Arabs at the Counter

Go into a trendy clothing store, sports outlet, or home improvement warehouse emporium in Israel these days and, as often as not, it’ll be an Arab who helps you find just the right jeans, running shorts, or the doohickey you need to fix your leaky faucet. In today’s Ha’aretz, Ruth Sinai documents this social phenomenon and asks whether service jobs like this represent progress for Israel’s Arab citizens, or just another way to get exploited.

I won’t weigh in on the economic benefits or lack thereof, but this trend is certainly a step forward for ethnic integration in Israel. Historically, Israel’s Palestinian citizens have worked in agriculture, construction, and behind the scenes service jobs like washing dishes in restaurants. In such jobs they were largely invisible, and where visible their jobs marked them as unskilled, alien, and quite often physically dirty.

Compare that to the fashionably-dressed, tastefully made-up, and high-spirited young woman who has become my favorite sales clerk at my local Golf clothing store. I’m not exactly a walking display of the latest fashions-I don’t have a native instinct for choosing the threads that look best on me. So I need the advice and encouragement of a patient and sympathetic attendant. The process involves conversation and interaction with a very visible member of my country’s minority.

Sinai cites incidents in which customers refused to be served by Arab staff, but in my experience here in South Jerusalem such incidents are rare. And even such displays of racism have a positive side to them-precisely because they play out in the public square, they put the issue of ethnic relations front and center. It was easy in the past to ignore the Arab in the kitchen in the back of the restaurant or dismiss the dust-covered plasterer your contractor brought in as part of his renovation team. But if you’re going to stage a public display of hatred toward the polite, knowledgeable, and clean-cut kid at the local appliance store, you’re going to have a hard time justifying your actions.

Arab college graduates still have a hard time finding work in their fields. We’re still a long way away from adequate minority representation in most of Israel’s high-status and high-earning professions. But, in a society based increasingly on a service economy, omnipresent Arab sales clerks are a step forward toward full integration.

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