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The woman trying to make Israel equal

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.

Tziona Koenig-Yair (Photo by Yossi Zamir)

Tziona Koenig-Yair (Photo by Yossi Zamir)

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’ perceptions were very similar to employees’ — except for women and Mizrahim. Far fewer employers than employees perceive discrimination against those groups.

Food factory worker in Sderot. (Illustrative photo by ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

Food factory worker in Sderot. (Illustrative photo by ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

Where’s a commissioner to start?

Koenig-Yair is originally from Brooklyn and studied at the Yeshiva of Flatbush until her family moved to Israel when she was 11 years old. She grew up religious, “and to some extent I still am,” something that always surprises people, she says. Her appearance bears no drama; her personality is no nonsense.

When Koenig-Yair gets worked up, she thumps on the desk and leans forward with a piercing glare. During our meeting, she keeps a running email conversation with her staff to request pieces of data we are discussing, or calls them in to her office. She answers calls only from her daughter: “Nogoosh?”

Koenig-Yair was no newcomer to equality issues when the commission was established. An attorney with a law degree from Hebrew University, she worked for eight years at the Israel Women’s Network, a veteran organization advocating for women’s equality.

The legal department there had for years considered the establishment of a human right commission in Israel. “We realized there wasn’t really a political constellation to do that,” she says, diplomatically. The conversation turned to equality in the workplace, she recalls. In the mid-2000s, lobbying efforts and draft legislation reached the then-minister of industry, trade and labor, Ehud Olmert, who had designs on becoming prime minister. He promised to support the bill, she says, but only on the condition that the commission be established in his ministry.

The legislation passed on the last day of the Knesset in 2006 and Koenig-Yair was appointed to build the commission. In 2008, she recalls of the first days, “I had a computer. No personnel, no [formal] vision, goals, work plan, nowhere to call. I was establishing it from scratch; it was tabula rasa.”

A colleague told her: “’Tziona, leave now. You have a great reputation, but you won’t be able to get anything done in government. Leave now,’” she recalls.

Instead, she gathered outside experts and initiated a two-year EU twinning project with a Northern Ireland commission. She defined goals and got to work.

Eight years later, she does not boast but cannot restrain her pride. The Commission has handled over 5,000 requests for help and litigated 69 cases. It has won powerful precedents. In Abdulkarim v. Israel Rail, employees sued Israel’s national railroad company for listing IDF service as a requirement for positions they already held, and then firing them (most Arabs do not perform army service). The company removed IDF service as a qualification, and replaced it with requirements so specific that a only soldier would have them. With the EEOC’s legal opinion, the court ruled that those terms together amounted to discrimination against people who have not served. The employees were reinstated.

A train station in Israel. (Illustrative photo by ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

A train station in Israel. (Illustrative photo by ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

“We have been quoting that case for five years,” she says. “We’ll write to employers and say, you’re using army service as a requirement for employment, which is illegal, and look at this precedent. They change the criteria right away.”

The Commission also works on affirmative action, but its positions are not necessarily what you might expect. Israel has long had quotas in the public sector for women, Arabs, Ethiopian-Israelis and people with disabilities, but the issue is evolving. Unsurprisingly, Koenig-Yair has strong opinions. Populations ought not to get affirmative action if their underrepresentation isn’t due to discrimination, like ultra-Orthodox Jews — or if they are not underrepresented at all.

“Affirmative action is supposed to fix something,” she says, wielding the laser gaze. “Affirmative action in the public sector for people who have done the army is one of the worst propositions I’ve ever heard. All the people in public sector have done the army. They don’t need affirmative action.”

She is particularly excited about progress on the gender wage gap. Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2014 shows that women in Israel earn two-thirds of men’s income, on average. Hana Kupfer, the EEOC’s research director, observes that there has been a modest decline over the last decade. But over the last three years, there has also been a major rise in awareness. Nearly 80 percent of women now know there is a gap, according to the EEOC’s surveys.

The commission also recently launched an Internet tool for employers to use anonymously to calculate their own gender pay gaps, intended to encourage self-enforcement of wage equality. One thousand employers have used it in the six months since it went live, and thousands more have visited the website. And the Commission has been involved in an effort to have all government offices analyze their budget to consider the gender impact – “that’s revolutionary!”

Overall, Koenig-Yair believes that the discourse around workplace inequality has changed in the media, the Knesset and that even the government increasingly defines goals reflecting greater awareness. Compared to eight years ago, “it’s a whole different ball game.”

Still, obstacles abound. Koenig-Yair is aware that despite the fact that over 80 percent of Arabs in their surveys feel discrimination in the workforce, just a small portion of incoming requests are from Arabs. On the upside, since 2013, the proportion of requests received from Arabs has tripled, from 3 to 9 percent, and is rising annually. The EEOC’s survey this year found that nearly 40 percent of Arab respondents know about the EEOC.

And yet other problems are not improving, but deepening. If workforce equality was “a hard sell” in previous years, Koenig-Yair feels it was ultimately acceptable within the halls of government. There has generally been a “semi-consensus” around work equality issues in government, she says. “We want everyone to be economically independent.”

But the rising tide of racism and political persecution in Israeli society is also reaching the workforce. After the last war in Gaza, the Commission first encountered people being fired for their political views. I ask if there is general a rise in discrimination based on political outlook or party affiliation and she says “yes” before I have finished the question.

Government policies and attitudes in society cannot be divorced from workplace issues, she explains. “There is a direct correlation – the more the government commitment there is to equality in general, the more it will benefit the workplace.”

But that sounds a bit optimistic at a time when top Israeli leaders are legitimizing and participating in political persecution, a far cry from embracing an agenda of equality.

Political instability doesn’t help either. She has worked under five different ministers in eight years. All of them were men. How did that jive with their extensive focus on gender issues? “Some would say we focus a lot on Arab issues,” she answers.

Wednesday was Koenig-Yair’s last day, and her idea of taking a break is to lead a training course at Harvard. She is not yet sure what she’ll do next, but it will probably still involve public issues.

The next commissioner has not yet been chosen, and she hopes it will be a professional choice, rather than a political appointment. The budget is largely secured, but the minister of economy and the justice minister have the final say over the person. The latter is Ayelet Shaked, from the far-right Jewish Home party. The minister of economy is Benjamin Netanyahu.

So does she think the next commissioner will be committed to moving the needle, or able to? “I have to hope,” she says. As she expands her answer, she repeats the phrase “I hope, I hope,” several more times.

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    1. Gustav

      This is a good and more balanced article for a change (except for this bit which the author just could not resist: ” but also for the benefit of international optics (“hasbara”)”. Oh well…

      It talks about discrimination which undoubtedly exists here and all other countries, even in countries which are in peace, let alone in a country like ours which is still fighting a 100 year war with it’s neighbor.

      Yet, the country at least tries to fight bigots which shows that contrary to the propaganda of our enemies this is far from being an apartheid regime.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        But you’re in effect using a true observation–that inside the green line Israel is not an apartheid state–to whitewash the occupation. Most people, if they apply the term apartheid, apply it to the one comprehensive system that Israel and its occupied territories have actually become. Consider Peter Beinart’s observations about John Kerry’s warning that Israel could become an apartheid state:


        “Kerry is confusing time and space. The problem isn’t that at some future date all of Israel will turn into an apartheid state. It may not. The problem is that there’s a territory—the West Bank—where Israel is practicing apartheid right now. The International Criminal Court defines“apartheid” as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups.” Yes, Jews and Palestinians aren’t races. They’re peoples. But what matters is that the boundary between them is sealed. For all practical purposes, West Bank Palestinians cannot become Jews and because they cannot, they are barred from citizenship in the state that controls their lives, cannot vote for its government, live under a different legal system than their Jewish neighbors and do not enjoy the same freedom of movement. That’s “systematic oppression and domination” by one group over another. And it’s been going on for 46 years.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Merkava

          And there is BEN again who, while not being able to conceive any original thoughts in his empty mind, copies and pastes the OPINIONS of political pundits and thinks that they are bible-truth.

          Does BEN not understand that the mere fact alone (among many others) that Palestinians themselves want separation, their own State and have been engaged with Israel in negotiations to achieve that State, rules out “apartheid” ? Why is BEN incapable of processing not so complex sets of facts and forming the right judgment in his mind?

          Does BEN not understand that the Palestinians were all Jordanian citizens and that most Palestinians including Mahmoud Abbas and all the members of his government are TODAY Jordanian citizens with Jordanian passports?

          Does BEN not understand that “the state of Palestine” is a UN-recognized “State” with embassies around the world and a member of different international organizations such as UN, UNESCO, ICC, the ICRC, etc? Does BEN not understand that the Palestinians have their own Government that rules them, Parliament that makes their law, Courts that judges them, police force that polices them, etc? Does BEN not understand that the President of Palestine and his Cabinet along with the members of Parliament were ELECTED by the Palestinians themselves; that Palestinian judges are appointed by officials elected by Palestinians themselves and that Palestinians can go to elections TODAY to elect whomever they chose?

          What kind of a dunce is BEN?

          Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          What Israel may or may not turn into in the future is a separate discussion.

          The point is that the haters of Israel, people like you, Benny, claim that Israel is an apartheid state TODAY. And that is patently false. In fact, it is a bare faced lie, Benny!

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Actually, I, very obviously, and Peter Beinart, very obviously, said something quite different.

            Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          Moreover, Benny, it is dishonest to lump the Arabs of the West Bank together with Israel and claim that what you have is an apartheid system.

          The last time I heard, no serious Israeli political party is proposing to hold on to all the territories. Despite what extreme lefties and Arabs accuse Bibi of that he is proposing to hold onto the entire WB, that is NOT his stated policy. And other major political parties to his left, are even more adamant about the two state solution.

          It is disingenuous and dishonest to blame Israel alone for the fact that it still did not happen after nearly 50 years.

          Firstly because till 1993, most Arabs (except Egypt) did not even want to sit down at the same table with Israeli leaders because they felt that by doing so they would defacto recognize Israel’s existence which rubbed them up the wrong way.

          After 1993, the Palestinian Arabs promised to recognize Israel (in letters). That’s why Oslo became a reality. But it turned out that they were just playing games because in those letters, the Palestinian Arabs promised to amend their national charter (the PLO charter) to reflect what they promised in their letters. Unfortunately they never kept that promise.

          Under the circumstances therefore the occupation can’t end. By occupation, I mean the occupation of lands which the Palestinian Arabs own and live.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “The last time I heard, no serious Israeli political party is proposing to hold on to all the territories.”

            This is simply false. The mainstream right wing parties have made it clear that they oppose a two state solution. Now or ever, in principle. They could not be more clear on this. It is mere propaganda to assert that Israel as currently governed has any intention of allowing a Palestinian State, ever. The vast majority of Netanyahu’s cabinet opposes it. I mean, honestly, is anyone paying attention?:

            Netanyahu: “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” His party backed him up on this.

            Silvan Shalom: “”We are all against a Palestinian state, there is no question about it.”

            Tzipi Hotovely: “We are opposed to a Palestinian State…This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologize for that… We expect as a matter of principle of the international community to recognize Israel’s right to build homes for Jews in their homeland, everywhere.” “We need to demand sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria, and nothing less than that.”

            Naftali Bennet: “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state…There is not going to be a Palestinian state … it’s just not going to happen.”

            Bogie Ya’alon: “We should find another way, not just talking about the 1967 lines and a Palestinian state.”

            Ayelet Shaked: “We should manage the conflict and not give up on any centimeter of land.”

            Uri Ariel: “We need to state clearly that there won’t be a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.” “There will be just one state between the Jordan River and the sea, and that is the State of Israel.”

            Yisrael Katz: “I am opposed to a Palestinian state. It is unacceptable, mainly because of our rights to this land.”

            Danny Danon: “Enough with the two-state-solution. Land-for-peace is over. We don’t want a Palestinian State. We need to apply Israeli sovereignty over all Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. We are a nationalist government and not a government that will establish a Palestinian government on 1967 lines.”

            Haim Katz: “The conclusion is clear…not to establish a Palestinian state.”

            Zeev Elkin: “Whoever objects to the ‘two state’ solution does not need to present an alternative solution because the basic situation is that this territory belongs to us.” “There is no place for a Palestinian state, not in temporary borders and not in any other configuration. This is our land, and it’s our right to apply sovereignty over it. Regardless of the world’s opposition, it’s time to do in Judea and Samaria what we did in [East] Jerusalem and the Golan.” “I do want a Jewish presence here. Which raises the question: What do you do with the Palestinian population? And I don’t think the answer to that question can be found right now.”

            Yariv Levin: “We must leave behind the slogans of ‘land for peace’ and ‘two states for two people'” because “the two state solution is no solution” “We will try, slowly but surely, to expand the circle of settlements, and to afterwards extend the roads… At the end of this process, the facts on the ground will be that whatever remains [of the occupied West Bank] will be merely marginal appendage.”

            Miri Regev: “The expression Palestinian state should not be used.” Sponsored legislation to annex the Jordan Valley.

            Gila Gamliel: “I disagree with the word ‘occupation’… Gaza [should] “annex itself to Egypt, some of the Palestinians can annex themselves to Jordan. They have many countries”.

            Ofir Akunis: “My objection to a Palestinian state stems primarily from the fact that our right to the land is eternal and irrevocable. The Land of Israel is the property of the Jewish People and there is no people in the world that would surrender its motherland.” “I will oppose any outline that includes two states… This is my ideological and historical position.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav


            Being against a Palestinian state is not the same as wanting to annex all the WB together with it’s population to Israel.

            Fact: Israel’s policy has never been to annex the WB. Had it been our policy, why wouldn’t we have done it by now?

            FACT: Read Benny’s above tirade. What’s the common thread in it? Most of the coalition members whom Benny quoted say they would rather see the WB and Gaza revert to Jordan and Egypt respectively.

            So again, back to square one, Benny-leh. On what ground do you claim that we have an apartheid system? Which why exactly do you expect Israel to treat a people who have been making war on us and who are destined to be part of another country, why do you expect us to treat them as citizens?

            Can you point at another example in history where such demands were made on anyone else in a similar situation, Benny-leh? Nah, of course you cannot!

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            This entire reply is deliberately a half or one or two steps off topic, or, by the fifth paragraph, entirely off topic. My advice, free to you, is to admit you lost the argument and be gracious about it, or if you can’t do that, have the good taste to just be silent. I’ll not reply to attempts to shift the subject or switch it out.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Nah my reply is not off topic. And you are full of it again Benny…

            1. I posted here about the Israeli commissioner against discrimination and pointed out that although discrimination does exist, as it exists everywhere, there is a bipartisan policy in Israel to fight discrimination. Hardly the hallmark of an apartheid regime which morons like you Benny claim (oh not quite on this thread but you did on other threads).

            2. But even here Benny-leh, you then tried to conflate the WB with Israel and you claimed that if you include the WB, it is apartheid.

            3. You quoted various coalition politicians who according to you want to annex the WB but in reality at least some of those want nothing of the sort. They just want the WB Arabs to become citizens of Jordan and Egypt.

            4. Now let’s deal with the ones who DO want to annex the entire WB. Let me remind you Benny-leh. They are NOT the GOVERNMENT of Israel. They don’t by themselves decide what happens. Unlike in most of your Arab countries where one or two strongmen decide what happens, in Israel, the entire coalition government decides. Moreover, those governments may change at every election.

            5. Despite all that, Benny asserts that it is an open and shut case. The WB is already part of Israel and the WB Arabs who are still making war on us ought to be treated as Israeli citizens.

            Well Benny-leh, do you know how to spell a two letter word consisting of the letters ‘N’ and ‘O’? I’ll tell ya…

            NO, the WB has not been annexed. If or when it gets annexed (which I doubt) you may be justified in making your hateful claim, but not before.

            As for you having one the argument, LOL.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      The substance (as opposed to the usual far right vilification tactics) of the foregoing responses by Gustav and Merkava unfortunately amount to a collection of propaganda talking points (“hasbara”) and are not based in the actual realities. They depend for their acceptance upon the ignorance of the casual, uninformed observer. But Israelis like Noam Sheizaf and other +972 writers are on the ground and actually do know what is really going on. And as Sheizaf says, the “conflict” is actually an internal Israeli problem.


      “Listening to foreign news about the conflict, one might think that there exists a sovereign Palestine, which has some sort of territorial dispute with the State of Israel. Every once in a while, one of these parties gets violent; at other times they talk to each other, but with little success. Well-intentioned mediators come and go, looking for a formula that will end the hostilities. The average news reader is left wondering how come they didn’t solve this problem yet.
      The answer is this: The story has very little to do with the reality on the ground. There is no Palestine. Israel is the only sovereign between the river and the sea. Israel controls all borders; the currency is the New Israeli Shekel and the central bank is Israel’s. Israel controls the registration of the population, the ports and the airspace. Even the Palestinian police exist to protect Israel, not Palestinians….”

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        No propaganda on my part, Benny-leh. This was my first post on this thread…

        GUSTAV:”This is a good and more balanced article for a change (except for this bit which the author just could not resist: ” but also for the benefit of international optics (“hasbara”)”. Oh well…

        It talks about discrimination which undoubtedly exists here and all other countries, even in countries which are in peace, let alone in a country like ours which is still fighting a 100 year war with it’s neighbor.

        Yet, the country at least tries to fight bigots which shows that contrary to the propaganda of our enemies this is far from being an apartheid regime.”

        But ya just couldn’t stand the fact that I, a so called Zionist, Hasbarist, expressed moderate and realistic sentiments.

        …so despite complaining about ME chasing and harassing YOU, ya just had to jump in and once again inflame the debate.

        One has to laugh. Benny the self appointed extreme left wing internet warrior guarding this site. What a funny little man…

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          In fact I called your observation true (the thanks I get!) but pointed out how you use it to whitewash the occupation. That is true too. If we go back up to my first comment on this page you will see that we are now in one of those endless loops I’ve talked to you about before.

          Reply to Comment
          • Merkava

            “One has to laugh. Benny the self appointed extreme left wing internet warrior guarding this site. What a funny little man…”

            So true. Old man got no life. Soon he will deploy his other personality “Israel” to start showing the world what a lunatic he is.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            BEN:”In fact I called your observation true (the thanks I get!)”

            Aww, shucks, Benny-leh feels agrieved coz I didn’t pat him on the head for grudgingly admitting the truth but then launching on his usual vilification of Israel for not resolving the occupation all on it’s own without his Palestinian Arabs lifting a finger to do what is expected of them in return.

            …there, there, Benny-leh. Go go to your mummy and make her kiss it better.

            Sheeeesh ….what a dope.

            Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        While you copy and paste, repeating the same debunked nonsense over and over again, Palestinian Arabs are telling you that you are full of it:

        The State of Palestine is an Arab state, an integral and indivisible part of the Arab nation, at one with that nation in heritage and civilization, with it also in its aspiration for liberation, progress, democracy and unity. The State of Palestine affirms its obligation to abide by the Charter of the League of Arab States, whereby the coordination of the Arab states with each other shall be strengthened. It calls upon Arab compatriots to consolidate and enhance the emergence in reality of our state, to mobilize potential, and to intensify efforts whose goal is to end Israeli occupation. (…).-

        You can read more on the “Government of the state of Palestine” here: http://palestineun.org/about-palestine/government-of-the-state-of-palestine/

        If you are not lazy and dishonest, it wouldn’t be difficult for you to find out that “the state of Palestine” has 90 Embassies and Consulates around the world and is represented as a state in international organizations to which only states can be members. Many African and Asian States neither have nor can afford that much embassies and consulates.

        The budget of “the state of Palestine” is much more lager than the budget of many African and Asian States combined.

        But, as remarked before, this is not really about the “Palestinians” or “truth and justice”. For you, its all about your lunatic fixation on- and obsession with Jews and Israel. You claim that you come from the United States. You also claim that you come from the UK. But you care not about your own fellow citizens and others elsewhere who are in worse shape than Palestinian Arabs who suffer mostly from self inflicted injuries. Nope, you dwell in the comment sections of Jewish websites EVERY SINGLE DAY ranting and raging against Jews and Israel.

        Get a life, moron.

        Reply to Comment