In Israel, military service is the way young men and women in their formative years develop friendships and connections that often lead to later employment opportunities.
But few of Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens serve in the military, putting them at a “huge disadvantage in a country where military service is so central to Israeli identity,” according to Manuel Trajtenberg, an economics professor at Tel Aviv University and the former chief economic adviser to then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Because they are not expected to serve “for the foreseeable future,” their attendance at Israeli colleges and universities might provide an “alternative platform” for them to integrate into Israeli society, Trajtenberg told lay and professional leaders last week at UJA-Federation of New York.
“By having a platform in which you are equal and play with the same objective, you acquire common experiences,” he said in a later interview with The Jewish Week. “You sit in the classroom and you laugh together at the teacher — something you will remember for years.”
Helping Israeli Arabs get a good education and quality employment will help not only them but is vital for Israel’s continued economic prosperity, Trajtenberg argued.
He pointed out that only 63 percent of Israeli Arabs reach the 12th grade annually, compared to 92 percent of their Jewish peers. Only 12 percent pursue a bachelor’s degree, 8.4 percent a master’s degree and just 4.4 percent a Ph.D. “That’s a huge loss for the Israeli economy.” Trajtenberg said. “The Arab minority is an existential issue for Israel — no less than Iran.”
“The Arab minority is not integrated [into Israeli society] and I don’t want to live in a society like that,” he told the UJA audience. “I feel ashamed about it and it is up to us as a Jewish and democratic state to bring up the Arab minority. There is no question that higher education is the key to employment.”
Trajtenberg pointed out that Israeli Arabs who comprise 20.6 percent of the country’s population contribute only 8 percent to its GDP for an estimated annual loss to the economy of nearly $8.4 billion.
The figures are contained in a report released in December by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of 100 major North American Jewish organizations committed to raising awareness about Israeli Arabs.
Despite those sober statistics, Israel currently enjoys an A+ economic rating from Standard & Poors, an A1 rating from Moody’s and an A from Fitch. All three agencies have upgraded Israel one notch since the beginning of the global economic crisis in 2008, according to Israel’s Economic Ministry.
But Trajtenberg warned that such economic prosperity is in jeopardy unless Israeli Arabs become part of Israel’s economic engine.
“Of the children now in the first grade, slightly over 50 percent are haredi [fervently Orthodox] or Arab,” he explained. “They will be the face of the Israeli workforce in 14 or 15 years; this is not a projection. And Israel cannot afford to have over 50 percent of its potential workforce[continued to be under-employed] because we will go down in every aspect of our economy. That is the urgency” of this issue.
Trajtenberg lumped Israeli Arabs and fervently Orthodox Israelis together because of their similar statistics. Today, the unemployment rate among Arab men is 60 percent; it is about 65 percent among fervently Orthodox men, who comprise about 10 percent of the Israeli population. In 20 years, the fervently Orthodox are projected to comprise 17 percent of the population because on average they have eight children per family, according to the Bank of Israel.
Stanley Fisher, who is to step down in June as chairman of the Bank of Israel, has warned that such a situation with the fervently Orthodox “is not sustainable. … We can’t have an ever-increasing proportion of the population continuing to not go to work.”
Their failure to work reportedly cost the state $1 billion in 2009 alone.
But among those Israeli Arabs with a higher education, fully 77 percent are employed — a figure that supports Trajtenberg’s conviction that education is the key to success.
As chairman of the budgeting and planning committee of the Council for Higher Education in Israel, Trajtenberg told the UJA-Federation meeting that his committee has developed an $81 million, six-year plan to put Israeli Arabs on the path from high school through advanced degrees and into employment. Launched in 2010 on a limited scale, it is being fully implemented over the next four years beginning March 6.
He said the recent Israeli election that saw a record 48 new people elected to the Knesset bodes well for its success.
“The prevailing feeling in Israel is of renewed hope,” he said. “The winds of change are blowing and there is a sense that at long last we are ready to confront dilemmas and issues that are decisive for the future of Israel.”
Among them, he said, is the Palestinian conflict, the integration of the fervently Orthodox haredi Jews into Israeli society, and closing the widening inequality gaps.
He pointed out that Israeli Arabs have a per capita income that is 40 percent that of the Jewish population, which means that about 57 percent are defined as poor by Israeli standards. Among the fervently Orthodox it is 60 percent and among other Israelis it is 15 percent.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the choices we make now are central to the future of society. We know Israel is fragmented with haredim, settlers, an Arab minority and socioeconomic gaps that are threatening to tear it apart.”
David Mallach, UJA-Federation’s managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People, said “the issue of working with the Arab citizens of Israel to help them achieve parity in Israeli society is something UJA-Federation has been involved with since the early ‘80s with Project Renewal.”
Trajtenberg said that among the initiatives for Israeli Arabs his six-year plan call for are: an increase in college and university budgets to hire Israeli Arab faculty; an expansion of educational counseling and support centers for high school students in Israeli Arab communities; pre-college preparatory courses; support programs for Arab Israelis in their first year of college and career development programs in subsequent years.
In addition, it calls for college scholarships for Israeli Arabs, for which Trajtenberg said the American Jewish community might wish to raise money.
“How the Jewish community should get involved is for them to decide,” he said. “The Israeli government is putting money into scholarships.”
Mallach said UJA-Federation lay leaders make funding and grant-making decisions.
A spokesman for the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which promotes a shared future for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, said the plan places “substantial emphasis on providing scholarship support to Arab students and does not yet address some of the core barriers to equality in higher education, such as recruitment and admissions practices, culturally-biased psychometric testing, and others.”
“Without bolder and more comprehensive plans directed towards opening greater job opportunities for young Israeli Arabs, we believe that closing the higher education gap is a necessary but not sufficient step.”