To serve, or not to serve

National service for Arabs is the showcase issue for Arab-Jewish relations.

To serve, or not to serve (photo credit: SARAH LEVIN)
To serve, or not to serve
(photo credit: SARAH LEVIN)
The day in late June when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned from the Plesner Committee over its decision not to require Israeli Arabs to perform military or national service, a 17-year-old Israeli Arab named Laith couldn’t have looked less interested.
A native of the Arab village of Ein Rafa, west of Jerusalem, Laith – who declined to give his full name – said he was far more interested in hanging out with his friends during the summer holiday than the debate raging in the Knesset, a 20-minute drive from his home, about expanding the national service law to the Jewish ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.
“They can pass whatever laws they want,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “I’m not going to do national service, and I’m certainly not going to serve in the Israeli army. Neither will any of my friends. It’s clear that this country is not for us, so why should we contribute to its well-being? What’s in it for me? Would I get the same benefits afterwards that I would if I were Jewish?” Relaxing with a frozen cup of orange-flavored slush outside his family-owned grocery store, Laith and his older cousin, 32-year-old Fadi, said there have been no negative repercussions to the few village residents who have volunteered for national service over the years. But the older man stressed his belief that national service veterans in the village would discourage young people today to follow in their footsteps.
“The people who did volunteer in Israeli hospitals and other institutions are still treated like Arabs, not like Israelis. They are pulled aside and nearly strip-searched at Ben-Gurion Airport or whenever they travel to Jordan to visit family members there. They don’t have any better access to building permits than the rest of us. They did the service, but they haven’t gotten any of the benefits they were promised,” he charges. “Why on earth would any Arab volunteer for national service here?” While Laith and Fadi are certainly still part of a strong majority of Israeli Arabs who refuse to perform national service in Israel, a growing minority of young people from Arab communities around the country are swimming against the stream.
According to numbers furnished by the National Service Administration, a branch of the Ministry for Science and Technology, the number of national service volunteers from the Arab community has spiked from 240 during the 2004-05 academic year to a current number of 2,399. An administration spokesman, Lior Shohat, tells The Jerusalem Report there would be another “dramatic rise” next year, but he said it is still too early to know exact numbers.
Judging by a “job fair” in Beersheba on June 24, Shohat’s expectations are well-founded.
The fair, organized by a private NGO called The Volunteer Association, brought hundreds of 17- and 18-year-old Negev Bedouins to a local hotel to learn about volunteer opportunities offered by the police, the Fire and Rescue Services, the Prison Service, a private venture known as “Cities without Violence” and more. Judging by random interviews, attendees appeared split between 17-yearolds considering volunteering next year and 18-year-olds considering options for a second year of service.
One young woman, 20-year-old Farhana Salh, will complete a two-year stint of service in an elementary school in the Bedouin town of Kesaife in the Negev next month. She says she came to the fair to help her younger sister sift through the various service options for next year, and adds that her service in the school computer room has helped her develop leadership skills and lay the groundwork for a career in education.
“Working with little kids has taught me a lot about patience and taught me to develop responsibility, giving me a lot of selfconfidence,” Salh explains. “And it’s helped me accomplish something concrete for the children – we’ve helped reduce the level of violence in the classrooms.”
She says Arabs should serve despite the prejudice and inequalities they suffer.
“Yes, there is discrimination, but this is my country, no less than a Jewish Israeli. There is no question that I belong here and that I should serve. I am Israeli and I am Arab. I never considered opting out of national service,” she says.
Otman Abu-Ajaj, a coordinator in the Bedouin program for The Volunteer Association, says there are five main areas of benefit for young Arabs who do national service: personal growth, career guidance, preparations for higher education, personal networking that will lead to post-service employment opportunities, and a basket of financial perks similar to those non-combat ID F veterans receive upon completion of their military service.
These benefits include a NIS 750 ($190) monthly stipend while serving, as well as social benefits such as National Insurance and travel expenses. After completing service, volunteers are eligible for an end-of-service grant (NIS 2,664 for each year of service), as well as a government grant (NIS 6,432 for each year of service) that can be used for a down payment on a house, university tuition or professional training, to open a business or as a grant upon getting married.
Still, Abu-Ajaj stresses that Israeli authorities must manage the current rise in Arab national service wisely, or the phenomenon could backfire.
“It is crucial that our volunteers are being treated properly and that they are utilizing their skills in appropriate ways,” Abu- Ajaj says. “Last year, one young woman spent the first few weeks of her volunteer service doing nothing besides preparing coffee for her boss and mopping the floor at the end of the day. We were able to step in and to move her to a meaningful role in a primary school, but the story illustrates just how important proper oversight and administration is.
“Ultimately, this sort of situation could cause the service program to backfire. Had this young woman completed a year of service but failed to come away from the experience with life skills and professional training, it would have reinforced the notion that Arabs who serve the Israeli state are nothing more than suckers, being used to support a state that isn’t really for them. That’s not in Israel’s interest, and certainly not the interest of those of us who are trying to encourage the Arab community to work within the system,” he says.
One of the biggest hurdles the Israeli establishment faces to incorporating Arab citizens into the ranks of national service is the elected leadership in the Arab community itself. The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee has an active magazine and billboard campaign in Arab communities telling young people that national service for Israel is a “first step” toward military induction, and that Israel’s ultimate goal for the program is to “erase” Palestinian identity among young Arab Israelis.
Right-wing skeptics attribute that to a fear on the part of Arab politicians that young Israeli Arabs will come away from serving the country feeling too “Israeli,” and will eventually reject the main guiding principles of the Arab political parties. Arab Knesset Members such as Ahmed Tibi, Hanin Zoabi and Ibrahim Sarsur could be seen to be more committed to the Palestinian political cause than to tending to the needs of the Arab Israeli citizens they represent.
According to this line of reasoning, Arab Israelis, who develop strong feelings of kinship with the state and who value the rights they enjoy under Israeli democracy, will stop voting for the “old guard” of Israeli Arab politicians.
Tibi and Sarsur failed to return phone calls requesting interviews for this story, but Aymen Udeh, a member of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, an umbrella body of the country’s Arab political leaders, says nothing could be farther from the truth. Udeh, who also serves as director general of the Hadash Party, said the issue of “Israelization” is something of a non-issue for the community, noting that most Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew, vote in Knesset elections, recognize the authority of the Supreme Court and more.
Rather, he said, the main issue for him is the fact that government officials speak about Arabs performing national service, without speaking to representatives of the community for a complete picture of the issues at hand. Udeh was invited to testify before the Plesner Committee, but declined to appear because the panel didn’t include an Arab member.
“How can you talk about this issue for nearly a decade without sitting with members of our community?” Udeh tells The Report.
“Compare the Arab Israeli issue to the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox. They’ve had representatives on every committee that’s ever been formed to discuss their issue. We’ve never sat on any of them.”
It’s a point seconded by Amnon Be’eri-Sulizeanu, co-director of The Abraham Fund, a private enterprise that works to improve Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.
Together with Mohammed Darawshe, his Arab counterpart, Be’eri-Sulizeanu has worked intensively on the national service issue for the past five years in the hopes of reaching an agreement between the State and its Arab minority. Be’eri-Sulizeanu said a majority of Jewish Israelis simply don’t understand this, like many issues relating to the Arab community, and added that there is a framework in place that could serve a governmental initiative to initiate dialogue.
“The National Committee of Arab Mayors has praised the idea of community service, and they would absolutely support a formal volunteerism program under their aegis. But the fact that they have not been involved in the discussions, coupled with the fact that the post-service benefits come from a fund tangentially related to the Defense Ministry, leave them with a feeling that the whole program is connected to the military. That’s a non-starter as far as they are concerned,” Be’eri-Sulizeanu tells The Report.
Attempts to solve the national service crisis appear to have broken down. One government official tells The Report that the prime minister has called for dialogue with the Arab community “to create a fair solution so that all communities in Israel can shoulder their share of the national burden.” But, as yet, no joint sessions have been held between government officials and the elected leadership of the Arab community.
Be’eri-Sulizeanu warns that as time goes by, national service becomes a showcase issue for the entire Arab-Jewish rift in this country and will become harder to solve.
The national service issue is becoming a microcosm of the larger issues. He stressed that volunteer civilian national service could provide a strong platform to address many issues for Israel’s Arab minority, and could also could create a framework for members of different sectors in Israel to meet and work together. That, in turn, could eventually create a true sense of social cohesion.
Be’eri-Sulizeanu, Abu-Ajaj and Udeh all also agreed that passing legislation requiring Arabs to participate in a national service plan would backfire. “Right now, there is a vigorous debate in the Arab community about whether and how to participate in a civilian service program.
If the government passes a law requiring them to serve, that debate will be finished, and the community will be a unified wall of opposition to the law.
“It is hard to see how that would be in anybody’s interest,” concludes Be’eri- Sulizeanu.