The low workforce participation rate of Arab women in Israel is a well known phenomenon, and it heavily weighs on the Israeli economy. Of course, the phenomenon is not unique to Israel; indeed, it is quite familiar in traditional societies the world over and especially in the Eastern Arab world. It is surprising, however, that the workforce participation rate of Arab women in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority is the lowest in the region.
Proficiency in Hebrew is essential to work in Israel
Research findings released a few days ago by the Israeli strategic-economic consulting firm Pareto show that as of today, the workforce participation rate of Arab women in Israel stands at 21%, as opposed to close to 60% among Jewish women. In the Palestinian Authority, the workforce participation rate among women is even lower, at only about 17%. In comparison, the workforce participation rate of women in Turkey is approximately 27%. In the neighboring countries, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, the corresponding figure is a little above 24% and even in Saudi Arabia, where women are barred from driving, their workforce participation rate is some 22%. Yemen is the only country in the region where the workforce participation rate of women is similar to that of Arab women in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, standing at around 20%.
These data are surprising since they are in contrast to globally familiar research findings according to which the more developed the country the higher the rate of women taking part in the labor market. Israel is considered a developed country and the Palestinian Authority, too, is more developed than a country like Yemen. So how can it be that of all the countries in the region, it is in Israel and the Palestinian Authority that the workforce participation rate of Arab women is so low? One of the major obstacles preventing Palestinian women from entering the Israeli labor market is language skills. You have to know Hebrew to work in Israel. Only 51% of Arab women in Israel consider themselves proficient in Hebrew reading and writing, while the corresponding figure among the Palestinians [specifically among Palestinian women] in the territories is by far lower. Thus, for instance, it is a well-known fact that there are virtually no women among the more than 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem who work in Israel.
The growing scope of education counteracts the shutting down of plants
In recent years, there has been an annual increase of about 3% in the number of Arab women working in Israel. This is another rather surprising finding, since many of the women employed in the past in Arab town and villages in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, mainly in the textile industry, lost their jobs with the economic decline of the [textile] sector and the shutting down of plants and sewing workshops. The majority of textile plants, both Israeli and Palestinian, have gone out of business and had to shut down due to [growing] Chinese competition, and the local textile industry has moved in part to the neighboring countries.
However, the growing scope of education and a certain decline in birth rates [in the local Arab population] have [apparently] offset the shutting down of plants, and Arab women in both Israel and the territories are joining the labor market in growing numbers. To promote this trend and increase the rate of integration of Arab women into the labor market, researchers recommend that they be offered comprehensive employment consultation services, encouraged to acquire vocational education and provided with day-care centers for their children. Naturally, all these will require vast investments; however, the benefit derived is expected to significantly exceed the investment.