An Israeli Arab who is neatly groomed, cleanshaven and possessed of a serious travel bug, Jabbour Jabbour wanted to be a flight attendant for El Al. He was undeterred by the fact that not one of the Israeli national airline's 1,000 flight attendants is an Arab.
Jabbour, a Christian, seemed to fit the bill: 30-year-old travel agent; Israeli citizen in good standing; fluent in English, Hebrew and Arabic; exceptionally well traveled. For a time in the early '90s, he studied travel and tourism in Toronto.
But this month, for the third time in three years, El Al turned him down. The state-owned airline, which accepts just one in 20 flight attendant applicants, said Jabbour failed its extensive tests. That virtually none of its stewards, stewardesses, or 2,400 other workers is an Arab had nothing to do with his rejection, El Al said.
"We're looking for the top people," said Nachman Klieman, spokesman for El Al. "We're looking for the level of employee who can provide the best service, and we'll continue to maintain this high level."
Jabbour doesn't buy it, and neither do many of the 1 million or so Israelis -- a sixth of the population -- who are Arabs. He is certain he passed the El Al tests and accuses the airline of screening out Arab applicants.
"They don't want to give us any answers," said Jabbour, who is taking his case to a labor court, alleging ethnic discrimination. "They won't say where I failed or what's wrong with me or what my negative side was. They don't say I was panicked or don't look good. We know one thing: There is no Arab in this company and they are continuing this racist regime and discrimination, and it's very obvious."
Unlike their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the mostly Muslim Israeli Arabs are Palestinians who remained in Israel when the state was born in 1948. They are full citizens who vote in national and local elections, hold seats in parliament, attend state schools and speak Hebrew. An Israeli Arab woman, Rana Raslan, was recently named Miss Israel for 1999.
But they also constitute an underclass in a society whose standards of wealth have drawn even with some Western European countries. In Jewish-owned hotels, Arabs are usually the busboys and dishwashers. In Jewish-owned service stations, Arabs pump the gas. The poverty rate for Israeli Arabs, about 30 percent, is nearly twice that of Israelis overall.
Jabbour's case, like similar ones before it, flashed across Israel's news pages and talk shows this week, then faded, leaving scarcely a ripple. Most Israeli Jews seem unperturbed that huge national enterprises like the airline, electricity and telephone companies, which have thousands of employees each, hire no more than a handful of Arabs.
Civil rights lawyers are trying to pry open the doors of employment for Israeli Arabs, but they often have difficulty proving their cases. Despite the near-absence of Arab workers in many government ministries and public-sector companies, they say, it is difficult to show an official policy of discrimination.
Israeli courts have not tended to accept the lopsided employment patterns as proof of discriminatory intent. And often, Arab applicants are excluded because firms ask for proof of army service, for which Israeli Arabs are ineligible.
Civil rights activists say the results speak for themselves. Among El Al's 3,400 workers, they say, there is scarcely an Arab employee. At the electricity company, just a few dozen of the 14,000 employees are Arabs. In government ministries themselves, perhaps 1 percent of employees are Arabs, civil rights lawyers say.
The employment pattern in the public sector helps fuel 20 percent unemployment among Israeli Arabs, more than twice the national average. And it serves as a reminder that 51 years after its independence, Israel has still not settled the question of whether it is a country of all its citizens. Some Israeli Arabs say it is a system of apartheid masquerading as a democracy.
"We face this discrimination everywhere, especially in government corporations," said Hassan Jabareen, an attorney who is director of Adalah, a legal center for Arab rights in Israel that models itself after the NAACP. "It's very, very harsh and barely can you find Arabs there."
El Al is a special target, largely because many Arabs fly the airline. Many notice immediately that the airline's announcements and literature are presented only in English and Hebrew, even though Arabic is one of Israel's official languages.
Israeli Arabs also complain about the airline's unusually stringent security regime. The Israeli Airports Authority insists its security personnel -- all of whom are Jewish -- treat Arabs no differently than other passengers despite past incidents of airline terrorism by Arabs.
"It depends who is the passenger, background, purpose of visit in Israel, etc.," said Pini Shiff, spokesman for the airports authority. "I can assure you that passengers aren't checked because they're Arab or Jew, American or Christian. This is not the criteria."
Few Arabs believe it, and many tell stories of being singled out for more extensive, sometimes degrading questioning and humiliated by baggage searches that other passengers need not undergo.
"El Al is basically saying, `Hey, we want your money, we want you to travel on our airlines, but we don't want you to care about your human rights and basic dignity,' " said Yousef Jabareen, an attorney for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. "And really a lot of Arabs won't travel with El Al because they're afraid of being involved with this obsession of their security checks."
There are some scattered signs that Israel's political elites may be ready to chip away at the decades-old pattern. After Jabbour's case was publicized this week, a few politicians -- Israeli liberals as well as Arab members of parliament -- said they will boycott El Al until it begins hiring Arabs. In some cases, the courts, too, have agreed that Arab passengers are singled out for harsh treatment.
"The vacuous phrase `security considerations' is not a magic word that shuts every mouth," the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court said this week in awarding an Arab couple $4,000 for mental anguish and damages after they were forced by El Al to abandon their baggage at the airport in Nice, France.
Security staff told the couple that Nice lacked the necessary security check to clear their luggage. The court concluded the luggage was confiscated simply because "the plaintiffs are Arabs."
As for flight attendants, El Al insists it is eager to hire Arabs -- if only suitable candidates would apply. The airline notes that few Arab candidates have applied recently -- just two last year and four so far this year, including Jabbour.
CAPTION: Jabbour Jabbour accuses El Al of not hiring him because he is an Arab.