For the past eight years Equal Employment Commissioner Tziona Koenig-Yair has fought dozens of employers discriminating against minorities, rolled out creative new tools for fighting the gender wage gap, and much more. In an interview with +972, she discusses affirmative action, the role of societal racism in the labor market, and her hopes for equal opportunity in Israel.
Israel has identified more grounds of discrimination in the workplace than any other Western country — 16 in total. It’s not clear if that means Israel is extremely progressive in recognizing vast types of discrimination or if the labor market just reflects the country’s many entrenched social hierarchies.
Despite Israel’s myriad social and political divisions, workplace equality would seem to be a pragmatic and possibly even a bipartisan policy goal. The Left tends to support equality from a moral standpoint, and the Right could support workplace equality based on liberal economic values – but also for the benefit of international optics (“hasbara”).
And yet, Israel’s workforce is an arena where every single unresolved contradiction and conflict of Israeli life is playing out.
I sat down last week with Tziona Koenig-Yair, the country’s first-ever “equal employment opportunity commissioner.” For eight years, she has fought to change structural inequalities from within the government, a challenge that is either herculean or Sisyphean — it’s not always clear.
Speaking softly but extremely fast, Koenig-Yair explains that some forms of discrimination have hardly any objective measure. Koenig-Yair cites the case of an Ethiopian-Israeli who was not accepted for a job because, the interviewers said aloud, “we don’t want someone of that background.” A person with a Mizrahi-sounding name was rejected for a job interview, then offered one immediately after re-submitting his CV using an Ashkenazi-sounding surname. A would-be employer wrote that the rejected interviewee looked “fairly slutty and dark.”
But such clarity is rare.
In order to better understand where its attention is most needed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) conducts surveys tracking both employer and employee perceptions of discrimination. Those findings are not always intuitive.
For instance, Arabs employed by Arabs report more workplace violations than those employed by Jews. An EEOC survey of the whole population found that older people perceive the greatest discrimination in the workforce (86 percent), followed by mothers of small children, and only then Arabs; Mizrahim report nearly the lowest level of discrimination (47 percent), just above army reservists. Interestingly, employers’...Read More