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Muslims making Israel better

Adv. Mariam Kabaha with the author

When I created the Israel Foreign Ministry’s Social Impact Policy Unit five years ago, nothing prepared me for what was to become my work’s most surprising revelation: the central role that officials from our Muslim community play in promoting the country’s interests, both domestically and on the world stage.

My first course of action was getting to know the movers and shakers in Israeli officialdom’s ‘social equality ecosystem.’ These government employees are entrusted with guaranteeing that the taxpayers’ money goes to making Israel a better place and they work around the clock to that end.

In a broader sense, they preserve the country’s social-equality DNA, one rooted in the traditions of the Hebrew prophets and realized daily for more than 100 years now, since the 1920s when the pre-state Jewish community laid the foundations for the accessible healthcare, robust trade unions and flourishing collective farms that continue to thrive in today’s Israel.

Adv. Mariam Kabaha, who recently completed an 8-year term as head of our Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, was one of the first senior officials I sat down with. The highest-ranking Arab in Israel’s civil service (before her retirement), she blew me away with her tenacious commitment to inclusion and empowerment in the labor force. In her own words:

“Victory means bringing about social change in the workplace; it means causing employers to consider diversity and to internalize the economic and social benefits of a diverse workforce; it means opening the doors of the labor market to everyone, without any distinction based on race, religion, nationality or gender.”

For her unit (which needless to say continues its work), that means defending the rights of every potentially vulnerable Israeli citizen: Arabs, yes, but also women, LGBTQ and even reserve duty soldiers whose mobilization could be exploited by ill-intentioned employers. To protect their rights, she not only took the private sector to court on behalf of the government, she also found occasion to take the government itself to task.

Kabaha combined optimism with a fighting spirit to the very end of her term, even if painfully aware of the never-ending challenges and frequent crisis periods that Israel faces; our post-October 7 experience has exposed this reality more than ever. As she sees it, Israel’s intolerably slow progress in achieving pay parity between women and men is high on that list of challenges that need to be resolved.

During her term, Kabaha also became a willing partner in the Foreign Ministry’s innovative efforts to leverage diplomacy for social equality goals. Her activities in this context ranged from appearances before the United Nations in Geneva to meetings with professional counterparts in the US and Germany.

While the now-retired Kabaha can rest on her laurels if she so chooses, Hassan Towafra remains very much on the front lines of Israel’s social equality efforts. Director of the Authority for Economic Development of Arab Society in the Social Equality Ministry, he is responsible for implementing the country’s second 5-year socioeconomic empowerment program for the Arab community.  Following in the footsteps of the first plan (2016-20) of 15 billion shekels, the new one (initiated in 2021), was originally budgeted for 30 billion shekels. Unfortunately, it has fallen victim to the many cuts made to finance the current war effort.

Towafra is of course proud of the program’s achievements to date. Speaking last week at a conference focusing on the Arab community, he noted:

“In the past decade, Arab society has proven beyond a doubt that investing in it, and reducing the gaps it faces, yields excellent results for the country; its employment rate has risen significantly, as has its level of integration into higher education.”

While as a civil servant Towafra will, like his government counterparts, continue to pursue the best possible results within the existing constraints, unlike many of them he’s unabashedly vocal about his dissatisfaction with that reality. Calling the cuts to his budget “a mistake,” he told the conference: “The cuts cause two-fold harm: first, to the results themselves; second, and I hope we’ll be able to fix the damage here, to faith in the system.”

While admitting that the cuts are liable to slow down the quick pace of Arab integration seen in the past decade, Towafra nevertheless projects optimism: he is emphatic that the work continues, and with it, progress. As he tells it: this academic year opened with more Arab participation than last year despite warnings of an expected decline; meanwhile the Arab employment rate, particularly among women, increased significantly and the employment gaps that developed against the backdrop of the war have on the whole been closed.

In my mind, the commitment and boldness demonstrated by Kabaha and Towafra reflect a wider sense of belonging among Israel’s Arab community.

This degree of solidarity is supported by hard evidence. According to a November study published by the Israel Democracy Institute, the percentage of Arabs who feel “kinship” with the State of Israel stands at 70%, a dramatic increase in the 48% figure from pre-war June.

Indeed, nothing has made me prouder than to witness this sense of common purpose between Israel’s Arabs and Jews blossom at so many levels – from the grassroots to the health system to the corridors of power – since October 7th.

To all my Muslim civil service colleagues fighting the good fight: Ramadan Kareem!

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.
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