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Arabs in Israel: No Service?

As the Knesset considers a new national service law, young Arab citizens may be required to pitch in, too

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Israeli army paratroopers march through the Israeli countryside, June 2005. (David Furst/AFP/Getty Images)

Many 18-year-old Arabs here are indeed voting for national service—with their feet. The existing program began in 2005, and the first year it attracted 240 18-year-olds to volunteer for civilian service, mostly in schools and also in hospitals. Three years later, the number was up to 1,050, and by 2011, 2,399 young people chose to volunteer for national service. They did this in spite of the fact that organized Arab society in Israel was broadcasting a clear message that they should not participate in this government-administered program. Ayman Udeh told me that his movement doesn’t agree with calling volunteers in the national program “traitors,” but Galal Awad, a 19-year-old from Tamra who volunteers with the fire department in the nearby city of Carmiel, says that’s exactly what other kids in his neighborhood call him. Awad, an Arab Muslim, comes from a family that supports his participation in national service; in fact, he got the idea to volunteer from a cousin who also served in the fire department and now has a paying job in the Israel Police. He says he would also be happy to serve in the army if he could, “because of the [financial] conditions,” which are much better than they are for national service.

Awad receives a monthly stipend of 900 shekels, and when he finishes his two years of service, he expects to receive a one-time grant of 16,000 shekels. He also likes the fact that he can travel free on public transportation while he’s in the service, just like soldiers.

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Sar-Shalom Jerbi heads the National Service Administration, the body within the Science Ministry set up in 2007 to supervise the program service, for both Arabs and Jews. (Among Jews, girls from Zionist-Orthodox backgrounds often volunteer for national service in lieu of serving in the army next to boys; and young men turned down by the army sometimes do the same.) Jerbi, a former director general of the National Religious Party, is careful to give credit to Prime Minister Netanyahu for his call for Arabs to perform national service but at the same time told me that he believes Netanyahu “has emphasized the need to use common sense—and not just to be in the right—about it.” He is certain that Netanyahu understands the need to proceed “cautiously.” When I ask him if by this he means that it makes more sense to leave service by Arabs as optional rather than requiring it by law, he confirmed that I understood him correctly.

Shalom (Shuli) Dichter is a former co-director of Sikkuy, the Association of the Advancement of Civil Equality in Israel. In 2008, he prepared a policy paper analyzing the objections of the organized Arab leadership to national service. What he concluded, he says, is that the objections are “rooted not in a refusal to recognize the state, but rather are a result of sheer fear that the state will attempt to transform the identity of the young people of the Arab community.” Dichter, who today heads Hand in Hand, the NGO that sponsors three of the country’s bilingual (Hebrew-Arabic) schools, describes a pamphlet published in 2007 by the Higher Monitoring Committee, urging Arab youths not to volunteer. The argument made by the pamphlet, he says, was “they want to ‘Israelize’ you. All they want is to use you as a substitute for [Jews doing] military service, to change your identity by mixing you with Jewish Israeli young people and depriving you of your identity as Palestinians.” The brochure even referred to an effort “to kidnap your souls,” which Dichter notes is the same wording used by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in czarist Russia in 1827, warning young Jewish people away from mandatory service in the czar’s army.

Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which is involved in a wide range of programs to advance coexistence, has been working hard over the past year, together with his Abraham Fund counterpart Mohammad Darawshe, to narrow the gaps between Arab and Jewish leaders on the issue. Both he and Darawshe appeared before the Plesner committee in early June to urge the government to separate the question of ultra-Orthodox service from that of the Arabs. In a statement they released after they gave their testimony, the two proposed that dialogue could lead to “an agreed-upon framework for optional community volunteering—a channel of communication that will also deal with additional aspects of minimizing the gaps between Jews and Arabs and will focus on inequality.”

I asked Be’eri-Sulitzeanu what he sees as a compromise that might be acceptable to both sides. “A nonbinding declaration,” he responds, rather than a law, “saying that all Israelis should serve, according to their ability and for a certain number of years. And with Arabs, a separate administration should be built, one that I think should be based on the local governmental authorities.” Shuli Dichter proposes a similar arrangement and stresses the need for it to be civilian in organization and spirit. The National Service Administration, he added in an interview, acts in “the old spirit of the army. It’s putting them to a test, challenging them, antagonizing them. What the Arab population needs is an inclusive embrace, to lower all the fears that I was mentioning.”

Be’eri-Sulitzeanu made a point one also hears regularly from Arabs. “When the government wants to evacuate a settlement, they send [Likud minister] Benny Begin to talk with the settlers over a few months,” to set up a dialogue for compromise, he told me. Similarly, at least eight of the 10 members of the Plesner panel charged with coming up with a proposal for Haredi service are Jews, and they will likely work hard to make the ultra-Orthodox community a party to any plan they propose. But that kind of consideration is rarely displayed vis-à-vis the Arabs. At the same time, he says, “the Arab leadership has to be courageous enough to say, we know this is important to our youth, to our society.”

In early June, I spoke with someone involved with the Plesner committee’s work who asked not to be identified because that work was still under way. He explained that the panel had been stuck with a “mission impossible, in terms of its deadline” but that it does intend at least to issue “a statement of intent with regard to the Arabs,” about the importance of finding an agreed-upon arrangement that will enable them to be involved in carrying more fully the burden of Israeli citizenry.

There are many issues dividing Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens and a level of mutual suspicion that has risen considerably over the past decade. To date, the question of national service has hung in the background but not been a source of high tension. Now that Prime Minister Netanyahu has placed it on the agenda, attention will have to be paid and decisions made. Whether those decisions are made by agreement and consensus will depend largely on whether Israel’s current right-wing government wants to improve relations with the Arab minority—or just wants to put it in its place. And to a lesser extent, it also depends on whether the leadership of that minority wants to take steps to change the nature of Arab citizenship or prefers to perpetuate a culture of grievance.

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julis123 says:

3 points:
1) Let’s just be clear. Arab armies have fought against each other for 1500 years in wars in which Arabs killed Arabs. What bothers the Israeli Arabs is that they would be killing Arabs while serving in an Israeli army. It should also be pointed out that many Jews served on opposite sides in WWI.
2) Arab youth actually benefits by positive discrimination. While young Jews finish high school and go off to 2 or 3 years in the army where they are paid a symbolic wage, young Arabs are free to start working or going on to higher education
3) Anyone familiar with the Arab MKs know that the last thing that concerns them is the good of their communities. They are much more interested in fighting with each other, appearing in the media and running off to meet with Arab dictators such as Gaddafi and Assad

Natan79 says:

So far the Arabs have been positively discriminated. When I was out patrolling the border on foot, so that some AlKhalil murderer doesn’t succeed killing Jews, the Arab Israelis of the same age as me were free to do whatever they wanted.  

yevka says:

 Let’s just be clear that you can’t see clear julis and just call all quits on your constant hasbara crap that you get paid to brush on every message blog from Maine to Idaho in the name of nonsense.

First of all it is important to note that many Arabs already serve in the IDF: Bedouin and Druze (also Circassians, which are not Arabs, but Muslims who originate from the Caucasus). Many of them choose a lifelong military career, which as a good social mobility option for them. The IDF is the great melting pot of Israeli society, allowing different population segments to mix and interact. As such, it in facts helps the cohesion of Israeli society and healthy co-existence of different minority groups inside it.
Secondly, there’s an increase in the willingness of young Arab Israelis to do civil national service (if not military service), as shows Dr. Smooha’s survey. In civil national service, they will be mostly serving *their own communities* – helping the elderly and the sick, teaching, and so on. Again, there’s a big gap between the nationalistic stance of the Arab MKs and the population they purport to represent. As such, they are doing a disservice to their electorate.

Plenty of young Charedim do national service and or serve in the IDF. I don’t see how Arabs can be included into the IDF until they accept the reality of the  Jewish State,. In their present situation they are likely to act as fifth columnists undermining the safety of our boys in green.

yevka says:

 Nothing like being “positively discriminated” against is there?

herbcaen says:

The Israeli Arabs remind me of the Sudeten Germans. They main Israeli citizenship to obtain financial benefit but they really hate the state. Even if the population is more pragmatic then their leadership, I expect Arab towns in pre1967 Israel to be the  front lines in the next Arab-Israeli war. Personally, I would not want to be around any young Arab volunteers with access to rocks or sharp objects

David Gold says:

Never ,ever trust an Arab but if they live in Israel they must contribute figure the least dangerous most nothing task for them to do even if it is laundry ,cleaning, etc. just screen em at all points sad but it is what it is. And most of all keep guard up access to weapons limited and no access to any information that is vital.

David Gold says:

if this the case very interesting and good for all sooner or later we all just gotta co-exist and not place blame just fix problem

David Gould , i have to correct your name cause i know you came from to my country Palestine . Arab Palestinians are living at their homes since 92,000 years ago , go back to your mother country just leave us alone, we are among the most genus civilized nations on earth …

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Arabs in Israel: No Service?

As the Knesset considers a new national service law, young Arab citizens may be required to pitch in, too

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