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In Israel, A Push To Get More Arabs Into Management

The skyline in Tel Aviv, the business capital of Israel. Some business leaders are calling for more Arabs in management. Arabs account for about 20 percent of Israel's citizens, but less than 1 percent of managers.
AFP/Getty Images
The skyline in Tel Aviv, the business capital of Israel. Some business leaders are calling for more Arabs in management. Arabs account for about 20 percent of Israel's citizens, but less than 1 percent of managers.

Basel Egberiea, 26, says not many people have managed to leave his small hometown in northern Israel. He's an Arab citizen of Israel who studied accounting, and he says most of his Arab friends and neighbors either lacked the confidence to pursue their ambitions, or were blocked because of discrimination.

"Arabs too have dreams, have ambitions, have professional ambitions, and it is a democratic state and there should not be any ... blocks for people who want to advance," he said.

Egberiea is sitting on the 15th floor of a Tel Aviv high-rise. The silent city below sprawls from the crowded downtown to the Mediterranean Sea. He is a middle manager at Deloitte, the global accounting firm, hired earlier this year as part of the new, government-sponsored program, "Collective Impact," which helps install Arab Israelis into management positions.

Arabs account for about 20 percent of Israel's population. They are the country's largest minority, representing a higher percentage of the population than African-Americans do in the United States.

But according to a study conducted by Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, Israeli Arabs are only 0.3 percent of mid- to senior-management at Israel's leading companies. "Collective Impact" is trying to increase that percentage, beginning with six pilot companies.

"I'm getting a lot of professional knowledge that I would not be able to acquire in other places," Egberiea said. "I also think that doors are opened to me."

Fewer opportunities

The doors of Deloitte and other Israeli companies weren't necessarily closed, but they have been harder to walk through for Arabs than for their Jewish peers.

Israeli standardized tests are written from the perspective of Jewish Israelis, so Arab results average lower. Arab students don't get as much English-language education to gain the language skills many companies demand. Economists have written about "two separate economies in the same space," referring to the vastly different opportunities available to Jewish Israelis compared to Arab Israelis.

"At the moment, at least, it is very difficult to find the right management profiles within the Israeli Arab community," said Deloitte Israel Chairman and CEO Ilan Birnfeld.

Birnfeld says in order to overcome that challenge, Deloitte has begun to distinguish between talented and experienced. The company is recruiting talented Arab citizens and giving them the training they haven't had the opportunity to receive.

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, shown here in 2015, has been calling for companies to put more Arabs in management positions.
Matej Divizna / Getty Images
Getty Images
Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, shown here in 2015, has been calling for companies to put more Arabs in management positions.

"We are not doing favor to anyone. We are just doing the right thing," he said.

The program's main goal is to create more a diverse workforce, but not among lower-level employees. The target is middle management, essentially forcing Jewish and Arab Israelis to collaborate as peers.

"This is the way to really build the trust," Birnfeld said. "This is the way to really build the openness to each other."

Widespread poverty

Program organizers also hope increasing corporate diversity can help lift up Israeli Arab communities, where 51 percent of families live in poverty, compared to 15 percent of Jewish families, according to the Authority for Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sectors. It could also help bridge a wage gap. Arab men earn 25 percent to 50 percent less than their Jewish counterparts, despite having similar workforce participation rates.

The idea is to create a cycle of employment, increasing not only the supply of Arab workers, but also the demand for Arab workers: employing more Arab Israelis increases the number of Arab Israeli companies that Deloitte can sign as clients, which in turn would increase the number of Arab Israeli managers the company needs.

Changing those economic trends is essential for Israel's future. Israeli economists warn that if Arab and ultra-Orthodox employment rates don't rise, the country's overall economic growth will be threatened.

"The workforce should be integrated in all levels," says Amir Mansour, who recruits fellow Arab Israelis for Deloitte. That leads to "more ideas, more innovation, having different styles of thinking."

Mansour is hoping the program taps into Arab Israeli communities that have been overlooked in the past.

A weak education system

But the scale is small, and experts in Arab-Jewish relations argue the challenges Arab Israelis face cannot be fixed so easily.

"Trying to bring more Arabs into management positions is wonderful. However, this is not the problem," says Dalia Fedila, a professor of Arab-Israeli society at Interdisciplinary Center University in north Tel Aviv. "This is only... the symptom of the problem. The real problem goes back into the educational system."

Fedila argues the Arab-Israeli education system has been neglected, leading to sobering statistics: only 12 percent of Arab high school students matriculate to Israeli universities, and only 9 percent of them get bachelor's degrees, which are often required for management jobs.

"The budgeting is much lower in Arab schools than in Jewish schools... The quality of people working in the system, the books: it's all connected to the same thing," she said. "Separate, and it's not equal at all."

Fedila has consulted for Rivlin, the Israeli president, whose office sponsors the Collective Impact program. She says improving Arab education is the first step to creating an Israeli society that doesn't yet exist — where Arabs aren't discriminated against, where there is more integration and where young men like Egberiea and his neighbors are encouraged to succeed.

The program's administrators admit they are making small steps. Deloitte says it will increase the number of Arab Israeli managers from about 15 to more than 30. As for Egberiea, he hopes that one day, it won't be a news story that a big Israeli company in a large, Jewish-majority city had hired him.

"I think it should be the norm that an Arab person like me would be able to work in Tel Aviv," he says. "We are part of this country, and it's our privilege and right to have these opportunities."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nick Schifrin