Social Justice in Jewish-Arab Relations in Israel

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When Israel’s Arab population supported the social protest of the summer of 2011, were their calls for social justice referring to the same kind of justice as those of Israel’s Jewish population? It seems not, as seen from this article, which explores the lack of social justice for Israel’s Arab minority in three areas: employment, healthcare, and the public sphere.

This article was written by members of IDI's Arab-Jewish Relations research team, which is headed by Dr. Nabil Khattab. It was originally published in Hebrew in IDI's online journal Parliament.

While the social protest in Israel in the summer of 2011 was launched by members of the middle class who took to the city streets and squares to protest the high cost of living, proclaiming "The nation wants social justice!", the vast majority of Israelis supported the protest. Nearly 85% of the Jewish population was in favor of the protest, and many people participated in the protest events. From a survey of attitudes among a representative sample of 250 Israeli Arabs, we found that the level of support for the social protests among Arabs was even higher than that of their Jewish counterparts, reaching 95% of the sample. This wall-to-wall support would not have been forthcoming had the respondents not seen their demand for social justice as connected to their deep-seated and ongoing sense of extreme social injustice with regard to the distribution of state resources in Israel. For the Arab citizens of Israel, the social protests were seen as a golden opportunity—one that might not recur in the near future—to promote a civic discourse that included them. They hoped that this discourse would finally enable them to march side by side with Jewish citizens in pursuit of a shared goal: a better life with social justice for all.

The demand for social justice in and of itself is neutral, and no group—whatever its political, social, or national affiliation—has the ability or right to claim title to it. This is why the call for social justice is so powerful: it can be used as a means to unite all "Israeli citizens" across the political, social, religious, and national spectrum. Several writers stated explicitly that there were indications that the protest had succeeded in drawing groups together, including Jews and Arabs, under the banner of a common battle for social justice (Sheleg, 2011).

Despite this, these signs are, in reality, nothing more than an illusion, and the apparent closeness between Jews and Arabs is simply the byproduct of a fleeting historical moment. This assertion is based in part on the findings of the aforementioned survey. The overwhelming support for the social protest among Arab Israelis rightfully raised the question of the link between their support for and involvement in the protest and an increased sense of belonging to Israeli society among Arab Israelis.

The findings of the survey indicate that approximately two-thirds of the respondents reported that their participation in the events of the social protest did not give them a sense of belonging. In contrast, some 17% noted that they felt a weak sense of belonging after participating in the protests, 11% reported feeling a strong sense of belonging, and only 5% felt a very strong sense of belonging. Moreover, the fact that each demonstration concluded with the singing of Hatikva—whose text implies the exclusion of non-Jews in the State of Israel—alienated the Arab demonstrators and was not conducive to their developing a bond with the Israeli collective or a sense of belonging to it, even though they marched alongside the Jewish demonstrators and called for social justice together with them.

When they called for "social justice," however, the Arab citizens did not necessarily have the same kind of justice in mind as did their Jewish counterparts. While the Jewish protesters rallied against economic issues such as ever-increasing gaps between poor and rich citizens, the high cost of living, the middle class’s diminishing financial ability, high taxes, and the like, the Arab protesters saw "social justice" as a concept related to much more basic needs, including their continued exclusion in all spheres—social, economic, political, and even national.

In this paper, we analyze the concept of "social justice" in the context of Arab-Jewish relations as related to three areas: social justice in employment, social justice in healthcare, and social justice in the public sphere. In each of these areas, we will analyze the current lack of social justice and see that attaining "social justice" means attaining unconditional equality and requires uprooting deep-seated racism and discrimination.

On the economic plane, social injustice has existed since the establishment of the State of Israel, and is manifested mainly in the systematic exclusion of Arab citizens from the country’s primary economy. This exclusion has not enhanced Jewish-Arab relations and has undermined the Arab population’s sense of belonging to the Israeli collective. A comparison of Israel’s Arab and Jewish sectors revealed large disparities in the labor market that testify to inequality in several areas: the laborforce, employment, income, and poverty. Each of these areas will be discussed separately below.

The Laborforce

During the years studied, the rate of participation in the laborforce among Arab Israelis was lower than that the rate among Jews. In 2009, for instance, the participation rate was 40.5% for Arabs versus 60% for Jews. There are two main reasons for this low participation rate:

  1. The low laborforce participation rate of Arab women, which is significantly lower than that of Arab men (24.6% and 62.8%, respectively, in 2009). The participation rate of Arab women in Israel’s laborforce is also very low in comparison to that of Jewish women (68.4%).
  2. Arab men leave the laborforce earlier than Jewish men do (age 45 and 55 respectively). Many Arab men are employed in physically demanding occupations and fields; as a result, when they are in their forties and their physical abilities decline, their laborforce participation rate decreases accordingly.

Employment and Unemployment

Inequality in the rate of employment between Jews and Arabs was found to express itself in several ways:

  1. Over the years of the study, the unemployment rate of Arabs was higher than that of Jews. Data from the more recent years also show that even though the number of unemployed Jews dropped from 192,800 in 2009 to 171,800 in 2010, the number of unemployed Arabs rose from 32,000 to 32,400 during those same years. Thus, the unemployment rate among Jews dropped from 7.4% to 6.4%, while among Arabs it remained at 8%. The percentage of Arabs among all unemployed citizens in Israel has been on the rise since 1995, reaching 24% in 2010.
  2. Arabs are on the margins of the laborforce. This generates a lack of job security, as they are the first to be fired in times of economic downturn and the last to be hired in times of economic growth.
  3. Arabs are generally employed in branches and occupations with low skill requirements. In 2009, nearly 50% of Israeli Arabs who were employed worked in construction, trade, and industry, while employment in occupations requiring a high skillset was limited. Jewish workers, in contrast, are concentrated in branches and occupations requiring a high skill set.
  4. The chances of Arabs finding  jobs commensurate with their level of education are considerably lower than those of Jews with the same level of education (Gera & Cohen, 2001).
  5. Arabs are not adequately represented in Israel’s civil service. Civil Service Commission data for 2009 reveal that only 7% of all Israeli civil servants at that time were Arabs, despite the fact that they made up a much greater percentage of the population (20% of the general population and 16.8% of working-age citizens).
  6. The heavy influx of foreign workers into Israel’s economy has also displaced Arab workers.


Laborforce data reveals that over the years, Arabs have received far lower wages than their Jewish counterparts. In 2009, the real wage per hour was approximately NIS 27 for Arabs and NIS 44 for Jews, a gap of 62% in favor of Jews. Miaari, Nabwani, and Khattab (2011) demonstrated that the situation has deteriorated in recent years and have reported that since 2004, wage gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel have again been on the rise. Scholars who have studied the Arab laborforce have concluded that the low wages of Arabs stem from wage discrimination and a limited supply of jobs (e.g., Flug & Kleiner-Keisar, 2001); from a lower return for qualifications (such as education) received by Arab workers as compared to Jews (Asali, 2006); and from a decrease in the number of Arabs who pursue higher education in high-earning professions (Zussman & Friedman, 2008).


Employment and suitable wages largely determine whether a household can stave off poverty. Consequently, the picture painted by this data is not encouraging. National Insurance Institute data (2010) indicate extremely large disparities in the incidence of poverty between the Arab and Jewish sectors over the years, as well as a very high representation of the Arab sector among the indigent. The data for 2009 indicate that the incidence of poverty among Arabs that year was 53.5%, versus a mere 15.2% among Jews. That is, the incidence of poverty was 38.3% higher among Arab families than among Jewish families, and the income gap ratio, which reflects the intensity of poverty (i.e., the mean difference between the income of the poor and the poverty line), was 38.8% for Arabs and 33.1% for Jews. This indicates that not only are there more poor people among Arabs, but those people are also poorer. The FGT index, which reflects the severity of poverty (taking into account the influence of the incidence and depth of poverty, while assigning greater weight to those who are poorer) was 0.1204 for Arabs and 0.0284 for Jews.

In 2009, nearly 15,000 families of whom 14,300 were Arab joined the ranks of the impoverished in Israel. The situation of the Arab sector worsened in 2010 as well; while the incidence of poverty fell to 14.3% in the Jewish sector, in the Arab sector it remained at the same level as the previous year. Thus, the percentage of Arabs in the indigent population rose from 35.9% in 2009 to 37.8% in 2010. This implies that Arab families who had fallen below the poverty line in 2009 did not manage to rise above it in 2010. The report also indicated that among families with two (or more) breadwinners, the incidence of poverty was only 3.7%, while among families with one or no breadwinners, the incidence of poverty was 24.9% and 68.9% respectively. This indicates the importance of having two heads of the household participate in the laborforce.

In the field of health, "social justice" means breaking the connection  between an idividual’s reference group, geographical location, or population segment and the healthcare services to which s/he has access. In this context, a distinction should be made between disparities in health that are not a result of a given socioeconomic or geographic situation but are a result of "natural" differences (e.g., gaps between the health of young people and the elderly, illnesses that affect men and women, or even disparities between smokers and non-smokers) and disparities that reflect a situation of injustice or "inequity." The differences in health under discussion in the current article are differences that stem from socioeconomic or geographic inequality, which result in differential access to the medical and healthcare services available in the state.

Nationality is an important factor in healthcare gaps in Israel. For example, while there has been an overall rise in life expectancy in Israel in recent years, the gap between the life expectancy of Arabs and Jews has grown from 1.5 years in 1996 to 4.6 years in 2006. In addition, the disparity in infant mortality between Jews and Arabs has not diminished over the years. Similarly, studies show that in comparison to Jews, Arabs in Israel suffer more from the results of smoking, lung cancer, breast cancer, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and depression. Beyond the gaps in health that are measured by means of basic, "objective" measures, there is also evidence of gaps between self-assessments of health, physical and psychiatric morbidity, use of healthcare services, and health-related behavior in the two populations (Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2006).

There are several ways to explain the difference in healthcare services between Jews and Arabs in Israel. On the macro level, we may note income inequality,Rodgers (1979) was the first to assert that inequality in health in various countries can be explained by unequal income. That is, in countries with more egalitarian income distribution there are lower mortality rates. a regimeAn expansion of the model of the influence of inequality on health adds the political system as a prime influencing factor. A study conducted in this field indicates that in neo-liberal countries, as opposed to social-democratic countries, the more restricted social welfare and unregulated market systems encourage unequal income, which increases poverty and diminishes social solidarity. These two factors influence each another and together have a negative effect on public health and wellbeing (Coburn, 2004). that has been becoming increasingly distant from its social-democratic worldview over the years,In the past three decades, the economic disparities in Israel have significantly increased. Israel is at the top of the GINI index list of developed countries with unequal income. In the state’s early years, Israel was closer to Western Europe in terms of inequality; in recent years, Israel has become increasingly similar to the United States (Dahan, no date). and Israel’s social capital,Social capital is a function of social organization, civic involvement, support, and confidence, all of which determine whether there will be societal cooperation in order to achieve mutual benefit (Kawachi et al., 1997). The less social capital there is in society as a whole, the more difficult it is to attain social solidarity and the less activity there is toward achieving mutual benefit. which is relatively poor on a national level and is influenced by many social fissures. On the level of the community and the individual, notable factors include education, employment, gender,Although no consistent evidence of a link between gender and health has been found (Manor et al., 2004, 458), several pieces of evidence related to gender inequality in health in minority contexts should be noted (Cooper, 2002; Kaplan et al., 2009). and access to healthcare services. Another factor that has been proven to affect health in countries around the world is racial discrimination (this has yet to be studied in Israel in an in-depth manner). Changes in legislation and ever-diminishing budget allocations for healthcare have also played a role in expanding gaps in healthcare between the Jewish and Arab populations. In 1995, the future looked rosy: the basic principles of the National Compulsory Health Insurance Law, which took effect in 1995, reflect the notion that healthcare is a resource to which all members of society are entitled, in accordance with their medical needs and irrespective of their ability to pay (Bin Nun, 2010). However, this law’s contribution to equality has been eroded over the years by a variety of amendments that were introduced into the legislation.These amendments, which began to be introduced in 1998, were ostensibly meant to “increase the HMOs’ flexibility, authority, and responsibility.” Instead, they merely increased the HMOs’ dependence on the State budget (in part due to the abolition of the “parallel tax,” i.e., Histadrut or health-fund dues) and created incentives for them to increase their revenues from members (in the form of supplementary insurance). Alongside the trend toward privatization of sources of funding for the healthcare system, a similar trend emerged in the provision of healthcare: the development of private medical services. The combination of these two factors undermined the public nature of Israel’s healthcare system and weakened the notion that all Israelis have a right to healthcare (Bin Nun, 2010). The first to suffer from reduced healthcare budgets are residents of Israel’s periphery, who generally have a lower life expectancy and suffer from a shortage of beds and human resources at hospitals. Moreover, for Israeli Arabs, most of whom live in the periphery, access to medical services is extremely limited. Thus, for example, Arab women explain the low rate of mammography in their sector by the great distance they have to travel in order to undergo the test. Note too that cultural accessibility, both in terms of understanding the Arabic language and of understanding Arab culture, is extremely important. It is vital that primary-care clinics and specialist doctors include Arab professionals and that translation services (including information pamphlets in Arabic) are made available.

No comprehensive study has ever been conducted on how members of the Arab sector are affected by their unequal access to healthcare services or on how their experience of racial discrimination has impacted their health. We believe that addressing this important issue is a vital step in order to achieve "social justice" in healthcare.

One way to measure social justice is to check the extent to which various groups are represented in key roles and leadership positions in the public sphere. When a given population is under-represented in such positions over time, its members are less likely to reach key positions in society. This kind of infringement of equal opportunity is an infringement of social justice as well; thus the decades-long exclusion of Israel’s Arab citizens from the shared public sphere and their relegation to the fringes of society severely damages social justice in Israel.

One of the most important dimensions of shared society is the sphere of work and employment. G. W. Allport maintains that differences in job status between majority groups and minority groups play an active role in creating and perpetuating prejudice. According to Allport, ending discrimination and prejudice in the workplace must begin with involving members of minority groups in the senior ranks of the organization. Originally proposed as a way to diminish prejudice, Allport’s "contact hypothesis" has evolved over the years into a key psychosocial theory for enhancing intergroup relations. According to this hypothesis, intergroup contact can, under certain conditions, diminish prejudice. One of the necessary conditions for achieving this result, according to Allport, is for the contact to take place in an environment in which the groups have equal status or when the members of the minority group have a higher status than the majority (Allport, 1954: 250–268).

Keeping Israel’s Arab population at the margins of the public sphere and preventing members of the Arab sector from being promoted to management roles in the working world contribute to a negative self-image, by making it seem as though Arabs are incapable of or unsuitable for participating in the labormarket as equals. Moreover, the lack of employment opportunities for Arabs can lower the employment expectations of Arab youth, and thus can contribute to perpetuating inequality. These processes, in turn, produce a vicious cycle that perpetuates social inequality and continually reproduces it.

Although the Arab sector is severely under-represented in management positions, there are signs of change on the horizon. In recent years, Israeli Arab citizens have succeeded in attaining management positions not only in the internal economy in Arab localities, but also in the general labor market, where they work in positions in which they supervise Jewish employees and work with Jewish customers. Even though the percentage of such managers is small at this stage, this process has the potential to reduce prejudices and tensions between the two groups and to increase willingness for cooperation and coexistence.

Yet, alongside this positive process, there are increasing trends of racism and calls for broader and more intensive exclusion of Israel’s Arab population—both in terms of Knesset legislation (e.g., the Nakba Law, the Loyalty Law, the National Anthem Law, the Acceptance Committee Law, and the Citizenship Law) and in Israel’s public sphere (e.g., halakhic rulings that Jews may not rent or sell homes to Arabs). The realization of social justice in Israel requires society to support equitable integration of the Arab sector, on the one hand, and to reject racist legislative and public initiatives that ostracize and marginalize Israel’s Arabs, on the other hand. Similarly, extensive educational initiatives and information campaigns are necessary in order to raise public awareness of the fact that there will never be “social justice” in Israel as long as the presence of Arab citizens in the shared public sphere is seen as illegitimate and unwanted.

In a study currently being conducted at IDI, we are examining whether having Arabs in management positions reshapes the perceptions that Arab and Jewish employees have of the “Other.” The research hypothesis is that knowing an Arab in a managerial position can reduce prejudice and encourage both tolerance and acceptance of the multicultural nature of Israeli society. The study will help measure how the positive changes that are already taking place in the field are creating a change of consciousness that will accelerate the integration of Israeli Arabs and pave the way for a more equitable society in Israel.

At the time of its founding, Israel defined itself as an egalitarian state that "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex." Nevertheless, the data indicate that there is no such equality between religions in Israel, as seen from the inequality between Arabs and Jews in the economy, healthcare, and the shared public sphere. This inequality between Arabs and Jews and its impact on the socioeconomic situation and political status of Israeli Arabs casts their call for "social justice" in a very different light than that of Jewish citizens. This, in turn, highlights the need for more practical government policy and intervention that will contribute to realizing true "social justice."


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