Arabs in Israel: No Service?
As the Knesset considers a new national service law, young Arab citizens may be required to pitch in, too
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.
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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