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Jonathan Cook | Al-Ahram Weekly | 4-10 March 2004
Discrimination against Israel's Palestinian citizens has been expanding to include a total ban of the use of Arabic language by workers, reports Jonathan Cook
A photograph of Abeer Zinaty shows the 20- year-old student from the mixed Arab and Jewish city of Ramle in central Israel wearing a T- shirt branded with the logo "Excellent Worker 2003 -- McDonald's Israel". Less than a year later she is unemployed, fired by the world's most famous fast food company. Her crime, according to the branch manager, is that she was caught speaking Arabic to another Arab employee.
Zinaty's treatment at the hands of the Israeli management of McDonald's is a stark illustration of an ever-swelling tide of discrimination against Arab workers, director of Mossawa -- a political lobbying group for Israel's one million Palestinian citizens -- Jafar Ferah told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Nominally, Arabic is an official language of the State of Israel, but it has been long-standing practice in many Israeli firms to ban its use among staff. It is the first time, however, that a company of McDonald's stature has implicitly acknowledged that speaking in Arabic provides grounds for dismissal. The decision to fire Zinaty for speaking Arabic was confirmed by McDonald's Ramle branch manager to Al- Ittihad, a local Arab daily newspaper, last month.
In a subsequent letter to Mossawa, the company's Human Resources Director Talila Yodfat said that all workers are instructed "to use only Hebrew when talking among themselves or in front of customers to avoid uncomfortable situations". However, faced with threats of legal action, Yodfat is now also arguing that the ban on Arabic was not racist in intent but to avoid possible "miscommunication" between staff of different ethnic groups.
The sacking of an Arab worker for speaking her own language is only the tip of an iceberg of decades-old discriminatory practices against the Palestinian minority in the workplace, said Wahbe Bidarne, director of the Arab workers' pressure group Voice of the Labourer. "It doesn't matter whether we are talking about small private firms, like restaurants, or governmental institutions: the racism is the same," he said. "However well-qualified, most Arabs can only find work -- if they can find work at all -- as day labourers in roles such as olive picking, or working in construction or in factories."
Discrimination against Arab workers is apparently being reinforced by repeated incitement against the minority from senior public figures. Even government ministers regularly accuse the Palestinian minority -- some 20 per cent of the population -- of being involved in terror, or of posing, together with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, a danger to the future of Israel.
At a recent conference of Israeli leaders, for example, Treasury Minister Binyamin Netanyahu concluded, "Even if the Arabs integrate wonderfully with us, when their numbers reach 35 to 40 per cent of the Israeli population, the Jewish state will, at that point, cease to exist." His comments came as the government revealed that it was considering plans to transfer an area of Israel known as the Little Triangle -- close to the West Bank and densely populated with Arab citizens -- to a future Palestinian state.
There has been a spate of stories in recent months suggesting that Arab workers are less welcome than ever in an economy still largely controlled by the state. This month, the state prosecutor's office gave its legal blessing to a decision taken by the Chief Rabbinate of Tiberias to award higher kosher ratings to establishments that employed Jews only. Tiberias' restaurants have traditionally employed a high proportion of low-paid Arabs in their kitchens.
This followed on the heels of the sacking of the Arab catering manager at the Nirvana Hotel on the shores of the Dead Sea after he refused to fire 40 Arab workers. The Nirvana's bosses apparently told him that guests had been complaining about the presence of Arabs in the hotel. They had feared bad publicity if they sacked the workers themselves.
In another high-profile case, Arab employees of the National Insurance Institute in Nazareth have filed a petition against the office's director, Moshe Nun, claiming that since his appointment three years ago he has sacked 19 Arab workers while at the same time hiring 27 Jews.
A report published last month by the Adva Centre -- a Tel Aviv group promoting equality and social justice -- showed that the 36 worst employment black spots in Israel are all Arab areas. Even after government manipulation of the figures to lower the percentages of joblessness among Arab citizens, Arabs are still more than twice as likely to be unemployed as Jews.
Most Arabs who do work are in low-paid casual jobs. "The Israeli economy is now nose- diving and the first casualties of that are always Arab citizens," said Badarne. "If a restaurant has to sack workers it will choose Arabs. Or if unemployed Jews are willing to accept low-paid jobs, then managers will sack long-standing Arab workers."
In fact, workplace racism was embedded in the very earliest Zionist thinking. The notion of "Hebrew labour" was imported by early Jewish immigrants to Palestine and today it is reflected in the ideology of the Histadrut, the nearest thing Israel has to a trade union federation.
The Histadrut's success in prioritising Jewish work over Arab work is easily measured by examining the employment patterns of Israel's two biggest state employers; the telecom company Bezeq and the Israel Electricity Corporation. With a workforce of some 10,000 people, Bezeq employs fewer than 10 Arabs. The electricity company with 14,000 staff is reported to have an even smaller number of Arab workers. Both firms need a vast array of technicians, accountants, secretaries, receptionists and managers and are responsible for providing services to every Arab and Jewish town and village in the country.
Farouk Omri, a sales manager with Bezeq and its most senior Arab employee, says the handful of Arab workers are a legacy of a brief experiment carried out in the mid-1980s by the headteacher of the Bezeq College in Jerusalem, which exclusively trained technical staff. "It was always a catch-22 for Arabs," he told the Weekly. "If you applied to Bezeq for a job they would ask whether you had trained at the college. But Arabs weren't allowed to study there in the first place. Only in 1983 did the headteacher finally agree -- under mounting accusations of racism -- to allow two Arab entrants a year. Anyone who passed the college exams was guaranteed a job afterwards. The college closed down in 1988 and the admission of Arabs to Bezeq ended."
Omri says Bezeq now uses a more familiar practice to bar the employment of Arabs. By claming its work involves state security, Bezeq demands that Arab applicants prove they have completed military service. Almost all Arabs are excluded from the army. "The argument that Bezeq's work is security sensitive is rubbish," said Omri. "Maybe 50 to 100 jobs could be described in that way: those technicians working in military installations and in the Ministry of Defence."
Security claims mean that Arabs can be excluded from much of the economy. Arabs cannot be employed in the nuclear industry, including both the Dimona reactor and secret weapons plants, in many textile factories that supply military clothing, in numerous military industries, in the national airline carrier and at the airport and in the prison service -- although an exception is made in the case of Druze who served in the army.
Even private firms including restaurants and offices use security as a pretext to bar Arab applicants. Many professional jobs are also off- limits, including those in engineering and architecture, because they are viewed as security related. Most highly educated Arabs are left to work as teachers, lawyers or doctors within their own communities.
Reports produced annually by Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab group campaigning for equality of opportunity, have shown that the government in effect sanctions such discrimination by using precedents. Despite a drive by the government of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to recruit Arab citizens to the civil service during the Oslo years of the mid-1990s, and later legislation initiated by Arab Knesset members to ensure "fair representation", Arabs comprise just six per cent of the civil service. The great majority is employed in the Health, Environment, Religious Affairs and Education Ministries, all of which need Arab speakers to handle their dealings with Arab towns and villages.
Several ministries exclude Arabs from their workforce. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, responsible for the Communications Ministry, replied to a Knesset query last month as to why there were no Arabs in his department by saying that none of the applicants were suitable. The real reason, however, is that the Communications, Housing, Transport and Industry Ministries consider their work to be security-related: large sections of these departments effectively plan and implement the occupation of Palestinian territories.
Similarly, the boards of some 111 government- run companies are overwhelmingly dominated by Jews -- again in contravention of Israeli law. Only 18 boards have an Arab director -- comprising three per cent of the total directorships -- and it is usually just a case of a single director on a board of several Jews. In a large number of cases, these directorships are rewards reserved for trusted Druze who served in the Israeli military.