(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Last Friday MK Azmi Bishara (Balad) told a well-attended rally of young Israeli Arabs in Nazareth that if they do civic service in their own communities they will thereby become "accomplices in the Zionist establishment's schemes to fragment the national Arab minority, divest it of its national identity and integrate it in the Israelization project geared to disperse the Arab existence."
These forceful charges were occasioned by preparations last December to establish the Civic Service Administration. Mandated by a 2005 government decision connected to the Tal Commission's recommendations regarding national service for yeshiva students, the program is supposed to become operational by September this year.
It was agreed to make the strictly voluntary one-year civic service opportunities available to Arab youths, who by assisting their own communities would accrue rights to a variety of benefits available to IDF veterans. These perks are routinely pointed to by Israeli Arabs as manifestations of discrimination against them because they are not subject to conscription.
It should be emphasized that veterans' benefits are acceptable and customary in all democracies. Alternative civic service would generously present equivalent benefits even to those who do not put their lives on the line as soldiers do. Moreover, civic service volunteers would sign on for 12 months, versus the compulsory three-year military service for men and two years for women.
Those who planned to give Israeli Arabs advantages and new avenues of personal advancement were understandably taken aback by the hostile rebuff with which their outstretched hand was met. Unfortunately, Bishara, notorious for inflammatory anti-Israeli rhetoric, isn't alone. Condemnation was fast and widespread among Israeli Arab leaders, despite the voluntary nature of the program and the improvements it promises the Arab sector.
Indeed the battle against a voluntary program not yet off the ground seems to unite the numerous Israeli Arab splinters, if not actually engender contests for who would fulminate more provocatively against it. The fact that the framework is voluntary hasn't calmed passions. The very intention to interest young Israeli Arabs in any agenda identified with the state qualifies as an affront.
Thus the relatively moderate Hadash castigated the proposals as aiming to portray Arabs as freeloaders and "tie them to service that is quasi-military despite all efforts to camouflage this." This spurious allegation was underscored by Bishara as well, whose rally featured a film showing security forces ostensibly "oppressing" Arabs.
"Civic service," Bishara intoned "is tantamount to treason against the Arab nation, which inevitably leads to moral degeneration." He added: "Arabs are the original owners of this land and don't need to perform duties to receive rights. They deserve recompense for the country they lost." The rally's slogan was: "whoever serves the Zionists participates in the slaughter of his own people."
The civic service framework was described by speaker after speaker as "an impending danger."
These politicians clearly are not doing their own constituents any good. But they also raise the question of what Israeli Arab politicians want. Do they want equality and an end to discrimination? If so, the civic service plan would help threefold: by providing better services in Israeli Arab communities, by providing benefits to the young people who are engaging in civic service, and by opening doors to the graduates of the program in Israeli society.
What Bishara called "Israelization" should be the goal of citizens of Israel, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, especially those who clamor for all the rights which Israeli citizenship bestows upon them.
Israel, after all, is the freest and most thriving country for any Arab in the entire Middle East to live in. A scornful stance towards the state and its delegitimization will hardly build bridges. We hope that this civic service program goes forward and, even more importantly, that young Israeli Arabs consider the interests of their community above the rantings of their irresponsible leaders.