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The Status of Arabs in Israel

by Mitchell Bard

Roughly 21% of Israel’s more than nine million citizens are Arabs. The vast majority of the Israeli Arabs - roughly 83% - are Muslims. Arabs in Israel have equal voting rights; in fact, it is one of the few places in the Middle East where Arab women may vote. Arabs currently hold ten seats in the Knesset. Israeli Arabs have also held various government posts.

Arabic, like Hebrew, was an official language in Israel until 2018. That year the Knesset adopted the Nation State Law, which downgraded the status of the Arabic language from an official state language to one holding a more ambiguous ‘special status.’

The sole legal distinction between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel is that the latter are not required to serve in the Israeli army. This was to spare Arab citizens the need to take up arms against their brethren. Nevertheless, many Arabs have volunteered for military duty and the Druze and Circassian communities are subject to the draft.

Some economic and social gaps between Israeli Jews and Arabs result from the latter not serving in the military. Veterans qualify for many benefits and jobs not available to non-veterans. Moreover, the army aids in the socialization process. On the other hand, Arabs do have an advantage obtaining some jobs during the years Israelis are in the military. In addition, industries like construction and trucking have come to be dominated by Israeli Arabs.

While there is no institutional segregation, Jews and Arabs have chosen to live separately in all but a handful of cities. Israelis all recognize that Arab villages have historically received less funding than Jewish areas and this has affected the quality of Arab schools, infrastructure and social services. Arabs are also underrepresented in higher education and most industries.

Israeli Jews and Arabs have surprisingly little contact with each other. Most young people study at different elementary and secondary schools and may not come into contact with one another until college; by then, many preconceived opinions have been formed. This lack of interaction exacerbates tensions between the two communities.

Israeli Arabs also face their own conflicts as Palestinians in a Jewish state. While identifying with the Palestinian people and disputing Israel’s identification as a Jewish state, they see their future tied to Israel. They have adopted Hebrew as a second language and Israeli culture as an extra layer in their lives. At the same time, they strive to attain a higher degree of participation in national life, greater integration into the economy and more benefits for their own towns and villages.

Although Israeli Arabs have occasionally been involved in terrorist activities, they have generally behaved as loyal citizens. During Israel’s wars, none engaged in acts of sabotage or disloyalty. In some instances, Arabs volunteered to take over civilian functions for reservists.

There are twenty employment centers established around Israel to help the Arab, Druze, and Circassian minorities find employment and receive assistance. According to the Israeli Ministry of the Economy statistics for 2015, 8,000 new Arab, Druze, and Circassian participants sought help or assistance from these employment centers. In total these centers have helped 13,600 members of Israeli minority groups find employment, and have provided assistance for more than 24,000 individuals. Approximately 68% of candidates who have come into the employment centers since they were established in 2012 have found jobs.

The cadet course of the Israeli Foreign Ministry accepted their first Arab-Muslim woman in March 2017.  31-year-old Rasha Uthmani was nominated to be the spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Turkey, and has previously served as part of an Israeli delegation to the United Nations.  Israeli Muslim men have served as Israeli ambassadors, but never a Muslim woman.  

Israel’s public health system is a model for Jewish/Arab coworking and collaboration.  As of May 2017, 42% of all nursing students in Israel were Arabs, 38% of pharmacists in Israel were Arab, and 38% of medical students at the Technion in Haifa were Arab as well. Roughly one-fifth of Israel’s doctors, one-fourth of the nurses and almost half of the pharmacists are Arabs. Israeli Arabs look to jobs in the healthcare industry because it allows them to find work outside of the normal confines of Arab society in Israel. 

At the time of Israel’s founding, only one Arab high school was operating, today, there are hundreds of Arab schools. Most Arabs attend these schools.

In 2012, the government initiated a program to make higher education more accessible to the Arab public. A study released in January 2018 by the Council for Higher Education found that the total number of Arab-Israeli students pursuing all forms of higher-education in Israel rose by 78.5% from 2010 to 2017.

The number of Arab-Israelis pursuing bachelor’s degrees grew by 60% from 2010 to 2017. In 2017, Arab-Israelis accounted for 16.1% of all students in bachelor’s degree programs (their percentage in the general population within the relevant age group is 26%).

A report by the Council in 2019 found that 6.7% of Ph.D. candidates are Israeli Arabs, up from 3.5% in 2008. The number of Arab Ph.D. candidates more than doubled from 355 in 2008 to 759 in 2018. In 2018, 40% of these students were in the fields of engineering and natural sciences and 40% in the social sciences. Most study at Haifa University.

The number of Israeli-Arab students in master’s degree programs has risen even more dramatically – by 90% – between 2008 and 2018.

The gap between Jewish and Arab enrollment overall is the greatest at private colleges, where tuition is most expensive. Only 12% of all Arab-Israeli students are enrolled in a private university, compared to 15% of all Jewish students.

The number of Israeli-Arab teachers in Israel’s state schools increased by 40% between 2013 and 2016, as reported by Israel’s Education Ministry in August 2016. According to the Ministry, 420 Arab-Israelis taught in Israel’s state schools in 2013, compared to 588 during the 2016 school year. The school subjects that experienced the largest jump were English, math and science, which all experienced a 76% increase in the number of Arab-Israeli teachers. The number of Israeli-Arab Arabic language instructors also increased by 40% during this time span.

In April 2018, the Knesset committee for Arab affairs approved a $5.6 million two-year plan for the creation of technology parks within Arab towns in Israel to boost local employment opportunities and close income gaps between Jewish and Arab Israelis. An additional $1.4 million was earmarked to create access roads and transportation to and from these parks. This plan is an extension of a 2015 program for the economic development of the Arab Israeli sector and other minority communities from 2016 through 2020.

Israeli Arabs account for just 2.5% of employees in the high-tech sector. ‘The plan is expected to create conditions for the creation of thousands of new jobs in the fields of development, software and services, and to contribute to narrowing the gap between supply and demand’ for the employment of Arabs in the high-tech sphere, a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said.

High-tech firms are increasingly opening offices and plants in Arab towns. In Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel’s Northern District, more than 950 high-tech employees — up from just 30 in 2008 — work in companies such as Amdocs, Microsoft, and Broadcom. Of these employees, 25% are Arab women.

In 2020, the Foreign Ministry appointed Ishmael Khaldi as Israel’s first Bedouin ambassador. He will represent the country in Eritrea.

Sources: Shoshanna Solomon, “Israel earmarks NIS 20 million for new tech parks in Arab towns,” Times of Israel, (April 26, 2018);
Lior Dattel, “Number of Israeli Arab Ph.D. Candidates More Than Doubled in a Decade,” Haaretz, (February 10, 2019);
Yossi Klein Halevi, “Israel’s Arab Moment,” The Atlantic, (April 30, 2020);
Lahav Harkov, “Foreign Ministry appoints Israel’s first-ever Bedouin ambassador,” Jerusalem Post, (July 5, 2020).