Israeli Arabs spoke out Tuesday against civilian national service, saying that
“compulsory volunteerism” would only exacerbate extensive socioeconomic gaps
between Arabs and Jews.
The comments came in response to proposals by
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin on Monday night to encourage Israeli Arabs, who
make up 20.6 percent of Israel’s population, to undertake national civilian
Speaking to Arab council heads in Kafr Kasim at a Ramadan iftar
meal, which breaks the daily fast, Rivlin said that Israeli Arabs would benefit
from undertaking civilian national service within their local communities, and
that their contributions would also bolster the Arab sector, which lacks
The reactions also come as the “Tal Law,” legislated to end
conscription exemptions for full-time yeshiva students, is set to expire on
Wednesday with no alternative in place.
Last month, Keshev Committee
chairman MK Yohanan Plesner presented a report recommending “service for all,”
which would apply to the haredi population and later in principle to Israeli
Rasool Saade, a Bar-Ilan University law and criminology student
who heads the Arab division of the National Union of Israeli Students, slammed
compulsory national service proposals as unworkable and said they would not
benefit the Arab community.
Saade said that many Arab villages have few
or no institutions like hospitals, community centers or clinics in which Arab
youth could volunteer.
“How can the government expect Arabs to volunteer
in their hometowns, when the infrastructure for volunteering is not there?
Should young Arabs travel kilometers to Haifa, or to a Jewish town to volunteer?
How does that benefit Arab society?” he asked.
Saade noted, however, that
he is not against volunteering, just against making it mandatory under a
national service program.
That would exacerbate the already significant
socioeconomic gaps between Israel’s Arab and Jewish populations, he
Poverty rates among Israeli Arabs are dramatically higher than
among Jews – in 2010, 53% of Arabs lived in poverty compared with 14% of
Disparities also exist in other areas. The high school dropout
rates are twice as high among Israeli-Arab teens than their Jewish counterparts,
significantly reducing employment prospects. And among those Arab teenagers who
stay on at school, the rate of university- eligible matriculation rates are well
below those of Jews.
Saade said that now, Arabs can leave school at 18
and either start working or go on to higher education.
would set back Arabs’ earning potential by delaying their entry into the
workforce, he noted.
“Social equality between Jews and Arabs needs to
start from birth, not from age 18,” he said.
His remarks echo those of
others in the Israeli-Arab community – both young people and community leaders
–who point out that volunteerism in the Arab community is growing, both within
and outside of organized programs.
According to Civilian and National
Service Administration statistics, the number of Arab citizens volunteering for
civilian national service has increased almost tenfold since
However, the number of Arabs taking part in civilian and national
Service programs is still very small.
This year, there are 2,399
volunteers aged 18-24, around 15% of whom are in their second year of national
service. Three quarters of those volunteers serve in the Arab community. The
overwhelming majority of Arab national service volunteers – 90% – are women,
said a spokeswoman.
One of those 2,399 volunteers is 19-year-old Jalal
Awad from Tamra, southeast of Nazareth.
Awad is undertaking a year of
national service as a firefighter in the Carmel region, and as a young man
volunteering outside the Arab sector, differs from most of his peers.
said he chose this path to gain both life and work experience in his chosen
career field of firefighting.
Although most of Awad’s co-volunteers are
Jewish, another Arab volunteer also started on the program last week, he
His parents had suggested volunteering, Awad noted, and were very
happy with his choice. However, despite his enthusiasm for volunteerism, Awad
said he is opposed to the idea of compulsory national service for Israelis
“Volunteering should be voluntary,” he said. “The numbers of
[Arab] volunteers are growing every year, and they will continue to increase, as
more and more people decide for themselves that they want to
Another major bone of contention for Israeli Arabs over
government proposals for national civil service has been the lack of
consultation with the Arab community.
Ayman Odeh, a member of the High
Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, said the state had completely
excluded Arab leaders from discussions about national service.
government has never once invited us to sit down and talk about these and other
key issues, and about our rights. That is not democratic,” Odeh told The
Like Saade, Odeh added that the Arab community was
“definitely not” against volunteerism.
“What we are opposed to is the
politicization of volunteer culture,” he said. “We work, we pay our taxes, just
like the Jews. We also want to be part of society. We want
Odeh called on the government to sit down with Arab leaders
and discuss a full range of issues.
“We want to be involved,” he added.
“We are looking for a real debate.”
Arab politicians also say that
compulsory national service would deepen the economic gulf between Arabs and
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) said that while he supported
the principles and cultural values of volunteering, a mandatory one- or two-year
national service stint would exacerbate the disparities between the two
“Druse and Beduin citizens serve in the army, and their
situation is the worst of all,” Tibi said.
coexecutive director of the nonprofit Abraham Fund Initiatives that promotes
Arab-Jewish coexistence and equality, said that one way forward would be to
create a volunteer community service organization run by Arab local
Be’eri-Sulitzeanu emphasized that the government must first
reach an agreement with Arab leaders that such national service would be
The Abraham Fund proposed that the program be funded
by national government, but run entirely by Arab local authorities, who would
receive an annual budget for the scheme. The proposal suggested that for the
first few years, young Arabs would volunteer locally, but eventually the scheme
could extend to national venues including hospitals or
Responding to Arabs’ fears that lengthy volunteering could
widen socioeconomic gaps, Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said research showed that such
service was linked to academic and employment success.
acknowledged that many Arab villages lack institutions in which to volunteer,
but said that developing a national volunteering program could easily go hand in
hand with advancing Arab infrastructure.
A voluntary service program
would eventually improve young Arabs’ knowledge of Israel while allowing them to
retain their own identity, he added, saying that Israeli citizenship and
Palestinian Arab identity were not mutually exclusive.
regarding voluntary community service is within our reach. But first, the
government needs to work on building trust with the Arab community,”