This report was written by Roni Ben Efrat, and Michal Schwartz From WAC-MAAN’s Development and Gender departments
As part of its human rights agenda, WAC-MAAN works among women who have been excluded from the labor market and whose families suffer deep poverty as a result.
Of Israel’s 8.3 million citizens, 1.7 million are Arab (21%). They include some 538,800 Arab women of working age (15+). Of these, according to data from 2014, only 28% are in the labor market (employed or actively seeking work). By comparison, 66% of Israeli Jewish women are in it. If we narrow the age span to 25–64, the rate for Arab women goes up to 35%, that of Jewish women to 83%. The low participation of Arab women is the long-term result of two major factors: (1) official and unofficial discrimination against Arabs in education and employment; (2) the stigma that Arab society traditionally attaches to married women working outside the village. Hand in hand with this low participation goes a poverty rate of 54% in the Arab sector. Here 80% are categorized as lower class, compared with 34% of Jews.
The target group
“Among Arab women, the labor force participation rate increases dramatically as education rises – from 17% among women with 9-12 years of education to 67% among women with 16 or more years of education.” In other words, considering Arab women with 9-12 years of schooling, 83% (ca. 200,000) do not take part in the workforce. They lack the skills that suit a modern economy. Typically, they have three or more children, do not use a computer, do not possess a driver’s license, and do not have fluent Hebrew. Many would like to help lift their families out of poverty, but they have no idea about where or how to seek work, about how they would travel, about who would look after the children, or about fending off social pressures. These 200,000 women, plus 125,000 with even less schooling—hence a total of ca. 325,000—make up our larger target group among women.
Analysis of the employment situation
The absence of Arab women from the job market represents a basic infringement of their rights. They are condemned to a life of poverty, exclusion, and non-fulfilment—with neither ‘bread nor roses’. This infringement also burdens the Israeli economy as a whole. The Bank of Israel detected the problem long ago, but the wake-up call came from the OECD. One of the conditions for Israel’s joining the latter in 2010 was that it increase labor force participation among Arab women and ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. With regard to these groups, Dan Ben David of the Taub Center likewise warned in 2010: “In light of the rapid demographic changes that Israeli society is undergoing, the currently high rates of non-employment already characterizing large parts of the population will be impossible to maintain in the future, when these groups become the majority.” 
The low workforce participation of Arab women affects Israel’s GDP and tax base. In a recent study, Yashiv and Kasir write that if the level of Arab women’s employment rises to 36% by the year 2030, this will translate into a national GDP increase of 35 billion New Israeli Shekels (NIS) (1$ = 3.80 NIS). If it rises by 2050 to 49%, the increase in GDP will be 114 billion NIS, which is roughly a tenth of Israel’s current GDP.
Work doesn’t necessarity pull Arab women out of poverty, however. Of those who have jobs, 35.2% are part-time. Most would prefer full-time jobs but cannot find them. (Among Jewish women the part-time rate is only 11.6%). This is the case, for example, with many of WAC’s female agricultural workers, who have seasonal jobs and cannot find year-round employment. One of our aims will be to create more sustainable work positions.
As for the woman who cannot work outside her town or village, whether because of social pressure or for logistical reasons, one might ask, “Why then doesn’t she work in the village?” Indeed there are jobs available, for example as salespersons or cashiers, as secretaries for lawyers and auditors. But here is a catch: Knowing that women find it hard to leave the village for work, many local employers get away with paying them half the minimum wage; in other cases, they pay the minimum wage on condition that the woman returns a big chunk of it as cash, or they pay her as if she worked part time although she worked the full amount of hours. There is a veil of public silence over this practice. No one has dared exposing it: first, because of the consensus that married women should not leave the village, and second, because of reluctance to hang dirty laundry in public. For many women, the resulting pay is so low that it hardly seems worthwhile to adjust her life for a job.
The obstacles that keep Arab women from participating in the job market:
Years of negligence and discrimination by state authorities, as well as the social and religious conventions of their immediate environment, converge to hinder Arab women from participating in the labor market. This convergence results in the following practical impediments:
- Lack of bus service to centers of employment.
- Low availability of job opportunities in the Arab localities. Of the 44% of Arab women in Kasir’s study who had given up looking for work, 17% said the reason was that they couldn’t find work locally.
- As said, most of the jobs in the Arab towns and villages are underpaid, involving long hours at less than the legal minimum wage, while childcare is expensive.
- Lack of kindergartens
- Employers’ preference for Jewish workers (often distinguishable by their headscarves, Arab women are commonly turned away, even if that reason is not given.
- In the case of jobs outside the village, there is exploitation by middlemen and subcontractors, who take a large share of the women’s pay.
- Lack of professional skills and insufficient knowledge of Hebrew.
- Social conventions that view a working woman as betraying her role as wife and mother. This is especially true for women in manual jobs. It is less of a problem for professionals such as teachers and social workers.
- A high birth rate. Many mothers wait until the children reach adulthood, so they start looking for work in their 40’s or later, when their prospects are lower.
- The low level of most Arab schools, which do not prepare pupils to integrate in a modern economy. For instance, they do not teach Hebrew and English at a high enough level.
WAC provides solutions to many of these impediments. For example: It helps women organize in car pools so that they can form an “independent unit” and travel to farms or other work places. It makes sure that they work legally, receiving a payslip and all benefits. It encourages them to resist family pressures not to work. It teaches them about their rights, how to read a pay slip, how to overcome problems at work, and how to redistribute chores at home.
In EJ the problems are even more serious than in Israel and are closely connected to the political situation. Here only 13.3% of the Palestinian women are in the workforce, while only 11.1% actually work. Most potential jobs are in Jewish West Jerusalem, but few know Hebrew and all fear being harrassed there by special army-police patrols, or right wingers. The security situation gives greater force to family objections against working in a Jewish environment. Furthermore, there is an acute lack of daycare solutions for their children in EJ.
Nevertheless, the newly established EJ Employment Monitoring Center (EMC), which is connected to Israel’s Ministry of Economy, has told WAC that the number of EJ women who want to work is steadily growing, especially among the young. For example, the government has defined the EMC target group as 500 women, but in fact the EMC is presently serving 1000. EMC has surpassed its target of placements from 30% to 37%. It is also working on reducing women’s fears about going to West Jerusalem by sending them to courses there. This experience serves as preparation for future jobs on the west side. WAC-MAAN is in close and continual contact with the EMC.
Relevant national plans: Since 2010, Israeli governments have implemented ten decisions with direct influence on employment. The government has also allocated 3.7 billion NIS (ca. $1 billion) for increasing Arab employment. Relevant to our work is decision No. 1994, entitled: “Headquarters for integrating the Arab, Druze, and Circassian populations in employment.” It sets the goal of increasing employment among Arab women to 41% by 2020, and that of Arab men to 78%, for a total of 300,000 new jobs. So far, 22 employment centers (called Rayan centers) have been set up in Arab localities. They have hardly scratched the surface, however. Apart from being underbudgeted (NIS 150 million over a 5-year period), the Headquarters program confronts a labour market that is ill-suited to absorb non-professionals. For instance, the program does not include placement of women in agriculture, where WAC has much experience, or Care for the elderly.
The chief comptroller of Israel, former Justice Haim Yosef Shapira, has issued a special report on the state’s performance in integrating Arabs into the workforce. Summarizing it, he writes:
The report shows that the various government programs for reducing gaps in the field of employment have been sketchy and flawed, and that some of them have been ineffective. Difficulties arose in applying the multiyear programs for reducing gaps, the apportioned budgets were not fully utilized, and the aims were not achieved. The report also shows that for years the Arab population has suffered from under-budgeting in various fields, investment was scant and discontinuous, and no strategic decision was made to diminish the gaps between it and the Jewish population. Moreover, it voices concern that in the scope of the allotted investment, and given the current rate of progress, the existing programs cannot reduce these gaps significantly. The report also informs us of flaws in activities for training and job placement where the Arab population is concerned, as well as a lack of factors that support employment, such as public transportation and day-care centers.
Religious and traditional norms dominate the public arena
In the last ten years, religous and traditional norms among Arabs in Israel have become the dominant ones in the public arena. The secular and nationalist parties go along with the religious agenda of the Islamic movement’s northern wing. They make a major issue out of womens’ bodies, namely “modesty” and “family honor.” In fact, women had more personal freedom, including in their dress, before the 1990’s, when the Arab world was dominated by secular tendencies, and when the PLO was still considered a movement for secular freedom.
Nowadays, every Friday the mosques feature prayers on how the congregants’ wives, daughters, and sisters must dress or behave. The men then go home and release their anger and frustration on the females: sometimes beating them, locking them up, or maiming. Most cases of wife-murder occur in the Arab sector (see below). During recent years, violence has spread like a plague. A modestly dressed WAC member, wearing a headscarf said:”I wouldn’t mind if they came and tried to persuade me to dress modestly, but I resent it when my opinion is ignored altogether as if I didn’t exist. They [the preachers in the mosques] only appeal to males and incite them against females in their own families.”
During the last two years, Islamic leaders blocked a celebrated Palestinian film from being screened in a high school because of a kiss scene. The teacher who screened it was beaten in the Teachers Room. Islamic leaders censored plays in which females and males appear together; they denounced a debka dance where youngsters of both sexes held hands; they denounced female high school students who came out of a sports lesson “indecently dressed”; they prevented a marathon in an Arab town by shooting at the car of the organizer, a marathon runner; they denounced female football fans who went to stadiums to cheer their favorite teams; they dispersed a Pilatis lesson in an Arab village. There are numerous examples of such incidents.
Out of seven Israeli women killed by their own relatives, from January to October 2016, six were Arab. After each of the six murders, the leaders of the Islamic movement aired a lip-service denunciation. They refused to mobilize demonstrations against the murder of women or even to participate in the protests that the women then organized.
These pressures influence the women of WAC’s target group: those with less education, the jobless and poor. In one of the panels WAC organized to promote the project on women employment and agriculture, the mayor of Kafer Qara, hosting the event, went on stage. Instead of applauding the working women, he called on them not to infringe on Muslim values and traditions, as if work would corrupt them.
In contrast with the conservative trends, there is a new generation of young educated women who are tired of social censorship, family oppression, and violence. They aspire to live in a modern liberal society and to break the traditions their mothers followed. They work to save money for study, and they continue to work after marriage. The number of children they bear is decreasing, and they aspire to more personal freedom. For example, one of the victims in the suicide terror attack in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve 2017 was a young Muslim woman from an Arab village in Israel, who had gone there with female relatives to celebrate. Many “talkbacks” condemned the victim, saying she deserved to die because she had gone to celebrate the New Year—and in a night club, no less. These talkbacks provoked much rage, in turn, from those who thought she had deserved to live.
The urge to freedom is most pronounced among the educated, but not only. One of WAC’s veteran agricultural workers was suddenly widowed. She came under much social pressure not to return to work, for working without a husband’s supervision seemed indecent to some. At first she yielded to the pressure. After forty days at home, however, she returned to her job, and now she says it saved her from losing her mind.
In sum, there are growing contradictions between (1) the penetration of religious norms into every personal aspect of life, and (2) the penetration of the modern world through the media, especially social media. WAC is doing its share by helping women to improve their social and economic status, accompanying them with education and empowerment.
WAC’s experience on gender and employment
Women and agriculture:
Starting in 2005, WAC has been among the first organizations to show the connection between the problem of Arab poverty and the low workforce participation of Arab women. The situation was and is so severe that only state resources can provide the costly infrastructures, such as public transportation and daycare centers, which will be needed to solve this problem.
A long-range approach would entail education for a modern economy, but that is at best a hope for the children of these women. WAC stepped in because we understood that if the women begin to work, they will be able to raise the familial living standard, enabling their children to take courses and activities beyond the inadequate public schools and eventually to receive a higher education. We focus on the majority of women, those with 12 years of schooling or less, refusing to regard them as a lost generation.
WAC views its role as a catalyst which, by working at the grassroots level, can contribute to bigger forces. At first we had to combat the false view that “Arab women don’t want to work” by registering thousands who do want to, even in “non-prestigious” jobs like agriculture. Our assumption is that through our projects, women with fewer opportunities can work in agriculture or other manual jobs, bringing home a respectable and legal income.
WAC has created a significant change among nonprofessional women in the area called the Triangle (the area of Israel between the coast and the West Bank, including much of Route 65):
- Thousands of women have worked through WAC, gained experience and confidence. Some have formed work teams on their own, becoming independent of subcontractors, and their lives have greatly changed.
- WAC members know their rights and demand them, something that never occurred in the past.
- Even some non-WAC women who have heard about our project are refusing to work for less than the minimum wage; hence, WAC’s influence extends beyond its members.
- Present and past WAC members direct employers who need workers to WAC or urge WAC to call them.
- Women in WAC’s circles, especially the younger ones, are no longer satisfied with seasonal jobs and request year-round employment.
There is a major structural flaw which WAC has not succeeded in correcting, namely, the reliance of Israeli agriculture on about 25,000 workers from Thailand. These receive work visas and are miserably exploited; they pay a high fee just to enter the country, so they cannot be choosy. Thai workers make up 60% of the agricultural labor force, with the result that most local women are able to find jobs only in the harvest season. Farmers regard the cheap Thai labor as a compensation for the lack of state subsidies. While continuing to lobby on this issue, WAC is also seeking new fields for under-educated women, because unskilled women are usually excluded from the government’s employment initiatives.
Palestinian women in East Jerusalem
In EJ the situation is far worse than in Israel. WAC first began focusing on women there in 2016.
After almost 50 years of occupation, EJ Palestinians face a humanitarian disaster – 229,300 of 307,600 residents live in extreme poverty, unlike anything anywhere in the country.
The National Insurance Institute (NII) and the Employment Bureau (EB), in order to fulfill their legal obligations in the face of poverty, are supposed to make living stipends available, in particular an income-security benefit (ISB), which is a stipend based on an income test. The purpose is to provide opportunities for a dignified existence alongside vocational rehabilitation and job placement.
However, the number of ISBs approved for EJ residents is proportionally very low, which leads us to conclude that these institutions are not fulfilling their duties. In our field work at the NII and EB, we find methods tainted with blatant discrimination. Adding grievance to injury are statements by government ministers, who hold that the ISBs in EJ are not a right, as for all residents of Israel, but that they serve as “carrots and sticks” to control the Palestinian population. For a full analysis of the system see WAC’s report on the topic.
Among our findings are these: According to the 2015 Annual Statistical Handbook of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 76% of the EJ residents live below the poverty line (since that report the figure has risen to 82%.). Of the 76%, 84% are children. Furthermore, on average the income of the EJ poor is 41% less than the criterion for poverty within Israel. However, the percentage of EJ residents found eligible for ISBs is significantly lower than the average among the country’s total poor. In 2013, only 7% (!) of EJ residents below the poverty line received ISBs. In national terms, although the EJ poor are 13% of all the poor in Israel, and their poverty rates are the most extreme, only 2.7% of ISB payments reach their hands.
As of November 2015, EJ women constituted 56% of the applicants at the EB. These women are especially vulnerable. They are not only poor but also dependent. They have large families to care for, and they usually don’t know Hebrew. The lack of public daycare centers in EJ is another formidable obstacle, and the municipality has no plans to build any.
WAC has also learned that in EJ, unlike villages or West Bank cities, many women don’t enjoy the support of the extended family, which has often broken up. The reason is lack of room: parts of the extended family typically move to Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Separation Wall, where the government turns a blind eye to illegal building and provides no services (thinking perhaps to slough these neighborhoods off one day).
As said, only 13.3% of EJ women participate in the labor market. Indeed, only 11.1% are actually employed. In order to get their ISB they have to report to the EB weekly (or monthly if sick or above a certain age). Only if no suitable employment was offered to them will they get their ISB. If they fail to report, the ISB will be denied for two months.
The female applicants to the EB are the weakest in EJ, and they suffer most at the hands of EB officials, who seek grounds to deny their benefits. That is why we decided in early 2016 to give special attention to these women. WAC has created a 100-strong WhatsApp group which enables us to give Treatment in Real Time (TRT) by texting, sending pictures, and solving the problems with officials. These hundred women have divided into subgroups, each reporting to WAC on the situation in the waiting line at the EB. The subgroups also help the WAC team during our office reception days. Three women volunteer with us regularly. Twenty take part in workshops on their rights, as well as empowerment sessions.
For example, Rania Saleh, divorced with 4 children, a former EB applicant. She joined the WAC staff officially in June 2015 after volunteering in the organization for a year. She plays an important role in reaching women, bringing them to the WAC reception days and workshops, and helping them become active. Saleh was trained in securing women’s rights at the EB and the NII. WAC paid her tuition for a computer course, and currently she is doing her matriculation exams at an evening school with our encouragement and support.
In addition to helping women receive their legal social benefits, WAC will encourage unemployed women to seek their first jobs, as well as aiding employed women to secure their rights. We have recently begun escorting female applicants whom the EB sent to prospective jobs in West Jerusalem, in order to make sure that the jobs are actually available and decent. In this way we also show the new employers that these workers have an organization backing them.
In the above analysis we have described the special needs of a large group of Arab/Palestinian women in Israel and East Jerusalem whose rights are violated systematically by state and society. They were not provided with the tools by which they could earn a living in a modern economy. WAC-MAAN has become a lever by which these women can lift themselves and their families out of poverty and into a decent, fullfilling life. We face many difficulties, but every success—every new job—has a ripple effect, opening horizons.
 WAC acknowledges that both groups are Palestinian. However, in accordance with the general practice of the women themselves, we call those in Israel “Arab” and those in East Jerusalem “Palestinian.”
 Nitza (Kleiner) Kasir, “Employment of Arabs in Israel – Tendencies and implications”, Givat Haviva, August 2016 (Hebrew).
 Nitza (Kleiner) Kasir, “Employment of Arabs in Israel – Tendencies and implications”, Givat Haviva, August 2016 (Hebrew).
 Sheli Mizrahi Simon, “Employment among Arab women,” The Knesset Research Center, July 31, 2016.
 OECD, Review of Recent Developments and Progress in Labour Market and Social Policy in Israel: Slow Progress Towards a More Inclusive Society, OECD Publishing, 2013, p. 9.
The figures are from the 2015 Annual Statistical Handbook of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. They refer to 2013.
According to the National Insurance Institute, the poverty line income in 2013 was 2,989 NIS per month for an individual and 4,783 NIS for a couple. For a family of five, poverty line income is 9,000 NIS per month.