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Looking in Israel’s social equality mirror

Adv. Aweke Zena with the author.
Adv. Aweke Zena with the author.

How many countries can honestly say they regularly critique themselves and seriously act to improve their own social equality performance? Israel definitely can, which is why we’ve continually scaled up in this context throughout our 76 years of independence.

Progress isn’t coincidental. Our government employs gatekeepers to closely monitor conduct, issue frank reports and take concrete action. This decades-long norm continues even now, in wartime.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Not from a country like Israel, which belongs to an exclusive group of nations that carefully examine their internal doings, sincerely work to identify the challenges they face and earnestly act to make things better. While this process has its obstacles, intent and perseverance are uppermost.

Case in point: Israel’s National Anti-Racism Coordination Unit, established by the government in 2016 following widespread protests by Ethiopian-Israelis against over-policing.

Headed during its first seven years by Adv. Aweke Zena, a member of that community, establishing the unit was one of 50 recommendations to enhance its integration and fight racism on behalf of all the country’s citizens. Around 80% of these proposals have since been fully implemented and government bodies that fail to do so are publicly singled out.

The unit’s report covering 2023 is loyal to its mandate, and like previous annual documents, includes an English-language executive summary (unlike the other studies mentioned in this post). The Hebrew version expands significantly on the summary and includes data from a survey it conducted among some 8,000 civil servants examining whether they had either experienced or witnessed racist behavior. The numbers point to continued room for improvement; there always is, everywhere in this imperfect world of ours.

Israel’s Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), another public defender, possesses more enforcement authority than the Anti-Racism Unit – particularly vis-à-vis the private sector. As such, the findings of the government-budgeted Israel Innovation Authority’s new annual report, according to which little progress has been made in advancing high-tech sector diversity hiring, are no doubt relevant to the EEOC’s work.

Generally speaking, the EEOC’s report for 2023 provides an important angle from which to view the need for ongoing social equality action: of the 865 public complaints it received, 68% were connected to working conditions; claims of discrimination relevant to army reserve duty almost doubled as compared with 2022; 19% of complaints were filed by Israel’s Arab citizens (a modest rise from the previous year, following an EEOC-initiated campaign to raise awareness); and 42% of women’s claims had to do with family-related issues such as pregnancy and fertility treatments.

Another zoom-in focusing on women in the work force is offered by the Civil Service Commission’s Gender Equality report for 2023. The good news is that Israeli women, 50.1% of the total population, account for 62.8% of all government employees and 45.5% of those holding senior positions. On the flip side, data from 35 civil service bodies collected since the start of the Hamas-instigated war on October 7th points to a significant decrease in the presence of women at critical decision-making junctures, with 16 of the units reporting such a decline during this period.

Also in the gender equality context: a new Finance Ministry study of 33,000 civil servants indicates that between 2016-22, Israeli women’s salaries were 17% less on the average than those of men. This reality is explained mostly by differences in hierarchy status and overtime hours worked.

While I do my best to scour the landscape in search of relevant government critiques, success isn’t 100%; sometimes I just bump into them. I’m certainly glad I ran into a Health Ministry report issued in April covering healthcare inequalities during 2022. The report’s importance is self-evident: egalitarian and accessible healthcare is mandated by Israeli law.

Alongside a description of inequalities directly related to the health field, as well as those linked to socio-economic status, the report sheds light on challenges that still need to be overcome. Among its findings, the document points to significant gaps in healthcare within Israel’s Arab community, including with regard to chronic morbidity. The ministry has been advancing a health program in the past two years specifically designed to close these gaps.

Such government audits are not alone, of course; Israel’s public sphere is chock full of critiques by external bodies as well. The independent State Comptroller’s Office, established by law, is perhaps the most prominent of these. Its frequent studies touch regularly on social equality issues.

All these reports accentuate the importance Israel attaches to self-examination and self-correction in its ongoing efforts to promote social equality. They are concrete indicators of a healthy society that, even in wartime, continues to pursue its commitment to making our country better.

About the Author
A 35-year Israeli diplomacy veteran, Ambassador Yehuda Yaakov has directed the Foreign Ministry's Social Impact Policy unit since launching it in 2019; previously, he served as Consul General in Boston after receiving the Director General's Award as part of the "Iran Team." Yaakov has also served as board member of an NGO promoting Israeli-Ethiopian excellence. Raised in a NYC housing project, he began his career reporting about social justice issues. Active on LinkedIn and "X" (@YehudaYa).
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