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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

David B. Green
June 13, 2012
Israeli army paratroopers march through the Israeli countryside, June 2005.(David Furst/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli army paratroopers march through the Israeli countryside, June 2005.(David Furst/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

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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David B. Green is an editor at Haaretz English Edition, and writes its “This Day in Jewish History” column.

David B. Green is an editor at Haaretz English Edition, and writes its “This Day in Jewish History” column.