The Israeli-Arab Attorney Who Can't Find an Apartment in Tel Aviv

'There are a lot of Arabs who want to integrate, but we need openness on both sides,’ says Rayek Khoury.

Eyal Toueg

Every few weeks, a lively group of some 20 young people – businesspeople, accountants, lawyers and high-tech workers – meet in one of Tel Aviv’s fashionable restaurants. What they have in common is that they’re all members of the Arab Business Club, live in the center of the country and play key roles in Israeli business.

One of the founders and an active member is Rayek Khoury, a partner in the law firm M. Firon & Co.

“There are a lot of Arabs who want to integrate, but in order to do so we need openness on both sides. When I hear about a job opening, I offer it to the members of the forum,” says Khoury. “These meetings allow us to network, to share and strengthen the involvement of the [Arab] community in the economy.”

Khoury, 31, grew up in Nazareth in a Christian home and now lives in Ramat Gan. He has worked as a lawyer for seven years and has degrees from both the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University. He admits that he never faced any barriers when he tried to find a job, and believes that those who are professional and talented can overcome any ethnic hurdle. Nor does he feel any identity problems when combining two different worlds.

“As an Israeli Arab, I watch [comedy series] “Eretz Nehederet” [Wonderful Country] and it makes me laugh, and I also enjoy watching comedian Bassem Youssef – the Egyptian Jon Stewart – or Al Jazeera,” says Khoury.

But Khoury’s integration into business and work does not make it easier for him in other areas. When he looked for an apartment in Tel Aviv, for example, he was turned down because of his background. “One apartment owner interviewed me and I even let my boss talk to her to recommend me, but in the end she said no,” he recalls. “It’s not easy for an Arab to find an apartment in Tel Aviv. I ran into people with all sorts of blocks, and I think it comes from a lack of familiarity.”

Security checks

The unpleasant experience repeats itself every time he goes to the airport. The strict security checks at El Al, which don’t exist for the foreign airlines, constantly put him in an unpleasant situation on business trips with customers. That’s why he usually chooses not to fly with the airline.

“It’s annoying and irritating that they profile an entire community in such a way, and I hope it will change,” says Khoury.

He is also critical of the proposal by Finance Minister Yair Lapid granting an exemption from value-added tax for first-time home buyers. Under the plan, those who have done military or civilian national service are eligible for the VAT exemption on housing up to 1.6 million shekels, while those who haven’t – primarily Israeli-Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews – currently face a limit of 600,000 shekels.

“It’s insulting,” says Khoury. “Why did he decide that we buy apartments for 600,000 shekels? And if I want to buy an apartment for 2 million shekels? Why is the bar lower?”

After gaining his law degree from Hebrew University, he did his apprenticeship in the Haifa law firm Yaacov Salomon, Lipschutz & Co. While working as a lawyer, he finished a masters degree in commercial law magna cum laude at Tel Aviv University in the executive international masters program, in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley. At the beginning of this year, he was made a partner in the real estate and infrastructure department at his law firm.

How do you explain the fact that there are no Arab partners in law firms?

“As far as I know, I’m the first Arab partner in a large law firm. There’s tough competition between lawyers, even without reference to their ethnic origin. It’s the aspiration of every rookie lawyer to work in a large firm. The market is saturated with lawyers, and to be a partner you need to work very hard.”

There are Arab lawyers, though, so how come there are no Arab partners? There’s no lack of Arabs in professions such as medicine and architecture – why not senior lawyers?

“I don’t have a scientific answer. To succeed as a lawyer, you need to know the language well, to understand the way of thinking and to be sharp. A lawyer advances if the clients are pleased with him, and what is important to clients is that the lawyer is good. They don’t care if I’m an Arab or a Jew of Ethiopian origin.”

Khoury is involved in huge projects that affect the entire Israeli economy, including infrastructure projects that involve cooperation between the public and private sectors, and include both local and foreign groups. Among the biggest are the tenders for building two new private ports in Ashdod and Haifa; an 800 million-shekel ($230.2 million) international tender to build three new rail lines; the recent Carmel Tunnel project in Haifa and Tel Aviv light-rail system.

Each of the projects takes years. Is Israel an overly bureaucratic country?

“True, there’s a lot of bureaucracy in Israel. To get a building permit, for example, takes a lot of time. But in recent years, we have seen more and more foreign companies taking an interest in projects in Israel in a range of areas – for example, in green energy; desalinization; transportation, including paving roads, digging tunnels, building light-rail lines, building bridges; projects for drilling for gas; projects for building new ports, etc.

“It’s clear how important it is to bring in foreign companies, which have the experience, knowledge and expertise that is not found in Israel. There’s no doubt we need foreign companies to stimulate growth and to carry out complex projects professionally.”

Cry or change

The government gives the local authorities a billion shekels, but only 2% of that goes to the Arab sector.

“That is a problem, [but] I personally think it will be corrected. They really invest less in infrastructure. You can do one of two [things]: Either you sit and cry, or you try to change it. I’m trying to look at the broader picture. If I make a small contribution to the change, I’m happy about it.

“The Carmel Tunnel, for example, is a project that benefits the Arab community. Every time I drive through the Carmel Tunnel, I’m proud to say I worked on the agreement. These projects contribute quite a bit to the Arab community.

“The sector is not separate from the rest of the economy. When you build another port, you create competition and lower prices for everyone. Everyone benefits from it.”

What is your role here as an Israeli Arab?

“The variance in Israel and the multiculturalism here is something that can lead to a lot of connections. As an Israeli Arab, I sometimes serve as a sort of bridge.

“I represented an Israeli client, who has a large factory for building supplies, with a Palestinian developer who was building a huge project. The developer wanted concrete products in huge quantities, and wanted to buy from Turkey or Jordan, but in Jordan there weren’t the quantities he wanted and in Turkey the costs were too high.

“The best solution for this developer was to buy in Israel. It was a win-win situation. In the meeting, I sat with the Israeli clients and spoke with them in Hebrew. And when I represented them with the Arab developer, I spoke Arabic. It was interesting.”

Is being a bridge a burden?

“I don’t see it that way. Israeli Arabs have the greatest interest in there being peace here. During the Second Lebanon War, when they [Hezbollah] fired rockets, people were hit in Nazareth. We understand the thinking. There is no Israeli who understands the Arabs better than we do, and there is no Arab country that understands the Israelis better than us – we know both sides the best.”

Content with career

The decision to become a lawyer was not obvious for Khoury, who from the age of 10 had an impressive sideline playing the violin. When he finished law school, he was forced to decide whether to continue with music or become a lawyer.

“I’m happy with the career I chose,” Khoury says. Even though he gave up on music as a professional career, he performs occasionally.

When one of the judges he studied with in his masters program discovered that he played the violin, she asked to hear him play. And at the graduation ceremony, he performed a program of classical music combined with Arab music.

For years, he has played with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under the direction of conductor Daniel Barenboim.

The youth orchestra – which was founded in 1999 by Barenboim and Edward Said, and based in Seville, Spain – includes both Jewish and Arab musicians from Israel and Arab countries, and performs all over the world.

“In this orchestra, you can find a Syrian Arab sitting with an Israeli who served in the army, playing Beethoven’s ‘Fifth Symphony’ together,” says Khoury.

“The greatness of the project is the combination of people from different backgrounds,” he believes. “When you play together, the most important thing is to listen to each other.”

Eyal Toueg