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 service.

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 manpower.

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 Arabs.

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 said.

Poverty rates among Israeli Arabs are dramatically higher than among Jews – in 2010, 53% of Arabs lived in poverty compared with 14% of Jews.

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.

Compulsory service 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 2005.

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.

He 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 said.

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 Arabs.

“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 volunteer.”

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.

“The 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 Jerusalem Post.

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 equality.”

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 Jews.

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 populations.

“Druse and Beduin citizens serve in the army, and their situation is the worst of all,” Tibi said.

Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, 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 governments.

Be’eri-Sulitzeanu emphasized that the government must first reach an agreement with Arab leaders that such national service would be entirely voluntary.

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 universities.

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.

Be’eri-Sulitzeanu 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.

“A consensus regarding voluntary community service is within our reach. But first, the government needs to work on building trust with the Arab community,” Be’eri-Sulitzeanu concluded.

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