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Israeli Arabs and Jews in Dialogue and Coalition

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Though the Sun beats down with extreme intensity upon the countries that comprise the Middle East, the almost constant barrage of troubling and often violent incidents metaphorically eclipse the golden rays from reaching the land and its people. During my latest trip to Israel in June of this year, however, I discovered glimmers of light and warmth and the potential for a brighter tomorrow.

I had the opportunity to attend a joint meeting between members of the Israeli non-governmental organization, Kav Mashve, and a group of 14 professional women from the Cleveland, Ohio area who were on an information-gathering trip conferring with women from throughout Israel. The trip was sponsored by The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).

Kav Mashve ("The Equator," whose masthead subtitle is "Employees' Coalition for Equality for Arab University Graduates") was founded in October 2007 by Jews and Arabs to promote equal employment opportunities and to increase substantially the number of Arab college and university graduates in the professional labor force, both public and private, within the state of Israel. My cousin and life-long friend Larry Tishkoff, who works at the Israel office of JFNA, organized the week-long itinerary for the women who were visiting Israel under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.

We all met in the Community Center in the small Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, located approximately 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) west of Jerusalem, a town known for its good relations with its Jewish Israeli neighbors. Its old Arabic name of Qaryat al'Inab ("Grape Village") has led biblical scholars to identify Abu Ghosh with the ancient site of Kiryat Ye'arim.

Today, Muslim Arab residents comprise 20 percent of the total Israeli population. According to Kav Mashve's informational videos, though the Israeli government has instituted an affirmative action policy of employing Arabs in government jobs, has provided financial incentives to prospective employers, and funds and staffs employment guidance centers in Arab towns throughout Israel, the employment rates of Arab Israeli college and university graduates within their respective fields persists one-fifth lower than their Jewish counterparts. While approximately 7 percent of Jewish university graduates remain unemployed, fully 13 percent of Arab Israelis cannot find employment, or they are underemployed working in fields outside their educational backgrounds, such as serving as taxi drivers or low ranking secretaries. When they do find positions, on average Arab graduates earn 35 percent less than Jewish graduates.

Reporting on their survey of employers, Kav Mashve found that 22 percent replied that racism toward Arabs and 21 percent said that prejudices toward Arabs were the primary factors responsible for the higher levels of Arab graduate unemployment, while 25 percent believe that security issues account for this disparity.

The obstacles of widening employment and income gaps between college graduates from traditionally dominant groups and graduates from minoritized communities are no less problematic in other countries across the planet, including the United States. For example, a study in 2008 found that "the mean annual income of blacks with a four-year degree was more than $13,000 less than that of whites with the same level of education. And blacks who had a master's earned about $1,500 a year less than whites with a bachelor's degree."

In addition, according to a 2011 national survey, 47 percent of Americans felt that the values of Islam are opposed to American values, 41 percent are uncomfortable with a Muslim teacher at an elementary school in their community and almost 50 percent are uncomfortable with a mosque in their neighborhood, Muslim men praying at an airport, and a woman wearing a burqa.

In Israel, Kav Mashve's mission statement emphasizes that "Employers will gain committed qualified employees and benefit from a diversity of thought and knowledge, Arab college graduates will gain equal opportunities and a chance to realize their potential, and Israeli society will implement principles of civil equality fundamental to a democratic state." The organization's CEO, Yael Kohn Sharon, led the discussion by giving a short history and the purpose of Kav Mashve, and reiterated what she had stated on their online video that "[n]ot many employers [in Israel] are familiar with the Arab society, and they prefer employing someone they know. In the end, the bottom line is what counts: the profit." She continued by stating what she has witnessed after successfully placing an Arab in a work position: "I can say that when an Arab university graduate is employed, the stigma gradually fades and the prejudices vanish."

Kav Mashve provides a full range of services, from offering career training programs for Israeli Arab high school students to assisting them in the college entry process and helping them in deciding on a course of study that blends their interests, strengths, and career path goals. It also runs interviewing skills training courses in the job interviewing process, and to raise awareness regarding the differences between the candidates' home cultures and the potential business cultures that graduates will encounter.

Next to present her story was Kheir Abdelrazik, a former public relations executive in an Israeli firm and current Kav Mashve Deputy Marketing Manager. She talked about her challenges as a young women brought up in Arab Israeli town of Nazereth, and the culture shock she initially experienced looking for work and finally landing a professional position in a large corporation in Tel Aviv, Israel's principal and most populated business center.

Last to present was Reem Younis, owner and CEO of Alpha Omega Engineering Company, Ltd, a Nazareth Arab medical high tech equipment company in the area of neurology and neurosurgery founded in 1993, who talked about her company and her association with Kav Mashve. She talked with pride of the products invented by her world class scientists and engineers that are now utilized in many advanced hospitals, universities, and research institutions across the globe.

Both Kheir and Reem are committed to the righteous goals of Kav Mashve, talking with individuals and groups in their efforts to increase the professional Arab workforce and reduce the discrimination that often impacts their employment possibilities within Israel. Though Kav Mashve has helped to place approximately 500 Arab university graduates in companies throughout Israel, members are the first to admit that they still have far to travel to reduce the enormous problem of Arab unemployment and underemployment which, if not sufficiently addressed, remains as a major impediment to Israeli's security and its future.

As I witnessed this forum, I was struck by the honest, open, and compassionate dialogue between these women -- who represented Arabs, Jews, and Christians. Following a lively and engaging question and answer period between the American women and the women from Kav Mashve, and just before we were due to adjourn for dinner, I discussed with those assembled that for so very long now, men have been in charge of nations and governmental relations in the Middle East with little success in bringing about a comprehensive and lasting peace. Quite possibly, I said, if women were to lead the efforts, conditions might be substantially better between all ethnicities, religions, cultures, genders, and sexualities, and we might have better results in obtaining an enduring peace. To this, the women smiled broadly and gave me a hearty round of applause.