Some 700 Israeli-Arab civilian volunteers gathered in a Karmiel auditorium last Tuesday for an event to show them appreciation. Inside it was celebratory, upbeat and heartwarming. Much congratulations and affection were showered upon the plucky volunteers who resist blatant bullying in order to perform civic service inside their communities.
Despite unbridled antagonism all around them, they participate in a program geared to parallel military or national service among Jews.
But outside the Karmiel hall there was vehement hostility.
Arabs from nearby Galilee towns converged on the venue, accosted the volunteers, jeered them, hurled obscenities at them and berated them as traitors to their people. The volunteers were spat at and jostled menacingly.
There was violence in the air and only the police, which was alerted to disperse the intimidating crowds, prevented grievous physical attacks.
To the uninitiated all this may sound utterly incomprehensible.
Why would young people, who do much-needed service for their own communities, be rebuked so aggressively as enemies of the people? One would assume the volunteers’ neighbors would fete rather than fault them.
While the conscription of haredim continues to preoccupy Israeli discourse, scant attention is paid the tribulations of those Arabs who dare volunteer for civic service despite pressure and threats everywhere in their milieus.
The anti-service campaigners contend that any sort of civic service performed by Arabs is a precursor to a draft and is but “the army of occupation’s arm.” It takes a great deal of courage to withstand such condemnation.
Nevertheless, the numbers of volunteers have risen dramatically and currently 3,611 among Israel’s Arabic-speaking minorities partake in it. In 2013, the total was 2,711, and when the program began in 2005, it attracted only 270 volunteers.
Today 54 percent of the volunteers are Muslim, 17% Druse, 10% Christian and the reminder hail from Beduin communities.
Disconcertingly, however, only 10% are male.
The program’s aim is to make strictly voluntary one-year civic service opportunities available to Arab youths, who by assisting exclusively in their own communities, accrue rights to a variety of perks earned by IDF veterans (and routinely pointed to as manifestations of discrimination, because Arab Israelis aren’t subject to conscription).
Such perks, of course, are customary in all democracies.
Yet alternative service generously presents equivalent benefits even to those who do not put their lives on the line like soldiers and who are required to devote to the service only 12 months versus three years for male soldiers and two for women.
It is ironic that programs which offer Israeli Arabs advantages and avenues for personal advancement should generate so much calumny. The belligerent rebuff of the outstretched hand is all-inclusive, throughout the Israeli-Arab political spectrum, despite the voluntary nature of the program and the improvements it promises Arab communities.
Moreover, the passion against the program seems to unite warring Arab factions, if not promote contests for who would fulminate more provocatively against it. Any plan to interest Israeli-Arabs in any agenda identified with the state qualifies as a casus belli.
Principally worrisome is the emerging message: There are no goodwill gestures Israel can legitimately take to integrate its Arab citizens and narrow the divide between them and the Jewish majority. Indeed, the outcry is against perceived “Israelization.” Yet precisely such Israelization should be the goal of all Israeli citizens, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
Exasperatingly, the very notion of integration is considered anathema, while Arab politicians whip up fervor and vie to determine who will stir up more conflict and score more points with voters these very politicians cynically radicalize.
Those who clamor for all the rights Israeli citizenship bestows should be the first to remember that Israel is the freest and most prosperous country for any Arab in the entire region. A scornful stance toward the state and its delegitimization will hardly build the bridges that would primarily benefit Israel’s Arabs. Those who yell loudest fear those bridges most.