Pharmacy offers Arabs career boost, enhanced ties with Jews

Over a third of Israeli pharmacists are members of Arab communities, providing a road – if a bumpy one – to the Israeli middle class

Worker at a Jerusalem pharmacy (Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Worker at a Jerusalem pharmacy (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Over the past decade, pharmacy has proven to be a stepping stone for Israeli Arabs into the country’s middle class – but more needs to be done to integrate female Arab pharmacists into the profession, a report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies said.

Despite that, the report, based on research and interviews conducted by Prof. Noah Lewin-Epstein, Prof. Alexandra Kalev, Erez Marantz, and Shimrit Slonim, says that both Jewish and Arab pharmacists are satisfied with their careers, and that pharmacy has proven to be an important vehicle for improved relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel and has led to increased levels of tolerance and acceptance on both sides.

Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, constitute about 20 percent of Israel’s population, so it’s notable, the report said, that some 35% of the country’s pharmacists hail from Arab communities. That’s the result, the researchers believe, of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. Already in 2000, 20% of the country’s pharmacists were Arab, and a key factor in the continued increase of Arab pharmacists “relates to the changes in higher education opportunities among the Arab Israeli population,” the study’s authors said.

“Following the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994, Arab Israelis found the door open to enter institutions of higher education in Jordan,” the researchers said. “Several groups took advantage of this opportunity: those who did not take the psychometric exams in Israel; those who could not meet the university entrance requirements; or especially women, who preferred studying in an environment matching their lifestyle. These foreign graduates then returned to integrate into the Israeli labor market. In fact, more than one-third of the licenses issued since 2005 (for Jews and Arab Israelis) were to graduates of Jordanian institutions.”

Like with many other professions in Israel, novices in the pharmacy field need to find an internship in order to get a license – and it’s here that Arabs experience the greatest barriers to employment. The study’s authors say that the process of finding an internship is more difficult for prospective Arab pharmacists, who often spent six months or more looking for one, compared to the average of up to two months for Jews.

It’s not necessarily due to racism, the report says, attributing the gap instead to concerns over the education obtained by Arab pharmacists who studied in Jordan.

“The internship process,” the researchers said, “is especially difficult for graduates of Jordanian universities for several reasons. First, they cannot gain experience during their studies by being a pharmacist’s assistant, which paves the way to an internship. Another reason is that many Jewish employers are concerned about the quality and level of pharmacy studies in Jordan. These difficulties lead Arab Israeli pharmacy graduates to compromise on their internship placement, oftentimes to begin working for no pay (which is illegal), or even to work as an assistant – a position that is usually reserved for students.”

By contrast, the study shows, Arabs who studied pharmacy in Europe were able to find a spot far more quickly than their Jordan-educated colleagues.

Once the internship is over, pharmacists look for full-time work, and finding a job for both Jews and Arabs is a considerably faster process.

Male Arab pharmacists, the report showed, earn nearly the same salaries that their Jewish colleagues earn (between NIS 10,000 and NIS 14,000 a month), while Arab women pharmacists earn considerably less than female Jewish pharmacists. But here, too, something other than racism was at work, and “it is highly likely that the differences seen were due to professional seniority, since the majority of female Arab Israeli pharmacists only entered the profession in the last few years,” said the report’s authors.

And although male Arab pharmacists earned similar salaries to those earned by Jews, they tended to work longer hours for that money, the report said – again, a function of experience, as nearly all the Arab pharmacists included in the study (as representatives of the demographic makeup of the industry) were under forty years of age, meaning that the higher-paying senior management positions were not (yet) available to them.

Another reason for the lower level of pay among Arab females may have to do with their place of employment, the report shows. While Jews (male and female) and Arab males tended to work in private pharmacies, chains, and health funds (Kupot Holim), the large majority of female Arab pharmacists tended to work in chain pharmacies, such as Super-Pharm and others, where pay was lower.

One hint as to why they ended up at the chains involves their preferred method of finding a job; while Jews and Arab males tended to use all vehicles available (online and newspaper ads, government-sponsored job finding programs, etc.), nearly all Arab women included in the study had found their job via personal connections – applying for jobs in the chain pharmacies where relatives or friends were already working.

Despite the differences in pay and seniority, Arab pharmacists were generally very enthusiastic and happy with their work – and both Jews and Arabs viewed their places of work not just as sources of income, but a kind of “melting pot” where both groups can get to know each other better.

“In general, from the interviews certain ethnic issues came up, like dealing with dress habits or the use of Arabic between colleagues at work,” the report said. “The big picture, though, is encouraging to some extent since it indicates a level of collegiality and cooperation on the basis of professionalism. Furthermore, the direct contact at work between Jewish and Arab Israeli pharmacists leads them to get to know and respect one another.”

If there was any tension, it was between Arab pharmacists and Jewish customers, as “it appears that customer dissatisfaction is often expressed in terms of the pharmacists’ ethnic group,” the report said, with some customers pointing to a pharmacist’s Arab background as the reason for the problem with their prescription, availability of a medication, etc.

“Many times pharmacists do not have the full support of their employer,” the report adds, “and the customer service policy is sometimes perceived as requiring the acceptance of prejudice.”

Nevertheless, the influx of Arabs into Israel’s pharmacy business has been a positive development for both sides, the report said.

“Overall, the personal relations and day-to-day interactions between Jewish and Arab Israeli pharmacists were characterized as positive, and even as an educational experience for the Jewish pharmacists who encountered the opportunity to get to know Arab Israelis.

Varda, a Jewish manager, told of her attitude change: “I said to my mother, look, they are good. Simply good. They do good work and they are good people.’”

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