WRMEA, September-October 2011, Pages 11, 53

The Nakba Continues

In Israel, It's Kosher to Discriminate Against Non-Jewish Citizens

By Jonathan Cook

altA Jewish settler working for Yoram Cohen, owner of the Tany Kosher winery in the illegal West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra, some 20 miles north of Jerusalem, empties a crate of harvested grapes. (Pmenahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

"We don't employ Arabs"—or so dozens of companies listed in Israel's Yellow Pages directory boast to potential customers.

The businesses, which include a bus company, plumbers, electricians and a moving firm, openly advertise under the banner of "Hebrew labor"—a policy to hire only Jews—in violation of Israel's anti-discrimination laws.

According to Israeli civil rights groups, a spate of recent initiatives seeks to favor Jewish jobseekers over the country's Palestinian Arab citizens, 20 percent of the population. (By contrast, African Americans constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population.)

The trend toward "Jews-only" employment practices reflects Israel's rapid shift to the right, they say, and warn that anti-discrimination laws are rarely being enforced to protect Arab workers' rights.

Initiatives from right-wing groups include awarding "kosher" certificates to companies that restrict hiring to Jews, and a campaign by Orthodox religious communities to boycott businesses identified as employing Arabs.

In addition, growing anti-Arab sentiment in the parliament has prompted a raft of so-called loyalty bills from right-wing parties, including on employment policies.

In June the country's chief law officer warned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that a bill drafted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's party, reserving many public-sector jobs for former soldiers, was "unconstitutional."

Arab citizens are generally exempted from army service and would therefore be ineligible for many jobs.

"We're seeing a disturbing trend to create Arab-free workplaces," said Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with the Adalah legal center for Israel's Arab minority.

"In the current climate, firms are increasingly confident that it will be good for business if they declare themselves opposed to hiring Arab workers."

The controversy over the Yellow Pages ads has highlighted the revival of "Hebrew labor" practices that predate Israel's creation in 1948.

The policy of segregated employment originally was devised by early Jewish immigrants in Palestine to strengthen their position as they settled among the large native Palestinian population.

But prejudice against Arab workers has remained widespread to this day: a survey in late 2009 showed that 83 percent of Israeli employers admitted being opposed to hiring Arab graduates.

Ron Gerlitz, a co-director of Sikkuy, an organization that works to advance equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel, said a coalition of nine Israeli rights groups had launched a campaign to put public pressure on Yellow Pages to withdraw the ads.

He said he had first become aware of the "Hebrew labor" firms when he searched for an emergency plumber in his local directory.

"Publication by the Yellow Pages of these ads gives a seal of approval to the refusal by businesses to employ Arabs," he said.

In practice, he added, thousands of Israeli firms refuse jobs to Arab workers, but most have been reluctant to publicize the fact. "What is shocking is that the 'Hebrew labor' companies are proud to declare their racism," Gerlitz noted.

In a statement, Yellow Pages defended its inclusion of the firms, saying that the use of the term "'Hebrew labor' has not been made illegal."

However, Adalah said it believed that not only were the companies breaking Israel's Equality in Employment Law of 1988, but so too was Yellow Pages.

"The directory, for example, does not allow prostitutes to advertise in its pages because prostitution is illegal in Israel, so what is different in the case of these firms?" asked Zaher.

Civil rights groups have been equally disturbed by a new bill—the latest in a string of "loyalty laws" presented in the Knesset over the past two years—that gives priority to employing discharged soldiers in the civil service.

The courts have previously ruled that the common practice by Jewish-owned companies of requiring army service when hiring for non-security positions is illegal, because it discriminates against most Arab citizens.

Yehuda Weinstein, Israel's attorney general, wrote to Binyamin Netanyhau in June urging him to do everything in his power to stop the new bill from advancing.

He also pointed out that it violated a legal requirement in effect since 2000 to take affirmative action to increase the number of Arabs in the civil service. A series of targets set by the government have had to be reduced as the proportion of Arab workers has barely risen above 5 percent over the past decade.

Asked Gerlitz, "What is the point of objecting to racist plumbers when the Israeli parliament is trying to pass laws to do the same thing on an organized and much larger scale?"

Civil rights groups have long complained that Israel's anti-discrimination employment laws are rarely enforced. The government responded in 2008 by establishing a Commission for Equality in Employment.

However, Jafar Farah, director of Mossawa, an advocacy group for Israel's Palestinian minority, said the commission—as well as the police and government bodies—had proved "unwilling" to enforce laws when discrimination occurred against Arabs.

He said Mossawa had been trying for several months, so far without success, to close down a "Hebrew labor" Web site set up by Lehava, a far-right organization. The site promotes companies that hire only Jewish employees and serve only Jewish customers.

Lehava came to prominence earlier in the year when it unveiled a scheme to award firms barring Arab workers a "kosher" certificate—echoing the regulation of food by rabbis to accord with Judaism's strict purity codes.

The certificate states that "the owner of this business employs only Jews, and not the enemy."

Some Orthodox rabbis have given their blessing to the campaign, as well as overseeing a related boycott of businesses that employ Arabs.

Janet Shalom, a lawyer for the equality commission, said the "Hebrew labor" companies were clearly breaking the law, but that the legal position of Yellow Pages in publishing the ads "needs investigating."

No action had been taken against the companies so far, she said, because the commission lacked the resources to investigate.

Asked why the commmission had not prosecuted companies promoted on the "Hebrew labor" Web site, she replied: "It's true we're not doing that. It's something to be considered."

Zaher said she could think of only a few cases in which anti-Arab discrimination by employers had led to prosecutions.

The most prominent was a ruling by a labor tribunal in 2009 that Israel Railways had broken the law in firing more than 40 Arab crossing guards because they had not served in the army.

More recently, a supermarket chain in the Jewish town of Modiin was forced to rehire more than 20 Arab workers who were fired in March on the grounds that they posed a "threat to the lives" of Jewish colleagues.

Israel's financial daily Globes suggested that the sackings may have been retaliation by management for the killing of five members of the Fogel family in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank a few days earlier.

In May Arab activists announced at a meeting in Nazareth the founding of the first independent Arab trade union in Israel since 1948, overcoming decades of opposition from Israeli officials.

The main trade union federation, the Histadrut, has long been criticized for giving preference to Jewish workers at the expense of their Arab colleagues.

Until 1959, Arab workers were barred from the Histadrut, also one of the country's largest employers. Even after the reform, Arab members were restricted to a separate section of the union for many years.

A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which admitted Israel last year, was highly critical of Israel's treatment of Arab workers.

It showed that half of the Arab population lived in poverty, a rate more than three times higher than for Jews; less than 20 percent of Arab women were employed, despite high levels of education; a large proportion of Arab graduates could not find jobs or worked in unskilled jobs; Arab workers earned 40 percent less than Jews; there were few jobs for Arabs in the public sector; labor laws and the minimum wage were weakly enforced; and industrial zones had not been provided in Arab communities. 

Jonathan Cook is a free-lance journalist based in Nazareth and the author of Blood and Religion and Israel and the Clash of Civilizations, both available from the AET Book Club.

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