An Arab at the Helm of an Israeli Bank? It’s Nothing Less Than a Miracle

Israeli Arabs are ready to join the mainstream economy, but it’s not at all clear the rest of Israel is ready to welcome them

Samer Haj-Yehia, the newly appointed chairman of Bank Leumi.
Emil Salman

The election of Samer Haj-Yehia as chairman of Bank Leumi this week is being hailed as a milestone for Israeli Arabs' integration into the economy. The reality is that it's more akin to a miracle we’ll witness once in our lives.

Haj-Yehia is eminently qualified for the job. He has been a director at Leumi, Israel’s biggest bank by market value, for five years, and has sat on board committees for credit, strategy, investments and prospectuses. He has a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and degrees in accounting, business, economics and law from Hebrew University. During his years in the United States he worked with major consulting and investment firms, including six years as vice president for financial engineering at Fidelity Investments.

Haj-Yehai’s résumé is impressive and should quash any doubts that Leumi is engaging in boardroom political correctness just when its long-serving female CEO, Rakefet Russak-Aminoach, is getting ready to leave.

But if his appointment were a milestone, it would mean that we’ve marked an important advance on the way to bringing more Israeli Arabs into the heart of the Israeli economy. But it’s no such thing. A glance at the boards and top management of Israel’s five big banks shows not a single Arab among that elite of 109 people.

Bank Leumi branch
Moti Kimchi

In other words, there are no more Haj-Yehias waiting in the wings to be the second-ever Israeli-Arab bank chairman or the first-ever CEO. It will be years before that happens.

Contrast that to the presence of women. In recent years, three of the five biggest banks have been led by female CEOs (although two are now stepping down). If women account for just 31 of 109 of the people serving in the top management jobs or on the board, this still represents considerable progress when you consider what the situation was 10 or 20 years ago.

When the media or activists talk about how to bring Israeli Arabs into the mainstream Israeli economy, they tend to focus on high-tech. To a degree, that’s logical, since Israel is Startup Nation and there’s a severe shortage of the male, Jewish engineers that comprise the vast majority of the industry’s workforce. In any case, it’s a lot sexier to be training future techies who may one day develop some great new app than future bankers who will one day be turning you down for a loan.

But it’s hardly enough. Despite Israel’s reputation as a tech powerhouse, the industry only employs about 8% of the workforce, and nearly all of them are engineers. If Israel is going to truly pursue integration, it must not only  open the way for Israeli Arabs to work in all sectors of the economy, it must  ensure that they have a path to advancement.

The absence of Arab bank executives is only one example of how far there is to go. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange has 460 listed companies but not one is Arab-owned or led. Arabs account for just 11% of the people in Israel's civil service, even though they make up 21% of the country’s population. Most of the jobs they do hold are low-level positions.

There was a time when Israeli Arabs didn’t have the skills and training, which consigned them to the bottom rungs of the labor force. But that's increasingly not the case, especially for women. Israeli Arabs are becoming more like middle class Jewish Israelis, with the same lifestyles and aspirations. They're ready for prime time, if the Jewish majority lets them.

That’s by no means assured. It’s not as if the economy  which is now at full employment and in the decades ahead faces demographic challenges  doesn’t need them. But the sentiment these days is swinging toward the idea that if you’re not a loyal and patriotic Israeli (read: Jewish and not too far to the left), you don’t really belong.

By that idiotic standard, Haj-Yehia shouldn’t be allowed to hold such a key job.  

How do we know? Haj-Yehia isn’t the only Israeli who went off to the United States to further his education and career prospects but at some point decided he wanted to come home. The stock answer of returning Israelis when they’ve left the fleshpots of America is that they want to be back in good old Israel, especially for the sake of their children. 

Haj-Yehia was asked the same question and his response was: “My children reached the age at which I had to decide either that they would be Americans, or that we would return to be part of the family in Taibeh." Note, not Israel, but the Israeli-Arab town of Taibeh.

Does that make him less qualified for the job? Is he going to work behind the scenes for the Palestinian cause? Will he undermine the finances of the Jewish state (maybe by making dumb loans to tycoons)?

Such questions seem too ridiculous to even ask. But for the Israelis who cheered on the nation-state law as a means of enforcing national identity or question why the government is spending money to develop Arab towns and villages, the answer seems to be yes. Arabs can sweep the floors of a bank branch after hours or maybe aspire to be a teller, but chairman of the board?