Two statistics illustrate the problems facing Israeli Arabs today. The one that is better known, and has been accompanied by a major public debate, is the high levels of crime. The other is the number of young Arabs who have neither a job or are in school, and that has gotten little attention.
It should be getting more because the two phenomena are directly connected, says Dr. Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya, director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute. She has been studying what is known as NEET, an acronym economists use that stands for Not in Education, Employment, or Training.
In 2017, 0.7% of Israeli-Arab adults had been convicted of a crime, three times the rate for the Jewish population. When it comes to serious crimes, such as homicide and arson, the gap widens; for instance, Arabs account for 93% of convictions for shooting incidents.
A government committee that studied the issue and released its findings last June found the crime problem was even more pronounced among young Arabs. While Arab adults accounted for 34% of all criminal convictions in 2017, even though Arabs account for just over 20% of the overall population, young Arabs accounted for 44% of the total for their age group.
“The Arab street is no longer safe. There was violence in the past, but today people walk around with weapons in the street,” says Khalil Eid, an executive at HP Indigo who runs a Facebook page with 10,000 followers that discusses the issue of violence in Arab society and possible solutions.
Eid worries whenever his son leaves the house and says a relative was killed two years ago in what he called a “casual shooting.”
Meanwhile, the Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that about 30% of about 250,000 Israeli Arabs aged 18-24 fall into the NEET category. Two thirds of them are male. The rate hasn’t changed in years, even as Israel’s unemployment rate before the coronavirus was at record low levels. Among their Jewish Israeli peers, the NEET rate is an estimated 13%.
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Haj-Yahya explains why. “While a young Jew walks a structured path that prepares them for life, a young Arab is thrown into the ‘real world’ immediately after graduating from high school. They have no social networks, no networking from military service. The only option available to them, especially if they comes from a family struggling financially, is to take a low-wage manual job.”
The majority of Israeli Arabs live in the Galilee or the Negev in Israel’s north and south, while most of the jobs are available to young Arabs in the greater Tel Aviv area.
The coronavirus pandemic, she says, has made the situation even more difficult. “Young Israelis were in the army during COVID and got paid, while Arabs ages 18 to 20 were left without any kind of economic security. In addition, Israeli labor law is designed for Jewish society, not for Arab society, which has different characteristics. As a result, thousands had no money. From there, the road to crime is short.”
The NEET rate is higher among Arab Muslims (32%) than Arab Christians (18%).
“A large majority of Christian attend private schools of much higher quality than the government educational system for Arabs. Most Druze also get a good education and go into the army. For a young Muslim it’s much harder. If he doesn’t come from a strong family, the chances that he will fail grows,” Haj-Yahya explains.
The NEET rate for young Arab women is much lower – in fact, lower than for their Jewish peers – and the challenges they face in integrating into the workforce are different. They have less freedom than young men and most are doing housework for their families. The goal is to convince them not to marry at too young an age and start families, says Haj-Yahya.
The power of the Arab family to regulate and discipline its members has been on the decline for years, which has led to a vacuum that organized crime has been quick to exploit by offering young men well-paid work and, just as importantly, self-respect. During the coronavirus the temptations have grown, she says.
The solution, she says, lies in a dialogue between the government and the Arab political leadership on policies and budgets that include reducing inequality in education and welfare.
“The majority of Arabs are good citizens, who only want to succeed in life, to get an education and find good work – just like everyone else in the country,” she says. “Unfortunately, what the government offers Arab youth wasn’t designed in collaboration or discussion with Arab political leaders.”
Eid sees employment as the solution to violence and has scheduled a meeting with Labor Ministry officials to help address the problem. “Violence can be indirectly affected by giving more employment,” he says. “As members of the business sector, we have many ways to help.”
He notes that Public Security Minister Amir Ohana has said he is giving top priority to the issue of crime in Arab communities, but to date he has seen no sign of any concrete action. But Eid also says Arabs have to take a degree of personal and societal responsibility, too.
“We, the Arab public, have a problem. We don’t work as a community but as individuals. Our local authorities are weak, the community is divided and no one locally is taking the initiative on the issues of NEET or violence,” he says. “Arab society has to wake up and raise its voice.”