Arabs in Israel: No Service?
As the Knesset considers a new national service law, young Arab citizens may be required to pitch in, too
Late last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his intention to oversee the passage of a law that would set down new, more equitable rules for mandatory national service for young Israelis.
“I believe four key principles should guide us,” said Netanyahu, speaking at the opening meeting of a Knesset panel recently established to come up with a replacement for the Tal Law, the 2002 temporary draft scheme that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this past winter. “First, an equal distribution of the burden of service; second, a gradual implementation; third, the inclusion of Jews and Arabs alike; and fourth, do all this in accordance with the Basic Laws,” a reference to the foundational laws that serve the country in lieu of a constitution.
It was not the first time in recent weeks that Netanyahu had spoken about mandatory national service for Arabs. Several weeks earlier, the premier had placed the subject, together with service of ultra-Orthodox Jews, on an agenda of four big issues he said he intends to grapple with this year, when he and Shaul Mofaz announced their agreement to move Kadima, the party headed by Mofaz, from opposition to membership in the ruling coalition.
The situations of the Haredim and the Arabs are not comparable. Whereas Netanyahu is obligated by the court ruling to come up with a solution for the young men of the former group—for whom the numbers exempted from military service so that they can pursue Torah study has grown from some 400 young men in 1948 to 58,000 today—by July 31, when the Tal Law expires, time is not pressing in the same way with the Arabs.
Most of the public spotlight has been focused on the Haredim, with the media titillated to distraction by the prospect—unlikely, it must be said—of tens of thousands of pale-faced, black-suited Haredi boys having to report for basic training as early as this summer if a new, more equitable arrangement is not agreed upon. Perhaps without fully intending it, however, Netanyahu has set in motion a process that could no less radically transform Israeli society by changing the relationship between the state and its largest minority. Arabs make up approximately 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry (compared with some 12 percent among the ultra-Orthodox, though by 2030, the proportion could be more than double that), and they have always been exempt from mandatory service, even of a nonmilitary nature. By committing himself to making the Arabs subject to some sort of draft (and soon), Netanyahu is adding a major new variable into the equation.
Each year, roughly 20,000 of 1.5 million Israel’s Palestinian Arabs reach the age of 18, when they would normally be eligible for the draft. But in Israel, which has been at war since its establishment with their brethren who became refugees in 1948 and their descendants, there has always been a consensus that Arabs should not drafted. On the one hand, army service would put them in an untenable position, as a people “whose country is at war with their nation,” as their situation was famously described in a line attributed to the late Knesset member and one-time Nazareth Mayor Abd El-Aziz El Zoubi. On the other hand, the state, and the Jewish citizenry in general, has always regarded the Arab minority as a potential fifth column, and so even those who want to volunteer for the army don’t have an easy time doing so. The only exceptions to this are the country’s Druze and Circassian citizens, whose men are subject to draft and, to a lesser extent, the Bedouin, who are encouraged to volunteer for army service.
Responsibility for coming up with the new legislation is a committee headed by Knesset Member Yohanan Plesner of Kadima. While his party was still in the opposition, Plesner headed a panel that examined the politically explosive issue of the Haredi draft exemption and is thought to have carried out the task thoroughly and professionally. But Plesner now has to come up with a practical plan in less than two months and already faces the challenge that neither the ultra-Orthodox nor the Arab communities are even willing to send representatives to participate on his committee.
During the last week in May, I spoke with Ayman Udeh, the director general of the left-wing, Arab-Jewish party Hadash. Udeh also heads the campaign sponsored by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, an umbrella body of the country’s Arab political leaders, which has been fighting the voluntary program of civilian service that has been open to young Arabs since 2005. Udeh told me he had been invited to testify before Plesner’s panel but didn’t intend to show up because it doesn’t have an Arab member. He was planning, however, to send the panel a letter outlining the positions of the Monitoring Committee.
“I have no problem with a young person volunteering in a hospital in Tel Aviv,” Udeh told me. “I even call on them to volunteer. But we are against the service as proposed by the state.” The reasons for this are many, but if you ask almost any Arab official, you will hear the same list, which basically comes down to the following: The existing program was devised by Jewish politicians who didn’t include Arabs in their deliberations; the lump sum given to volunteers after they finish their one or two years of service comes from the Fund for Released Soldiers, which strengthens the feeling that the program is connected to the defense establishment; voluntary civilian service in the Arab sector increases unemployment among those who need to support families.
In other words, the Arabs won’t participate in the current deliberations because they haven’t been included in previous deliberations; they won’t participate in civilian service because it looks suspiciously like it’s connected to military service, which they won’t get near; and they won’t participate in voluntary service, though it could provide valuable experience to young people in their community who are often locked out of the job market, because the service itself might deprive other people of paying jobs.
At the top of the same list is the argument, as expressed by 18-year-old Layla Swaid in an interview, that rejects “the government’s attempt to link the granting of rights to the Arab minority with doing national service. When the government gives the Arab sector the equality that we deserve, I will do the voluntary civilian service.” Swaid, a daughter of Hadash Knesset Member Hanna Swaid, recently finished high school and began volunteering at her own initiative with the organization Women Against Violence; in the fall, she will be starting law school at the University of Haifa. It turns out that she has even even discussed the topic with Udeh, a family friend.
None of which is to say that Layla Swaid’s position is not genuine, or that it doesn’t represent the thinking of many Israeli Arabs. It is, rather, the official stance of the Monitoring Committee, which represents the Knesset’s three Arab political parties (which comprise 11 members) and the heads of all the Arab local governments in the country. And Udeh and his group have done a very effective job in getting the message out, speaking in high schools and in meetings in private homes against national service, holding contests for the design of the best posters conveying the message, publishing op-eds in the Arabic press. In light of the well-organized campaign, which has been going on since 2004, it’s remarkable how much of the Arab public says it supports the idea of national service. Last month, Prof. Sammy Smooha, of the University of Haifa, who has been checking the pulse of the Arab population with regular public-opinion surveys since 1980, presented the results of a new survey on the topic at a recent conference at the university. He found that 39.7 percent of Arab Israelis ages 18-22 would themselves be willing to volunteer for national service and that 62.2 percent of the Arab population in general supports the idea, a drop from 68 percent in 2009 and 78 percent two years before that.
Smooha, who is himself Jewish, has long argued that, as he put it recently in an interview with me, “the Arab public is more pragmatic than its leadership. The leadership is ideological, just as the Jewish leadership is, whereas the public just wants to live.” In early May, Smooha brought out another study, his latest “Index of Arab-Jewish Relations,” in which he found, he says, that “more than half of the Arab public is ready to reconcile itself to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, whereas the leadership won’t.”
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