For Young Arab Israeli Men, It’s Increasingly Becoming a Woman’s World

Men of marriageable age are already contending with the fact their female peers are better educated and pickier. Now, demographic trends are going to make finding a partner even harder

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Young Arab women walking through a Jerusalem market.
Young Arab women walking through a Jerusalem market. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

There’s trouble brewing in the relations between men and women in Israeli Arab society, especially inside marriages. More women are choosing to remain single or delay marriage to a later age, and divorce rates are rising. And the problem is likely to grow worse in the years ahead, as an emerging demographic imbalance among Israeli Arabs creates an excess of marriageable-age men.

In a society where marriage is the overwhelming norm, that threatens to compound the existing problem of young Arab men marginalized by lack of employment and higher education, which many experts say is behind the crime wave in the Arab community.

The emerging gender imbalance was identified by Prof. Alex Weinreb, research director at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, in a study published this week. He looked at population trends for Arab men ages 25-28 – the typical age for them to marry – versus those of Arab women six years younger. That’s the average age gap today between couples in the Arab community.

What he found was that in 2020, the marriage market favored men, with a ratio of about 0.88 men ages 25-28 for every woman in the 19-22 cohort. But Weinreb’s forecasts show that this advantage for men will disappear in 2025, and that by 2028 the ratio will reach 1.1 men for every woman.

The imbalance will continue through the 2030s, according to his projections.

Weinreb takes into account the possibility that the age gap might narrow in the future. But his projections based on gaps of two years (the norm for non-Haredi Israeli Jews) and four years show pretty much the same trendline.

That’s a problem on a personal level for young Arab men trying to enter adult life by entering the labor market and forming a family. But it’s also a problem for Israel, because a surfeit of young, unmarried men is likely to compound the existing problem of so many Arab men neither working nor in school and often turning to a life of crime.

Worse still, due to a “youth bulge” in the current 18-22 age group, there will be an especially large increase in the number of Arab men unmarried and in a category economists call NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training). The crime wave in the Arab community that has seen the homicide rate soar since 2018 will be even harder to control as more young men are tempted to join gangs.

“Youth bulges don’t always lead to social instability. Many countries have this age structure and you don’t have violence. But we now know when there’s a combination of this age structure and a large percentage of socially disengaged young adults, that’s a problem,” Weinreb explains.

Marital tension

Young Arab men are not only going to be contending with unfavorable numbers, but a marriage market where young women look increasingly askance at who is available as a prospective partner. That is because Arab women are getting a higher education in far greater numbers than Arab men. This is giving them more financial independence than before, enabling them to put off marriage until they find the right partner, or even remain single.

It also has given them a greater sense of freedom to leave their partners due to incompatibility – the divorce rate for Israeli Arabs nearly doubled in the decade through 2019.

A higher education not only imparts formal learning and job skills, but it also changes attitudes and opens students up to worlds outside the community they grew up in. More educated wives are likely to earn more money than their husbands and be employed in higher-status jobs. The latter, research has shown, can develop into a major source of marital tension.

“Today, we’re seeing the results of a quiet revolution due to higher education – two thirds of [Arab] students in institutes of higher education are women,” says Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “This is nothing less than remarkable … we’re talking about a traditional society, a patriarchal society,” she adds.

A young Arab woman at Tel Aviv University a few years ago.Credit: David Bachar

While Arab families have invested more resources in their children’s education over the last decade, the educational revolution was just as much a result of state intervention that was put to good use by young women more than young men.

Figures Weinreb developed for his study “Youth Bulge, Violent Crime and Shortages in the Israeli Arab Marriage Market” from official statistics clearly illustrate that: The percentage of Israeli Arab men in their thirties with a bachelor’s degree or higher has grown a lot – from 11 percent in 2002 to 18 percent in 2020. But for women, the rate has grown much faster, nearly tripling during the period to 35 percent.

“When you invest a lot in women and, against that, you ignore the men and don’t allow them to develop – to get an education and allow them to remain the dominant one – that causes no small number of problems inside the family,” says Haj-Yahya, whose expertise is in the socioeconomics of young Arab men and women.

“We’re seeing that in rising rates of divorce in Arab families in recent years. There’s also a lot of data on rates of unmarried people in Arab society and the rising age of marriage for Arab women. All that’s connected with a society that is transitioning from a traditional society to a modern one. That’s on one side. On the other, we’re seeing government reforms that are trying to accelerate these changes occurring inside Arab society,” she says.

Weinreb’s study doesn’t address the reasons behind the widening education gap, but he does note that it is a global phenomenon – and one that is occurring in Israel, too, albeit at a more moderate rate. However, he says the gap is often wider in minority populations.

“The parallel here is the gap in educational attainment between men and women [in the United States], which is wider for African-Americans than for whites,” he says. “There are critiques about the education system in general: that it demands a certain conformity in behavior, which is at odds with what being a ‘good’ man is. These are not manly virtues – sitting in a classroom and learning to read.”

NEET solution

Israeli Jewish society has safety valves for boys and young men struggling in school: Mandatory army service creates a post-high school framework that often makes up for the lack of education and training young men get in their school years. Secular Jewish society tolerates sexual relations outside of marriage, so the pressure to marry and settle down is far less.

Weinreb discounts the possibility of the demographic gender gap being solved by Israeli Arab men finding mates in the West Bank or Jordan. Easing restrictions on so-called family unification rules is vehemently opposed by the Israeli right. In any case, West Bank Palestinians and Jordanians would likely resist large numbers of their young women leaving their communities for life in Israel.

Weinreb holds out some hope from the recently approved government plan to spend billions of shekels in Arab communities over the next five years. Money spent on infrastructure development, education, housing and the like should help to a degree if it is properly managed and the funds really reach communities, which often didn’t happen during the government’s previous program launched in 2015.

More Arabs doing civilian national service would help even more by giving young people a framework similar to the army as they enter adulthood. Haj-Yahya believes the government should be targeting the NEET problem and crime by establishing a dedicated agency to address the problem.

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