How good (bad) is Arab Work?

9 Feb

Put on your space suit and helmet and get into my time-travel  machine to the year 1972, to Israel.  I was a teenager then.  During the summer months I worked with my father as a bricklayer’s assistant.  Up at dawn, sleepy-eyed, I joined my father at construction sites.  I carried bucketfuls of mortar, sand, cement, rock.  I hauled hundreds of bricks.

Sweat was my middle name.

It was then that I first encountered Arab labor.  Times were different.  The Arabs from Gaza and from the West Bank did not blow up buses in Tel Aviv.  Every Sunday morning hundreds of taxis dropped off Arabs in factories, farms, and construction sites throughout Israel.  By Friday morning, their pockets full with a week’s pay, they hopped into taxis again, to Gaza, to Nablus, to Ramallah, to be with their families.

Arabs in Construction

Arabs in Construction

My father’s “crew” included 6 Arab men, ages 20 to 50.  I knew them all by name.  I worked with them side by side, on and off, for three summers.  I picked up Arabic in no time.  We broke bread together at breakfast.  I watched them kneel and pray to Allah, didn’t think much of it.  I gave little thought to how and where they slept at night.  As the apartment buildings rose from ground to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th level, they too moved their makeshift “home” — a pile of flat cardboard as their bed, pots and pans as their kitchen, Arab tea and coffee to while away the nights.

It was during those years that I first encountered the term “ARAB WORK.”  It was a derogatory remark used to characterize the Arab’s shoddy workmanship.  Arab work was deemed inferior.  At first I thought the term was a product of the 70s, to poke fun at the Arabs who had come to “take work” from the Jews.

I was wrong.

The term was coined at the turn of the twentieth century, in 1904, in Palestine, under the Turkish Empire  The “Second Aliyah,” a wave of Jews who had come to Israel from Russia, were pissed off at the “First Aliyah” Jews.  The early Zionist pioneers of the 1880s had learned by then to till the land, to plant, to  harvest.  They didn’t want to employ Russian city-slickers Jews who had just gotten off boats, who had no experience in farming.  The First Aliyah Jews naturally preferred Arabs.  The Arabs had worked the land for generations, were reliable, and came at a good price.

Arab Farmer

Arab Farmer

The “Second Aliya” Jews were outraged that their own brothers had sold them short, gave the work to Arabs.    “What about Hebrew labor?” they insisted.  It was then that “Arab Work” got its twist to mean sloppy, bad work.

Now get back into my time-travel machine and let’s return to 2013.  So is it still true today that Arab labor is considered substandard?

Old habits die hard.  “Arab work” still connotes negative associations.  That doesn’t keep Jews from employing an Arab electrician,  plumber, tile man, auto mechanic,  gardener.  It’s common to hear: “You get what you pay for.”  The Arabs do the work, but there’s something lacking.

What I hear most often in Galilee, where I live, is that Arabs lack the final touch.  They start out Gung-Ho, make claims and promises, then they fizzle and don’t deliver the goods.

There’s a bitter aftertaste.  They can’t seem to see a job to completion.

An electrician I hired to hang lamps and chandeliers in our house did a great job, technically.  There remained a few openings in the plaster.  I asked him to seal them.  That hasn’t happened.

The painter who had painted our house left streaks of paint on the walls.  It looked terrible.  When we asked he fix it, he became offended.

Yet the Arab mason who’d laid the puzzle-like tile in our house was a master craftsman.

In the past, Arab-Israelis lived and worked in their own villages, away from the spotlight and away from the criticizing eyes of the Jews.  That’s no longer the case.  Arabs have entered the general job market in large numbers.  They’re part of the mainstream in law firms, schools, colleges, hospitals.

Yet the stigma remains.

It’s something about the final touch.

I’m sure Arabs have their own opinions about Jews in Israel.

TV Sitcom characters "Arab Work"

TV Sitcom characters “Arab Work”

Arab Work might be a serious subject but it makes for great comedy.

‘Arab Work” — it’s no coincidence —  is the name of the number 1 sitcom in Israel.  The show is into its 4th season and it has won multiple awards.  It’s the Jerry Seinfeld of the Middle East.  The show’s premise centers on the main character, Amjad, an Arab-Israeli from East Jerusalem who’s a journalist for a Jewish newspaper.  Amjad, 35, wants desperately to shed his Arab identity in the hope of fitting in with the Jews.  Yet no matter how hard he tries, he can’t shake off the stereotype.  His wife Bushra has no such aspirations; she’s true to her Arab roots and wants to pull her husband back into the fold.  The newspaper’s photographer, Meir, a Jew and a friend of Amjad, falls in love with Bushra’s friend, Amal, a very attractive Arab woman.  It turns out that the Jews fall short too; they too mess up; they too do substandard work.  Dare I say “Jewish Work?”

There’s enough material for the next ten years.


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teen-age daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at or


10 Responses to “How good (bad) is Arab Work?”

  1. Wendy February 9, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    Hi Maurice,

    I really enjoyed reading and learning from your blog. Thanks for sharing and educating us!
    We miss you in LA!!

    • Maurice Labi February 9, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

      Hi Wendy. Great hearing from you and thanks for following me around. I read Greg’s pieces from time to time. Best.

  2. Mark February 9, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    Wonderfully written Maurice, and you give a lot of insight to the issue. I was not aware of the conflicts between 1st and 2nd Aliya immigrants to Israel but if we entered your time machine and went back to late 19th/early 20th century Lower Eastside Manhattan there were similar conflicts between settled German Jews and the newly arrived shtetl Russian Jews. It all settled out. Hopefully the Arab work will become a concept of the past.

    • Maurice Labi February 9, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

      Hi Mark, great comments. We always fear someone might displace us from our jobs, our love. What better way than to ridicule our competitors as a way to keep our place in line. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth to them, the question is how do we allow “positive” stereotypes to creep in too.

  3. Alan Bockal February 9, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

    Very Intersting Maurice. I miss you in L.A. too. Alan Bockal

  4. Sandy Galfas February 9, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

    Maurice, I always enjoy your blog entries. They give me insight into a part of the world about which I know nothing. “Arab Work” is no exception. Well done. btw: I’m nearing the exciting conclusion of JUPITER’S STONE.. Crackling good yarn. I’m pulling for Joseph all the way. 🙂 Sandy

  5. rachel bar February 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    I always cringe when I hear the term AVODAH ARAHVIT, and I always wonder how come you hire one to do that if you think that the job is not going to be done well?

    • Maurice Labi February 27, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      I think it’s something cultural. We hire a Jew to do the work and hope for the best, and we hire an Arab to do the work, and we cross our fingers. The starting point is different, but the end result is very similar between both: they do shoddy work, leave a mess behind, ask for cash only, badmouth the people who came before them, ask for coffee, two spoonfuls of sugar, get into the truck and leave smoke behind.

      • rachel bar February 28, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

        A friend of mine just told me that she asked from the painter of her living room to cover the floors and furniture and he looked at her with disdain and said: Geveret, I don’t do jobs like that…

      • Maurice Labi February 28, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

        This is the greatest comment ever!. Goes to show you that handymen in Israel come with two hands but don’t use either. It’s not unusual to pick after them, cigarette butts, ashes, plastic bags, and make coffee for them. Painters here use “wide brush strokes.” Maybe one day, things will change. Inshalla!

Let me know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: