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Israeli economist peddling new plan to equalize Arab university presence

Manuel Trajtenberg, the chairman of the Council for Higher Education in Israel, will present a plan aimed at better integrating Israel's Arab minority into universities. (Council for Higher Education in Israel)
Manuel Trajtenberg, the chairman of the Council for Higher Education in Israel, will present a plan aimed at better integrating Israel’s Arab minority into universities. (Council for Higher Education in Israel)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Unlike most economists, Manuel Trajtenberg does not spend his days cloistered in university classrooms and think tanks far from the public eye.

The Tel Aviv University professor gained attention in 2011, in the aftermath of massive social protests that gripped Israel, when he led a high-profile committee that recommended a series of wide-ranging economic reforms for the country.

Now as chairman of the Israeli Council of Higher Eduction, the charismatic Trajtenberg has taken up a new cause: closing the education gap between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

Trajtenberg’s council is preparing to unveil an $82 million plan aimed at correcting the substantial underrepresentation of Israeli Arabs in the country’s universities.

“Acquiring an education is crucial to enabling social mobility,” Trajtenberg told JTA. “This is an important mission for Israel in general, and this is the best way to generate that change.”

Though a succession of Israeli governments has labored to make good on the Declaration of Independence’s promise of “complete equality” among Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens — including a noteworthy push by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — inequities persist. Arab citizens still lag far behind their Jewish compatriots in nearly every index of human development.

Three years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sector to oversee the government’s bid to raise the station of Israeli Arabs. As part of the effort, he charged Trajtenberg’s committee to come up with a plan to boost the number of Arabs enrolled in higher education.

According to a fact sheet put out by the Inter Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a project of more than 100 American Jewish organizations, Arabs are almost twice as likely as Jews not to earn a high school diploma. As a consequence Arabs, who comprise approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population, account for just 12 percent of its university students.

Those enrolled are twice as likely to drop out before graduating. And if they graduate, they are more likely to pursue studies that lead to relatively low-income jobs. Only 5 percent of students pursuing degrees in business administration were Arabs.

Trajtenberg’s plan identifies several ways of correcting the imbalance, including offering more grants to Arabs pursuing advanced degrees, establishing a mentor system and investing in college preparatory programs.

“There’s a phenomenon where Arab students go abroad to study in Jordan and other countries in the region,” said Merav Shaviv, the council’s deputy director for planning and policy. “We want to reduce that trend.”

Trajtenberg moved to Israel from Argentina at 16. After earning two degrees from Tel Aviv University, he went on to receive his doctorate from Harvard University in 1984.

Following the outbreak of protests in 2011, Trajtenberg produced a 267-page report with a broad set of recommendations, including raising taxes on the wealthy, investing more in the middle class and rescinding import tariffs. More than 60 percent of the recommendations were implemented, according to the Bank of Israel, and Trajtenberg was named to the Movement for Quality Government’s “Knights” list of figures that contributed to the betterment of Israeli society.

Now Trajtenberg is trying to work similar magic on behalf of Israeli Arabs, initiating a series of reforms aimed at quelling a potential source of social unrest.

“Anyone who cares about the State of Israel and wants a harmonious society should care about minorities that represent 20 percent of the population,” he said. “If [Arab Israelis] don’t find their place in society with well-paid jobs, then there is expected to be greater friction.”

That was the main message he delivered to the member organizations of the Inter Agency Task Force last month, when he briefed them in New York on the main tenets of the plan. The task force includes Jewish federations, private foundations and national advocacy groups.

But will Trajtenberg stick around to see the full implementation of the initiative? For now he is staying mum on the question of whether he will try to parlay his growing reputation as a public fix-it man into a political career.

“There was some talk in the past and there’ll be talk in the future,” he said. “We’re currently in the middle of a multi-year plan and I am a big believer in higher education. For me, this is the best way to make a difference.”