The World Must Know: The Dramatic Advances of Israel’s Treatment of Israeli Arabs
Over the last few years, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement has gained strength. While substantial Jewish-Arab disparities within Israel continue to fuel BDS support, it is important to understand the positive changes that have occurred over the last decade as a result of the government’s affirmative action policies.
At the beginning of the 21st century, 1.3 million Arab citizens of Israel lived under unacceptable conditions. They had separate lives in underfunded towns with deplorable transportation systems and attended underfunded schools. Between 1997 and 2005, median inflation-adjusted Arab household income declined. In response, the widely-embraced 2006 Future Visions report was a wake-up call to increased government efforts to help the Arab population.
To increase Arab female employment, the government funded training programs, improved educational support, subsidized employment, expanded transportation networks, and built industrial parks near Arab towns. As a result, the labor force participation rate of Arab women between 30 to 39 years old increased from 24% in 2005 to 34% by 2010.
Targeted funding also reduced overcrowding in Arab schools and dramatically increased preschool enrollment. With support from the Council for Higher Education, there has been a 79% increase in Arab student enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs since 2010. In 2017, Arab students comprised 17% of all students in these programs.
There have also been successful efforts to increase Arab participation in the hi-tech sector. By 2016, Arab enrollment at the Technion reached 22% — equally divided between men and women. To aid retention, counseling resources were added, as well as having all significant college materials published in Arabic. In 2008, the government began funding Tsofen to aid employment efforts in hi-tech industries, and Arab engineering employment increased from 300 to 5,000 a decade later. Graduates gained employment in Israeli companies, especially in multinationals and Arab-owned start-ups, creating a hub in Nazareth.
Beginning in 2014, an ambitious government initiative has substantially increased the number of Arab teachers in the Jewish school system. During the 2017-2018 school year, 805 Arab teachers taught in Jewish schools, an increase of 73% from 2014. These numbers included 361 Arab teachers of English, math, and science, an increase of 130% since 2014.
In 2007, Arabs comprised only 6% of government employees. To increase their numbers, the government required Arabs to be at least 30% of new hires. Over the next decade, Arab government employment increased by 88%, so that Arabs now comprise 10% of all government workers.
In 2007, a national service option was created paying female Arab high school graduates for up to two years to perform social services in their home communities. At first, only the Druze and Christian communities participated. But in 2017, there were 4,500 Arab women enrolled (up from 600 in 2010) and 70% were Muslim.
In an unprecedented development, the Knesset also voted to change its funding formula that was extremely discriminatory in its allocation to Arab towns. To further correct for past underfunding, Government Decision 922 dedicated additional resources for Arab communities. And as part of the transportation initiative, for the first time all buses throughout the country will have Arabic signage.
There are also a number of right-wing politicians who support these improvements. Most prominent is Naftali Bennett, the current education minister. He quickly agreed to requests for additional funds to improve Arab teacher retention. Bennett was also instrumental in enabling Tsofen’s hi-tech initiatives to get off the ground, and he recently funded a substantial increase in computers available in Arab schools, in part to help grow the hi-tech pipeline.
All of these changes substantially raised the living standards of Arab citizens — as well as hope for the future. In 2017, two-thirds of Arab respondents had a “good” or “very good” outlook and overwhelmingly believed that the Arab Joint List party should focus on economic conditions rather than issues related to Gaza and the West Bank. Indeed, public opinion polls found that 73% of the Arab public disapproved when Arab Knesset members boycotted Simon Peres’ funeral.
These developments do not discount the need for further improvements. Israel society is a long way from providing equal opportunity for all its citizens: In some government ministries and Israeli hi-tech firms, discriminatory hiring practices prevail. There are also continued biases in land allocation and an unwillingness to allow for any Arab national symbols. However, the evaluation of Israeli policies towards its Arab citizens is much more positive than many people realize.
Robert Cherry is Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.