program against the better judgement of their spouses. They are driven. They want to help their families. And they seek to discover their potential.

Importantly, the funding for Sharikat Haya comes from the Abraham Fund Initiatives that "seeks civic equality for Israel's Jewish and Arab Citizens as a moral and pragmatic imperative." Therefore, significant amounts of the financial support (I'm sorry but I can't read Hebrew to be certain of exact numbers) comes from the Jewish community. And that's great, the more the better.

But at the same time, we cannot neglect the other half of the problem that Zoabi outlines. For to truly solve the problem of high female unemployment, we need to tackle all its aspects - political, cultural, economic, linguistic, pragmatic - all at once.

Since 1989, Israeli's GDP/capita has more than quadrupled, but it has done so by and large without the participation of its Arab minority, both male and female. Imagine what might happen if the Israeli government addressed even half the issues Zoabi identifies. Imagine what might be accomplished if 20% of the Israeli population finally began to fully contribute. And imagine the implications for peaceful coexistance and, yes, even cooperation.

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