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Israel’s Minorities Suffer More Than Most From Virus Crisis

Arab, Druze, Bedouin and Ethiopian Israelis more vulnerable to financial hardship

Every Israeli is affected by COVID-19 but not every citizen is affected equally.

While approximately a quarter of the workforce is now unemployed as a result of the novel virus, low wage earners, who tend to be minorities, are disproportionally harmed. Their communities were fighting poverty before the outbreak, but the battle against impoverishment has become much more difficult since the government shut down most workplaces last month.

The 136,000 or so Ethiopian Israelis, the country’s poorest Jewish demographic, are particularly hurt by the economic fallout. In 2016, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBI), they earned half on average of what other Jews did. That same year, nearly a quarter of Ethiopian Israelis families were considered poor, according to the 2019 report of the Adva Center for Information on Equality and Social Justice in Israel.

“A lot of Ethiopian Israelis were employed in jobs that didn’t require degrees,” Shlomit Bukaya, executive director of the Association of Ethiopian Jews (AEJ), told The Media Line. “After this is over, more people will be unemployed than the average among the population.

“The people who will be hurt most by the situation are the most vulnerable population groups, like Ethiopian Israelis and Arabs,” she continued.

Bukaya said that there was a delay in educating some members of the community about social distancing and quarantining, particularly older folks due to a language gap. None of the information provided by the Health Ministry was in Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia. It was left to volunteers in the community to translate the instructions.

Many in the community have been laid off or placed on unpaid leave. She’s particularly concerned about them, as there is less government and NGO assistance available to them than for pensioners.

“Those people who were fired and worked in low-wage jobs don’t have any money now,” Bukaya said. “They need help with food and everything, and they have none.

“I’m especially worried about the single mother who has four children and is fired from her work,” she said.

Schools are closed, and families often don’t have the equipment for children to learn online. “There are a lot of children who cannot study in this way because they don’t have a computer. Those who do usually have only one and [multiple] kids need [this resource],” she said.

In addition, Bukaya said quarantining went against cultural norms.

“I tried to speak with my parents and they didn’t understand the big issue about corona. It was so difficult to explain the new situation because they used to go to the neighbors and say hello,” she said. “We are very warm people.”

Still, many in the community have avoided catching the virus, which Bukaya attributes to older people staying home and to minimal travel overseas before most flights were canceled.

However, Ethiopian Israelis still fear for their safety, particularly in their encounters with the police.

The AEJ, along with several other NGOs, wrote a letter to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan in an effort to ensure that policemen, who have been given more flexibility and freedom to go into the streets during the corona crisis, do not employ more force toward a population that already sufferers from police brutality.

Arabs, 21% of Israel’s population, also comprise an outsized proportion of the poor. Nearly half of Arab Israeli families lived below the poverty line in 2016, according to the Adva report. For the general Jewish population, this figure is around 13%.

“As a result, the Arab population is much more exposed to the potential risks when it comes to the financial crisis,” Muhammad Zoabi, an Israeli Arab activist, told The Media Line.

Arab Israelis have less access to health care than Jewish Israelis, he added.

“There is discrimination when it comes [to a lack of] testing sites regarding corona. The Jewish community has many more testing sites,” he said. “In comparison to Jewish communities, Arab towns and cities have a harder time getting police services, ambulances and other services people might need in such conditions.”

However, Zoabi was able to find a silver lining in the cloud cast by the pandemic, in the higher than average representation of Arab Israelis among the nation’s health professionals.

“Probably for the first time in Israel’s history, the Arab community feels part of something national, something big, and that’s because a large part of the health system is Arab Israeli,” Zoabi said. “A big topic of discussion in the Arab community is that without our efforts in the health care system, Israel would probably have a harder time dealing with the crisis.”

Israel’s 120,000 Druze citizens serve in the military and follow a monotheistic religion that originated from Islam.

Many Druze families were poor before the crisis started. The municipalities with Druze majorities are among the country’s poorest, according to a February 2018 report from the Inter-Agency (IA) Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. The unemployment rate for Druze men and women, at 68% and 33.3%, respectively, is in line with that of the Arab population as a whole.

Bahig Mansour, mayor of the Druze-majority town of Isifya, located near Haifa, has seen a 20% increase in unemployment among his constituents as a result of the pandemic.

“All the businesses are closed and the people are not going to work,” he told The Media Line. “Families don’t have food so we have provided them boxes with enough to eat for a week.

“The economic situation is very bad and if there’s any way the Jewish community in the United States and elsewhere can help us, I would be very appreciative,” Mansour said. “We have to be ready for the worst scenario.”

Mansour has organized teachers delivering bags to their students with gifts such as food, activities to keep them busy at home and protective supplies to be used against the virus.

He started a campaign this week to encourage people to wear masks by giving them out for free and showing them how to use them. Last week, the mayor brought in 10 teams to spray the city in order to disinfect it. Every day, a spokesperson speaks to the media in order to inform the public about the latest health developments and regulations.

“Everything that we can do, we will do,” Mansour said.

The mayor said that only two people in his town had caught the virus, but he is worried there are not enough health resources there to keep the infection rate low.

“I asked [the volunteer paramedics] Magen David to send a team to check if people have the virus and I hope I will get it as soon as possible,” Mansour said.

For Bedouins, most of whom are formerly nomadic in lifestyle and a majority of whom live in Israel’s southern Negev Desert, the virus presents additional financial hardship. Sixty-five percent of the population already lived in poverty in 2017, according to a 2019 IA Task Force press release.

“Bedouins have very minimal means, very low income, which makes things very difficult during normal times. It’s even harder when where is an emergency,” Kher Albaz, the chairman of Ajeec Nisped, an NGO that among other things promotes socioeconomic development for Bedouins, told The Media Line.

“Those who are employed lost their jobs, and for the unemployed, the situation is even worse. The kids are home and the expenses are very high,” he said.

Albaz explained that Israeli Bedouins live in both recognized and unrecognized towns. While the infrastructure is bad for the former, those residing in unrecognized communities face even worse conditions.

“A family member of someone who is infected has to be isolated,’ he said. “How do you that in a small house without a spare room? How do you isolate people in unrecognized towns where most people live in huts and temporary buildings?”

“Normally, there is very poor transportation. In unrecognized towns, they don’t have basic services, not even paved roads, running water and electricity, and it’s very difficult to handle the virus under these circumstances,” Albaz said.

The lack of structural supports is evidenced by the fact that Bedouin students have been unable to continue their education online during the crisis.

“Long-distance education is impossible because you would have to have internet infrastructure in these towns. Most of the people don’t have computers or all the equipment for [such an endeavor],” he said.

Albaz said these towns did not have the health care systems to treat patients, so if there was a large outbreak, patients might overwhelm hospitals in places like Beersheba, where they would have to be treated.

The virus exposes the health care gap between Bedouins and other Israelis.

“There were almost no tests until recently. They started slowly going into the different areas, and they still haven’t gone into the unrecognized towns yet,” Albaz said.

While Albaz said the community has not been hard hit by the virus, mostly due to awareness campaigns like the one his NGO has sponsored, the numbers of infected are increasing.

To prevent the disease from spreading out of control, awareness must be raised higher ahead of Ramadan, which begins in less than two weeks, and NGOs must help more, he said.

“We need to find ways to help people who need to be isolated to find places to isolate; we need to find ways to get large quantities of food, particularly dry food, and hygiene products and distribute them where they are needed,” Albaz said.