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(photo credit: IDF [file])
An immensely popular video clip currently doing the rounds in Israel's Arab communities features a Jiminy Cricket-like sprite who energetically dissuades a young Israeli Arab from agreeing to perform any sort of national service in any sort of official Israeli framework.
The clip's protagonist approaches a mailbox, significantly numbered 1948 (Israel's birth-year), in which he finds an IDF-like national service call-up notice. The supernatural embodiment of the adolescent Arab's conscience hammers in numerous reasons against signing up.
Two more clips in the series are slated to follow. They are part of an extensive anti-national service campaign mounted by Baladna, a Haifa-based youth-oriented Arab association. Its recurrent theme warns that national service is a precursor to the draft and is nothing but "the arm of the army of occupation." Prevalent slogans include "Beware - they're trying to conscript you," accompanied by IDF insignia and a military helmet.
This disinformation drive is a veritable cause celebre, enjoying enthusiastic support from many local Arab showbiz personalities at special concerts and rallies. The fact that this emanates from the very tolerant mixed-population city of Haifa, ostensibly a model of coexistence, is a particular cause for unease.
But the Haifa-based campaign isn't alone. Israel's Higher Arab Monitoring Committee recently launched its own intensive campaign. And the Islamic Movement is, predictably, vehement on the issue. The Movement's northern branch chairman, Sheikh Raed Salah, has written an op-ed article, published in several Arab-language Israeli periodicals, in which he brands national service "a curse" and appeals to Arab youth "not to be misled by Israeli establishment deception," which, he maintains, "conspires to continue repression and destroy Arab identity, while prettying-up Israel's image."
Much like the purported moderates from Haifa, Salah asserts that the government's bottom-line aim is to demand that Israeli Arabs "spill the blood of their Palestinian brethren, Arabs and Muslims, and shoot to kill them without hesitation."
This uproar is occasioned by ongoing preparations to establish the Civic Service Administration, which - had it adhered to original schedules - would have been operational by now. It was mandated by a 2005 government decision, an offshoot of the Tal Commission's recommendations vis-Ã -vis yeshiva students.
Its aim was to make strictly voluntary one-year civic service opportunities available to Arab youths who, by assisting their own communities, would accrue rights to a variety of perks hitherto earned only by IDF veterans. The absence of such benefits in the Arab sector, which is not subject to conscription, is routinely cited as a manifestation of official discrimination.
Such perks, of course, are customary in all democracies. Alternative service would generously present equivalent benefits even to those who don't put their lives on the line and who would devote only 12 months of their time to the program, compared to the three years of service for males and two for women in the IDF.
It is bitterly ironic that the very plans to offer Israeli Arabs advantages and avenues for personal advancement should be those generating so much calumny. Opposition extends across the entire Israeli Arab political spectrum, despite the voluntary nature of the program and the improvements it promises beneficiary Arab communities and individuals.
The underlying message of these various opposition campaigns is that there are no goodwill gestures that Israel can legitimately take to integrate its Arab citizens and help narrow the divide between them and the Jewish majority. The outcry is against perceived "Israelization." Yet Israelization should be the preferred goal of all Israeli citizens, their religion and ethnicity notwithstanding. Exasperatingly and self-defeatingly, the very notion of integration is evidently considered anathema by those who claim to speak for Israeli Arabs.
Israel's track record on its Arab minority is far from perfect. The well-being of the nation depends on the equality of its citizens becoming a fact rather than remaining a much-discussed but never implemented ambition. Israel's best interests require that its one-fifth Arab populace is offered, and internalizes, a stake in the country's future.
The effort to offer a non-army alternative for national service, opening doors to Arab participants previously closed to non-IDF conscripts, is a vital step in this direction. And those who clamor for full Israeli citizenship rights for Israeli Arabs should be the first to welcome it.
The widespread scornful response to the initiative, and the hostility to Israel at its root, will hardly build the bridges that would primarily benefit Israel's Arabs. Perhaps those who yell loudest fear those bridges most.