(photo credit: Courtesy [file])
Balad MK Jamal Zahalka called for banishing Arab youths who volunteer for a national service program created by the Supreme Arab Monitoring Committee.
Zahalka said that although he believes in community service, he refuses to condone the performance of community service for the benefit of the state.
"The plan to integrate our youth into a national service program is another Israeli attempt to Zionize our children and an attempt to cause an identity crisis among us," Zahalka told The Jerusalem Post. "We won't give our children away to the state."
Zahalka's statements have sparked widespread anger and criticism. The question remains, however: Can a minority demand full rights without accepting full civic responsibilities in a state that defines itself as both Jewish and democratic?
Of the seven million people living in Israel today, 76 percent are Jewish and 19.9 percent are Arab. Jewish citizens are obligated to serve in the IDF. Members of the Druze and Beduin communities volunteer for military service, serving alongside their Jewish peers.
But Arabs who are neither Druze nor Beduin almost never serve in the army, and a recent attempt to integrate them into a framework of national service is meeting with some rejection. This opposition follows years of institutionalized discrimination and what some see as the ongoing cultural marginalization of Israeli Arabs.
"[Israel] identifies solely with its Jewish ethos and not at all with its Arab ethos. The state refuses to identify with us as a group," Professor Ramzi Suleiman of Haifa University's psychology department explained.
"If the state identified with all of its citizens, we wouldn't be pushed aside and wouldn't be marginal citizens," Suleiman said.
Suleiman also said that Israeli Arabs fear that national service could lead to the loss of their ethnic identity. Suleiman points to the Druze, who, he says, now prefer to identify with and resemble the stronger entity - Israel.
"[The Druze] are experiencing an identity crisis because they stay away from collective elements that distinguish them [from other ethnic groups]... We don't want to throw our youth into a similar state [in which] they have no collective feelings that unite and differentiate them," said Suleiman.
Suleiman also said that discrimination against Israeli Arabs expanded beyond the most tangible parameters, such as budgetary allocations and salary gaps, long ago.
"The discrimination exists on another level that people don't talk about... We are the invisible citizens, or worse - our existence is always brought up in a negative way."
"We live with the constant feeling that our property is threatened and that no resources are being channeled to our towns and villages. [This is] just as dangerous as any quantifiable discrimination," said Suleiman.
Arab leaders and policymakers also argue that no one has promised them complete equality if their children were to serve in a national service program. "If there were an offer of that sort on the table, we would consider it. The young Israeli Arab who agrees to volunteer doesn't get the message that the expropriated lands of his village will be returned, but [rather] that he alone will be drawn out of the cycle of discrimination. That's not a good solution for us as a society and it's not enough," Suleiman said.
In recent years, the rate of municipal tax collection has been relatively low in Arab towns, despite the fact that the government gives residents of these areas a considerable discount - they are charged 20% less, on average, than the municipal tax rates charged in the Jewish sector. In the city of Tira, for instance, the rate of tax collection was 19% in 2005, a rate characteristic of 75 other Arab local councils.
Former chairman of the Supreme Arab Monitoring Committee Shauki Hatib asserted that there was subtle discrimination behind the rate of municipal tax collection, which, in turn, is related to the neglect of Arab towns. In an interview with the Israeli business magazine The Marker, Hatib said that the Interior Ministry discriminated against local Arab councils by drawing municipal boundaries to exclude wealthy industrial and business centers, which pay higher municipal taxes.
Professor Yoav Peled, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University, claimed that whether or not the Israeli failure to develop local Arab councils is directly responsible for the Arab public's inability to pay taxes, the historic injustice towards the country's Arab residents is what is unmistakably to blame.
"Israel abuses and exploits its Arab residents... Now it expects them to volunteer for national service - for what nation, exactly? And where? In Arab hospitals and institutions that don't exist?" said Peled.
According to Peled, the split between Israel's Jews and Arabs took place in the early days of Zionist settlement, when Jews expropriated Arab lands. "The tendency to take from the Arabs and to give them as little as possible [continues] today. If [Arabs] had been treated equally from the start, they would be perfectly integrated today. The only way to achieve integration is to change Israel's definition, because as long as it is 'Jewish and democratic,' Arabs cannot fit in. They are not Jews," Peled said.
While the definition "Jewish and democratic state" does not prohibit Arab citizens from voting for the Knesset, it does have an indirect effect on their political influence. Only 11 of the Knesset's 120 seats are occupied by Israeli Arab politicians, who - if demographics were accurately reflected - would hold 24 seats.
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List) explained why Arabs are underrepresented. "Many of [Israel's] Arab residents don't believe in the Israeli political system and its institutions... One small sector of the Arab public doesn't vote at all on ideological grounds, and another feels that there is a crisis of trust between them and their leaders," he said.
Tibi resents attempts to base the allocation of rights to the Arab minority upon their first fulfilling the duties of the majority. "In other democracies, duties and rights aren't bound up together. They say volunteering for a national service program will be a substitute for military service, but Israel doesn't want us to serve in the army, nor do we," he said.
Tibi rejected the claim that military service brings those who serve broader rights. "The Israeli police didn't hold their fire last week against the residents of... Peki'in," he pointed out.
"We are all for volunteerism among the youth and we encourage it, but not as an official activity of the state," said Tibi.
Neither does Tibi accept the argument that Arabs' inferior social, municipal and educational conditions persist because Arabs do not serve in the IDF. "There is a large group in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, that doesn't serve in the army either, yet they enjoy large budgets," he said.