Seeking Arabs for Civic Service

For Israeli Arabs, National Service is a central divisive issue. Most Arab citizens support it. Their leaders oppose it.

01lessudan (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Cover story in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. When a Knesset panel discussed the possibility that Israel's Arabs would perform voluntary national civic service in late February, far-right and Arab Knesset members traded insults. Jamal Zahalka of the radical Arab Balad party called Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman a "little fascist," and Lieberman branded Zahalka a "traitor." The notion of Arabs serving or refusing to serve the Israeli state had touched a raw nerve. For Lieberman, the Jewish nationalist, Zahalka's vehement opposition to any form of national service was proof of fundamental disloyalty to the Jewish state; for Zahalka the "Zionist establishment's" insistence that Arabs volunteer for service to the Jewish state was an insidious attempt to erase their national identity. The official government position is that civic service in hospitals, schools and other civilian institutions actually accommodates the Israeli Arabs' dual identity dilemma: It enables them to receive benefits granted to discharged soldiers without serving in the army and to serve the state without fighting their Arab brothers. But Israeli Arabs' elected leadership - Arab members of Knesset and the Supreme Monitoring Committee, made up largely of Arab mayors and local council heads - is not buying in. Last October, at a rally in Haifa organized by Balad and the Monitoring Committee, Zahalka made their unqualified rejection clear: "Anyone who volunteers for national service will be treated like a leper, and will be vomited out of Arab society," he declared. The strong language followed a government decision in August to establish a special "Civic Service Administration" to encourage young Arabs to volunteer. Ever since, national service has become a central and divisive issue in Israeli Arab society. A poll published in February showed that around 75 percent of local Arabs favor the idea, while over 90 percent of their elected leaders oppose it. And although the number of Arabs serving is not high - 628 this year - despite the leadership's vehement opposition, the graph over the past few years has pointed consistently upward (see "Proud to Serve," on page 13). While leaders like Zahalka are determined to reverse the trend, the newly established Civic Service Administration, under Minister without Portfolio Ami Ayalon, aims to accelerate it (see interview on page 15). The National Service Law was originally enacted in 1953 to accommodate Jewish women who, for religious reasons, could not serve in the regular army. Since then it has been amended to enable all Israelis, men and women, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular who for one reason or another are exempted from regular service, to volunteer for one or two years of service to the community in hospitals, schools, emergency services, law courts and other public institutions. Volunteers receive a small monthly stipend and after completing their term are entitled to most of the benefits - for example, housing loans and reduced university fees - that discharged soldiers receive. The establishment of the Civic Service Administration was intended mainly to encourage and facilitate this kind of communal service by the two large non-Zionist groups in Israeli society - Arabs and ultra-Orthodox haredim - the vast majority of whom do not serve in the military. The aims are ambitious: Besides providing needy communities with volunteer help, helping to combat the growing alienation of Israeli Arabs and enabling yeshiva students to legally join the work force, project leaders talk about changing the notions of citizenship and service. The National Service Law was not implemented for almost two decades after its enactment, until October 1971. Until the early 1990s, the volunteers were all women, most of them from the national religious Zionist movement. They were recruited, trained and placed at a rate of several thousand a year by national religious NGOs set up for the purpose. In 1993, worried by the growing number of young Israelis not serving in the IDF - Defense ministry figures that year put the number as high as 30 percent - social activists Ami Bergman and Haya Shmuel formed a new NGO, called Shlomit, with the aim of incorporating Jewish men, Israeli Arabs and more secular women in the national service project. "The law at the time didn't allow this. It was written in feminine form and was applied mainly to Jewish religious women. So we approached Ora Namir, the Labor and Welfare minister at the time, and she gave special authorization for a year, 1995-96, for us to take in Arab women and secular Jews rejected for medical reasons," Shmuel recalls. When Namir failed to renew the special dispensation, Shlomit petitioned the High Court of Justice. That led immediately to blanket approval for all women, religious, secular and Arab. But because the law was worded in feminine form, the court referred the question of national service for men back to the government. In 2002, a ministerial committee under then-minister of Science, Culture and Sport Matan Vilnai launched a pilot project for 250 men a year, Jewish and Arab, for an initial two-year period, which was extended to five. The final breakthrough came in August last year, when an amendment to the law provided for Arabs and Jewish men, exempted from military service, to volunteer for national civic service with full benefits and rights and with no limit on the numbers. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox also came into the frame. The "Tal Law," passed in July 2002, stipulated that yeshiva students who take a year off from Torah study at the age of 23, can, after their "year of decision," go back to yeshiva or enlist in the army or the national civic service and afterwards join the regular workforce. Yeshiva students are precluded from working outside the yeshiva unless they do a form of military or national service, because their initial exemption is based on a commitment to full-time Torah study for life. If they want leave the yeshiva and to work, they first have to serve. The numbers are huge. When Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to defer army service for exceptional Torah students, there were just a few hundred; the number today is over 50,000. One of the Civic Service Administration's priorities will be to tap into the yeshiva student reservoir. At present there are 11,000 volunteers in civic-national service, most of them national religious girls. Ayalon hopes to raise the number by about 1,000 a year, to meet a target of 20,000 by 2020. Although there has been no official breakdown, it is clear that most of the additional 9,000 will have to come from the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors. "National service has the potential to become a major factor in shaping Israeli society by bridging gaps between the sectors," Ayalon declared on his appointment in late March. Indeed, the overall concept goes well beyond mere numbers, according to Reuven Gal, a former chief psychologist for the Israel Defense Forces and the driving force behind national-civic service. Gal, the director of the Civic Service Administration, argues that over time, expansion and legitimization of civic service could change the way Israelis think about service and what it means to be a citizen. "Today, if you ask anyone in Israel 'where did you serve,' it's obvious you mean: 'What did you do in the army?' We all know the reasons for this. But it is unfortunate. We need to change that. There are many ways for young people to serve their community or their country. It doesn't have to be exclusively with weapons in the military," he maintains. Gal acknowledges that military service will remain compulsory for the foreseeable future and that civic service will only be open to those exempted from the army. Nevertheless, he argues that if the act of volunteering becomes widespread, it could radically change notions of citizenship, by subtly reinforcing the idea that being a citizen entails contributing to the general good. "For practical, legal and moral reasons," he insists that civic service in Israel must remain voluntary. There can be no question of compulsory national civic service for Arabs or anyone else. On the contrary, for Gal the act of volunteering provides the added value to citizenship and social solidarity. And he is confident that over time volunteering will become the norm. "My belief is that as a voluntary act, it will become so ingrained and widespread that it will be even stronger than a mobilization order," he asserts. The Arab sector, Gal believes, stands to benefit more than any other. The socioeconomically backward communities would gain much from volunteers helping out in the schools, kindergartens and other local institutions. And the young volunteers would gain invaluable experience, professional skills and leadership qualities. According to Gal, every year there are some 19,000 Arab 18-year-olds are eligible for civic national service. "If eventually we reach about half that number, 8-9,000, it will be a huge success," he says. That is precisely what the Arab leadership fears. Zahalka sees civic national service as a conspiracy against the Arab people. In an interview with The Report, he makes three main arguments against large numbers of young Arabs volunteering: It would blur their national identity, or, as he puts it, "Israelize" them; it is the thin end of the wedge on the way to compulsory paramilitary service for Israeli Arabs; and it is a subterfuge to make fundamental civil rights dependent on service to the state. "Up till now whenever they tried to tie special benefits to military service, the Supreme Court overruled them on the grounds that it was simply a way to discriminate against the Arab community, which does not do military service. But as soon as there is a critical mass of young Arabs who do national service, they will be able to say it's not against Arabs, but genuinely to distinguish between people who have and haven't served," he argues. Zahalka acknowledges that his opposition to national civic service stems from a vision of the Israeli Arab future based on cultural autonomy. In this model, the Arabs would run their own education system and, in general, be as independent as possible of the Israeli central government. "We should develop our own voluntary services," he declares. Not all Arab public figures agree with Zahalka's outright rejection of the national civic service project or with his autonomy model. Jerusalem-based lawyer Elias Khoury, for example, argues that the Arabs should accept the national civic service project, but on their terms. "The Israelis say they want us as full partners. So I say we must be full partners in this project. If there is an organization set up for service in the Arab sector, then Arabs must be the dominant players in it," he insists. Khoury's model for the Arab future is integrationist rather than separatist. He says he no longer believes in the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution. Therefore, he argues, Israeli Arabs would be better off integrating with Israeli institutions in which they play an ever-increasing role. "I see the Palestinians as a nation-in-the-making, not yet ready to rule itself. So I see a kind of internship with the Jews. We will integrate now and the coming generations will reap the fruit," he says. A large majority of Arabs seem to favor civic service for more prosaic reasons: The chance the young people would have for self-development and the significant help it could bring to their communities. But many believe it could also bring about greater equality between Jews and Arabs. A February poll by Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha showed that 75 percent of the 200 Arabs between the ages of 16 and 22 who were polled supported voluntary national civic service. Smooha polled five different groups: A nationwide sample of 500; 200 parents of young people between 18 and 22; 200 young people between 16 and 22; 60 activists in Arab parties and 30 allied to Jewish parties. He found that 71.9 percent of Arab men and 83.8 percent of Arab women supported the project; 68.1 percent said they did so because it would contribute to the country and to society; 89.7 percent because it would lead to greater equality between Arabs and Jews. Of the young people, 27.1 percent said they would volunteer despite family objections, 35 percent despite local leaders' objections and 42.2 percent despite national Arab leaders objecting. But 74.5 percent were worried it could turn into compulsory military service and of the Israeli Arab leaders, only 7.8 percent supported the national service idea. Smooha says the leaders are opposed because the project runs counter to their autonomy plans and because they are afraid that those who volunteer for civic service will accept the status quo of discrimination against the Arab minority and won't mobilize for the struggle against it. Hence, the intensity of the Arab leaders' no-holds barred campaign against national civic service. And if the Civic Service Administration wants young Arabs to volunteer in numbers, Smooha says it will have to mount a serious counter-campaign. Still, even if the national civic service project is hugely successful, Smooha does not think it will radically change Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. "To change the paradigm, first you would have to rescind Zionism, spend billions to create equality between the Arab and Jewish sectors and set up a Palestinian state at peace with Israel. But although [the national service project] is not going to revolutionize things, it is a step that could help," he maintains. The volunteering for national civic service is currently operated by eight NGOs recognized by the Civic Service Administration. They publish information about the project, recruit, train and place the volunteers, and stay in touch to solve any problems that might arise during their service. Haya Shmuel, whose NGO, Shlomit, deals with both Jews and Arabs, says some towns and villages in the Arab sector are very difficult to access and some volunteers have been harassed. But, she says, "in councils where there is agreement, it works wonderfully. Just this morning one of the local authorities in the north sent me a list of schools where they want women volunteers." In Shmuel's view, what makes the program work are the obvious practical benefits for all concerned. "I say to the Arabs: 'Do you think the Jews are stupid? If they want national service volunteers in their schools it's because of the tremendous contribution they make. So try it. It's a win-win situation for the individual volunteers and the communities they serve,'" she declares. The number of Arab volunteers this year has more than doubled from the 289 last year, and is expected to double again to well over a thousand next year. Movement on the ultra-Orthodox front has been much slower, with the number this year approaching just 100. Knesset Member Avraham Ravitz, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, who was closely involved in framing the Tal law and shaping military and other service alternatives for yeshiva students, says there are two major bottlenecks: Volunteers are not paid enough and there is no special NGO working with the ultra-Orthodox. "There are two programs: 40 hours a week for one year, or 20 hours a week for two years. Volunteers on the one-year program are paid 2,400 shekels ($685) a month; volunteers on the two-year program get 1,200 shekels. The yeshiva students are older than the other volunteers. Many are married with children. Even if they want to serve, they can't make ends meet," he contends. Ravitz says that ideologically the national civic service idea is fine, and, if wisely honed, it could solve the problem of students who want to leave the yeshivas and work. But he warns that the rabbis would not want to see a PR campaign for national civic service in the yeshivas. "They don't want people coming in and offering an alternative to the yeshiva. First and foremost, they want to maintain the Torah-studying elite, and they oppose anything that might weaken that," he explains. "If you want to destroy the national civic service program, all you have to do is launch a big PR campaign. The rabbis will come out strongly against the whole thing." Clearly, the idea of national civic service brings deep structural problems in Israeli society into sharp relief. It has ambitious aims and it arouses strong opposition. To make it work, Ayalon, Gal and the new Civic Service Administration will need the deftest of touches. But getting Zahalka, Lieberman and Ravitz all on the same side of the barricades could prove too much even for them.• Cover story in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.