Israel takes action on improving Arabs’ lives

Israel takes action on improving Arabs’ lives

Special to NJJN

As a Jew and a Zionist, I believe improvement in Israel’s Arab community will improve the country’s economy and overall society in general. 

We all need to invest time in learning about what Israeli government officials have called the “most sensitive and important domestic issue facing Israel today.”

I have been to Israel some 50 times, and to learn about minority citizens of Israel, I joined the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues — a coalition of private philanthropists, international affiliates, and North American Jewish organizations (including the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ) — to learn and follow my Jewish values.

Arab citizens make up 21 percent of Israelis but contribute just 8 percent to the GDP, reflecting substantial socio-economic gaps and considerable unrealized potential. The poverty rate of the Arab minority is nearly three times that of the Jewish population. It’s estimated that the Israeli economy annually loses 31 billion shekels ($8.1 billion) as a result of not realizing the workforce potential of the 1.7 million Israeli Arabs.

Because I believe they can help Israel as a state and improve the economy, I am a big believer in and supporter of shared society programs. Integrating Arab citizens into Israel’s advanced economy and closing socio-economic gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens are among national priorities. Closing gaps between Israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority — who have low labor participation rates, high rates of poverty, and poor contribution to the country’s GDP — make economic development of Arab citizens a key element in bolstering Israel’s overall growth and social cohesion. According to the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Economy and Industry, the economy is no longer sustainable without increased Arab participation.

An important development regarding this issue was the Israeli government’s approval, on Dec. 30, 2015, of Resolution No. 922, known as the “Economic Development Plan for the Arab Sector.” 

The government publicized a report on unequal budget allocations between Arab and Jewish citizens in education, welfare, transportation, employment, infrastructure, local government, and many other areas. This report was followed by another government document detailing the specific budgetary allocations for Arab citizens as part of government decision 922 to amend the discriminatory mechanisms in the state budget. Such reporting represents a sea change in the Israeli government’s willingness to disclose the scale of discrimination and make substantial changes in some of the main budgetary allocations.

Huge work was done behind the scenes to ensure enactment of the plan by Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, a grantee of the GMW federation’s partner the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society that has been seeking to achieve this for some 25 years.

In the eight months since the resolution’s approval, government, civil society, and municipal leadership have shifted focus to implementation. The plan has numerous targets for employment, education, transportation, zoning, housing, child care, policing, and more, but leaves development of specific budgeting and operational details up to individual government ministries. 

This is an important achievement for the long and difficult struggle for equality by Israel’s Arab citizens, civil society, and all advocates of equality, both Jews and Arabs — all things the GMW federation cares deeply about.

The groundbreaking five-year plan is the largest and most comprehensive ever advanced to close gaps for Israel’s Arab society. It calls for allocations of NIS 10-15 billion to simultaneously address multiple barriers to economic development. The plan is unprecedented not only in scale and scope, but in its call for proportional budgeting by government ministries (an acknowledgement of inequality in existing allocation mechanisms), and funds almost entirely are allocated not conditioned on matching by Arab localities and in close consultation between Arab leadership and government officials. 

Decision 922 is highly significant and more comprehensive than any of the previous “assistance” plans. But according to Sikkuy, even this plan is not enough to overcome all of the decades-long budgetary discrimination. The biggest shortfall is in education, in that the state budgetary funds allocated to Arab students are significantly lower than those allocated to Jewish students, especially in high schools. It’s regrettable that education, which is of paramount importance in advancing equal opportunity, is not addressed comprehensively by the 922 decision or any other government plan.

The Inter-Agency Task Force recently released an in-depth report about the 922 economic development plan, which is available on its website. 

According to IATF executive director Michal Steinman, “If the plan succeeds, within five years, thousands more Arab engineers will be integrated into the high-tech sector, Arab students will increase from 13 to 17 percent of Israel’s undergraduates, informal extracurricular education will be developed throughout Arab localities, and day-care options will be available to many more Arab women so they can go to work.”

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