Representatives of the country’s largest organization responsible for facilitating national service said on Wednesday that forcing certain sectors to volunteer if they do not serve in the army would be a grave mistake.

Speaking at a workshop convened to discuss the increasing involvement of the Arab sector in national service, Itamar Schwartz, deputy director of the Arab sector for the National Civil Service Volunteers Association, said that if volunteering for the country became compulsory for populations such as Arab Israelis or the ultra-Orthodox then fewer people would be willing to do it.

“We started national service 40 years ago with only four young religious girls, and today there are more than 13,000 volunteers countrywide from all sectors,” said Schwartz, whose own organization is the largest of six NGOs involved. His group oversees volunteering opportunities for more than 5,000 people who either chose not to serve in the army or were not accepted for military duty.

Adi Luria, spokeswoman of the association, explained to The Jerusalem Post that if volunteers are forced to undertake national service, even if it is for projects within their community, then it will “destroy what we have built up over the last 40 years.”

“The value of national service comes from the volunteering spirit; if you lose that then you change the whole nature of what we are trying to do,” she said, adding, “When volunteers come to us, they come because they want to contribute to the country and their society, it is in their hearts.”

Nothing proved this point more at Wednesday’s symposium than a presentation by Haifa resident Jonathan Nizar el-Khoury.

Born in Lebanon and relocated to Israel in 2001 at the age of nine, Khoury described his satisfaction from volunteering at the city’s Rambam Medical Center.

“Israel accepted us and gave us shelter,” said Khoury, whose family is one of several hundred linked to the South Lebanese Army that fled after Israel withdrew from the area in 2000.

“Even though we did not get all the rights and benefits promised to us by the [Israeli] government, I still want to give something back to the country that took me and my family in.”

He described how he had been rejected for military service and opted for national service as an alternative. Despite criticism from within the Arab community in Israel that the sector should not participate in the governmentsponsored program, Khoury said he feels happy with his decision.

“We live in this country and we should help this country.

People should not expect something from the country without doing anything in return,” stated Khoury, who described how the program has both fiscal and experiential benefits for participants, ultimately helping them to find work placements or receive a subsidized education.

He added that national service – which the Arab community refers to as community or civil service – is a way for the minority population to become more integrated.

“Every month all the [national service] volunteers at the hospital have a joint meeting. Suddenly you see Jews and Arabs coming together, talking and laughing,” said Khoury. There are some 75 national service volunteers at Rambam Medical Center, and 25 are from the Arab sector, he said.

According to information provided by the National Civil Service Volunteers Association, the number of Arab’s volunteering countrywide for the program has greatly increased over the past three years from about 300 to some 2,000 today. The association is currently responsible for the volunteer placements of 600 Israeli Arabs.

Schwartz said that in addition, the association oversees some 3,600 religious Jewish girls exempt from military service, and 1,500 young men and woman who either have special needs or are considered at risk and therefore never received army call-up papers. Those from the Arab sector include Druse, Beduin and other Arabic-speaking minorities; 95 percent of the Arab volunteers are young women, he said.

Schwartz highlighted some of the challenges he faced encouraging Arabs to volunteer, including the fact that it is often portrayed negatively by the community’s leadership and because of cultural attitudes that it will have a bad affect on their daughters.

He said, however, that despite the criticism and the lack of awareness about national service in the Arab community, young people such as Khoury are coming forward and defying their leaders because they want to be part of mainstream Israeli society and realize the benefits from volunteering.

A recent survey carried out by the University of Haifa’s Jewish-Arab Center found that despite an increase in Arab national service volunteers, the collective willingness of the community to contribute to the program has steadily fallen over the past six years.

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