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Dismissal for narrative reasons

Hundreds of Arab employees were illegally fired or suspended for their political views this summer

This past summer, in the shadow of the war in Gaza, there was a dangerous development in the relations between Jewish and Arab citizens – the dismissal of Arab citizens who were accused of expressing opinions that did not suit the Jewish nationalist narrative during the war. Based on information from various NGOs dealing with this problem, I believe that there were hundreds of such instances. This is apparently not the first time that Arab workers have been fired during wartime, but this summer there were two new twists: The first was repeated attempts by racist gangs demanding the dismissal of Arab employees in various and sundry places. The second phenomenon was dismissal by an employer who although not considered an extremist, publicly admitted that the Arab employee was dismissed because of the opinions he expressed during the war. The second phenomenon of “narrative dismissal,” is entirely new on the Israeli landscape.

The most glaring example is the disgraceful behavior of the directors of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer and Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. In Tel Hashomer an Arab male nurse was suspended because he wrote on Facebook that the Israel Defense Forces soldiers in Gaza are war criminals, and in Shaare Zedek an Arab doctor was suspended for a similar reason. In both cases the hospital directors publicly justified their actions. Prof. Zeev Rothstein of Tel Hashomer said that “The hospital is an island of tolerance for its entire staff and its visitors. Such a blatant violation of this value […] cannot be ignored, and anyone who violates the principle of tolerance does not belong here.”

Prof. Rothstein has it wrong. The question as to whether IDF soldiers carried out war crimes in Gaza is simultaneously a legal, narrative and nationalist question.

Jewish citizens prayed last summer for the welfare of the soldiers who received an emergency call-up notice, and Arab citizens prayed for the welfare of their people and their relatives who were bombed in Gaza by those same soldiers. When dozens of soldiers and many hundreds of Palestinian citizens are killed in Gaza, it’s impossible to expect Jewish and Arab citizens to agree on the nature of these events. Since the beginning of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, two contradictory but legitimate narratives exist.

There is a difference between a hotheaded and violent crowd that entered the shopping mall in Pardes Hannah during the war and demanded the dismissal of Arab workers, and the hospital directors who suspended Arab employees and bragged about it in the media.

The role of the hospital director is to heal the sick and the injured and not to determine what happened in Gaza.Prof. Rothstein failed totally when he fired an Arab whose opinion deviated from the narrative in which he believes. And the damage such highly respected figures cause may be greater because by their actions they granted legitimacy to others to dismiss Arab workers. If the director of a hospital dismisses an Arab doctor who wrote a post on Facebook, he is sending a green light to the owner of a pizzeria who wants to dismiss an Arab employee who said “improper” things during wartime.

I certainly don’t support everything that was said. A demonstration of joy at the death of soldiers by Arab citizens who work with Jewish colleagues is ugly and insensitive behavior, and certainly doesn’t promote a shared way of life for Jews and Arabs.It should also be noted that hundreds and thousands of Jewish workers who during the war called for death to the Arabs verbally as well as everywhere on the Internet were not dismissed. But I find it important to say that I have a serious objection to narrative dismissals, and so does Israeli law.

Former National Labor Court President Steve Adler said in response to these dismissals that, “Employees are permitted to speak as they wish on political issues or anything else. The words of an employee, even if extreme and defiant, cannot be an automatic reason for his dismissal.”

The Israeli government should have come to the defense of those who were dismissed. Instead, some government ministers during the war were busy inciting against Arab citizens. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the Economy Ministry clearly opposed these dismissals, and provided effective assistance to those who asked. But the EEOC failed to issue a broad and firm public call to employers to refrain from such dismissals, and to those who were dismissed to turn to it. It’s no wonder that it received only 15 requests fore reinstatement during the war. That’s a tragedy, because the fact is that these illegal dismissals were not upheld, and almost anyone who challenged the dismissal was rehired (including the two above-mentioned cases in the hospitals).

Civil society organizations also bear a certain responsibility for failing to stop the wave of dismissals during the war. We had many reasons to be angry at the government at the time, but anger is a poor advisor, and therefore we were not able to get the Arabs who were fired to turn to the EEOC, which could have returned them to work.

Narrative dismissal suggests that Israeli society is incapable of tolerating two contradictory narratives. We must try to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but until then, the civic task is to create a society that can contain both these narratives — and rehabilitating Arab-Jewish relations in the workplace may be one of the most urgent steps toward that goal.

The harm this summer’s wave of dismissals did to the integration of Arab citizens into the Israeli employment market and economy is still having a negative impact and threatens to undo much of the progress that had been made. So if you know an Arab who was fired, refer him to groups that will assist in restoring his job. And if you know Jewish employers, tell them to not even think about the disgraceful step of dismissal for narrative reasons.

About the Author
Ron Gerlitz is the co-executive director of Sikkuy-The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality