Service not included

Government support for a national service program for the Israeli-Arab sector has the community up in arms.

arab nat service 88 224 (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
arab nat service 88 224
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
'I'm not interested in playing the part of the 'good Arab' for you," Nadim Nashif says, speaking calmly yet forcefully. Indeed, Nashif, director of the Baladna ("our land") Association for Arab Youth, doesn't want to see any of his brethren playing the part of the "good Arab," as he defines it. That definition, he makes clear over coffee at Baladna's sparse office in an old apartment building in Haifa's Wadi Nisnas neighborhood, includes contributing to the welfare of Arab towns and villages as part of a state-sponsored voluntary national service program - a program whose sudden growth is being quietly celebrated by the government and loudly condemned by the Arab community. For encouraging Arabs aged 18 to 21 to spend one or two years serving their communities as volunteers in schools, hospitals and other social welfare roles - much as some 11,000 Jewish citizens, mostly religious women, currently do - the government has incurred the wrath of just about every major Arab leadership body in the country. At a recent protest conference in Haifa titled "I Will Not Serve," the leaders of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, Ittijah, the Islamic Movement and other groups swore to fight the national program, which they see as an attempt to "Israelize" the country's Arabs and a poorly disguised first step toward an eventual mandatory draft of Arabs to service in the IDF. The angriest of responses came from MK Jamal Zahalka of Balad, who turned directly to Arab youths and warned them that "whoever chooses to volunteer in the national service program will be treated as a leper. The Arab community will vomit them out." Baladna has been a prime force behind such opposition, organizing the Haifa conference and spearheading a major public relations campaign among Israeli Arabs to shun the program, denouncing it as "a demonstration of the Israeli government's discrimination against the Arab Palestinian minority and an attempt to further marginalize this society." The pressure, which all these groups hope will force the government to abandon the initiative, has been intense. One of the country's largest national service organizations, which runs successful volunteer programs for Arabs and for Beduin, denied The Jerusalem Post access to participants out of fear that exposure would stir up more anger in the Arab community and choke off what unspoken acceptance the programs have enjoyed until now. Government representatives who have visited with Arab youths to discuss the program - which offers them a small stipend during their service, as well as education and housing grants, and job placement help afterward - have even complained of being harassed and physically attacked by angry opponents. Something must be working in the government's favor, though, because, after two years of modest enrollment, the Arab national service program saw its numbers more than double last year, to over 600. Dr. Reuven Gal, who heads the newly established Administration for Civilian National Service that designed and oversees the program, says hundreds more Arab youths are waiting to join and that, within a few years, "we'll be talking about thousands of participants." Baladna is trying to prevent that from happening by bringing a carefully crafted presentation to Arab villages and towns throughout the country, warning youths who may be considering national service of the dangers of doing so. It has sponsored a song railing against the idea by Arab hip-hop group DAM, distributed flyers declaring the opposition to the program of numerous Arab leaders and hung posters pounding home the message that national service is a ruse meant to entrap Israeli Arabs in military service and undermine their Palestinian identity. SUCH STAUNCH refusal to even consider a program that is, by all accounts, a positive contribution to society, is alarming. And it becomes even more alarming against the backdrop of Arab citizens' overwhelming view (as measured in a poll last year) that Israel's response to Hizbullah's unprovoked cross-border attacks was a war crime, the attendance of several Arab MKs at the funeral of PFLP terror boss George Habash, the frequent comments by various Arab MKs in support of Arab terrorism against the Jewish state, and even filmmaker Nizar Hassan's demands that his Jewish university students to cover up their Star of David symbols and refrain from entering his class while in reservist's army fatigues. An example of the public backlash to such incidents came in a Knesset committee meeting on the subject of Arab national service this past Sunday, when MK Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Beiteinu party harangued Zahalka for his fierce opposition to the idea, with the nationalist leader repeatedly calling him a traitor and leader of a "fifth column." Certainly, if Baladna were taking the same tone as Zahalka, it would be easy to lump it together with other radical rejectionist movements, or to simply dismiss it. Yet Baladna has managed to remain under the radar by taking a softer, more youth-savvy tack full of liberal terminology (an entire corner of the office is full of textbooks titled An Introduction to Parliamentary Debate and handbooks on the protocols of reasoned argument) that the organization hopes will make it both less suspicious to the Jewish majority and more attractive to its target audience of young Arabs. "We don't take the approach that if someone wants to serve - even in the army - we should tell them that they are lepers or something like that," says Manar Yacoub, the manager of Baladna's campaign. "We have a position that we put forward, and whoever wants to accept it, will. Whoever doesn't, that's their business." "The media would like the public to think that anyone who opposes this plan is an extremist, so that's the only kind of thing they show. But many of us who oppose this plan are people who do support coexistence, who do support working together," says Nashif, who worked with coexistence groups before co-founding Baladna in 2000. Yacoub worked at Givat Haviva, one of the country's leading coexistence institutes, before joining Baladna. "Understand," Nashif continues, puffing on a cigarette and pushing back the thin wire frames of his eyeglasses. "we are for volunteering. It's a value that is very important and that should be [promoted]... just not in a political context, not in the context of the relationship between the state and its citizens, and not as a prerequisite to receiving one's rights." To prevent the conclusion that Nashif's goal is an insular community that remains as cut off from prosperity as it is from the Jewish establishment, he says, "When it comes down to it, what do you think I want? I want my child to have the same opportunity, the same chance for upward mobility, that my Jewish neighbors have." Chances of that are slim, Arab activists say, as long as there remain large gaps in government spending on infrastructure and services for the Arab populace, which is one of the poorest in the country. Gal, in his speech at last month's Herzliya Conference in which he revealed the impressive growth in the Arab national service program, addressed the inequality in government spending on Arabs and said that this program was one of the measures meant to close such gaps. "This is a joke," Nashif says. "An 18-year-old going to perform community service is not going to solve the problems [in Arab communities], because the problems are something else entirely: problems of budgets, problems of neglect that are ingrained in the government and in society and that have been around now for 60 years, problems that require a wider government plan and years of implementation." THIS THEME of neglect and broken promises is a constant refrain in the Baladna campaign - and, Yacoub notes, an effective one specifically in putting down the idea that the national service program will help Arab youths get ahead. "All we have to do, when we go around with our mobile exhibit, is to present the examples of those who went through the program and didn't get everything they were promised," she says, "or to ask whether doing this service will really help with finding a job afterward. The fact is, most businesses advertise job openings only for those who have completed military service - and it is obvious whom they are excluding." Even those Arabs who perform military service, Yacoub notes, suffer from the inequality in resources the country devotes to its Arab community. "You have to ask: Have the Druse and Beduin really benefited from their military service? The state wants to sell you on the idea that if you serve the state, the state will give back to you. But the opposite is true. From what I have seen, many Druse and Beduin are realizing that their service hasn't changed a thing." As for socio-economic gaps, there are plenty of those to go around in the Jewish sector, as well. "Sure," Nashif says, "if you're from Sderot, you don't enjoy the same benefits as the Ashkenazi elite in northern Tel Aviv. But you're still part of the consensus, you're still part of the country, you're still part of the collective. I, as an Arab, am not. "Would I like to be part of the collective? Yes, I would like to be part of the collective - but as I am. I don't want to be forced to accept the role of the Arab who simply does as he is told, the Arab whose very identity is unacceptable, who is not accepted for the fact that he is Palestinian. We are constantly told, 'If you want to participate in the affairs of the country, you have to play according to the rules that the majority sets; you can't act as you wish. Then, maybe we'll accept you. But if you come with your own agenda, you will never be accepted.'" "I don't want to be given conditions for my acceptance into the collective," Yacoub says. "I want to be accepted as I am, as an Arab, as a Palestinian." At the suggestion that this acceptance might come if more Jews see Arabs contributing, as it were, to the state, Yacoub bristles. "Already," she says, "you see Arabs in white coats in hospitals, as doctors and nurses treating not just Arabs, but Jews as well. Jews shouldn't need more proof that we aren't simply stone-throwers and radicals. But people see what they want to see." ON THAT SCORE Baladna - and the Arab leadership in general - are also guilty, as it concerns the so-called deeper intentions of national service. "All the people who were involved in planning this national service program come from the security establishment," says Nashif, "so how do you expect us not to suspect a military tie?" Adds MK Ibrahim Sarsur of Ra'am-Ta'al: "Despite the fact that the current plan is based on volunteering and is not compulsory, we fear and suspect that it is being used as a means of eventually drafting Arabs into compulsory military service. "Believe me, as far as we're concerned, as Muslims, serving the poor communities of the state is important. But I tell you with all sincerity, we have no faith in the government that it will remain a voluntary program." As Nashif says, "They're trying to market this as a civilian program that is about volunteering, but no matter how you look at it, it's service to the state. And frankly, we don't feel like serving a state that has ignored us and treated us poorly for 60 years." Sarsur, an Islamist from Kafr Kasim who has declared his party's "strong relations with Hamas in Gaza," insists that his objection to national service is not about undermining the Jewish majority but about strengthening the Arab minority. "We don't want to make a problem that, God forbid, harms the security of the state. That's not what it's about," he says. "We - the Arab members of Knesset, leaders of the Arab community and Arab citizens of Israel - have said repeatedly: Arab citizens should serve their community; this is part of the Muslim way. The way that the government has proposed, however, is not appropriate." The appropriate way, Sarsur says, would be to turn over the reins for the Arab national service program to the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee. "Just like other projects for the Arab community, there was no Arab participation in this one," he claims. "We say, let the Arabs of this country take part in the projects that affect them." Gal scoffs at all these complaints against the program. "The claim that this is merely a precursor to military service or to mandatory civilian service is nonsense. Whoever thinks otherwise is paranoid," he says. "The government decision establishing this program explicitly states that this service will be performed only on a volunteer basis. There is even going to be a law on civilian service, making sure that it is voluntary." Regarding the absence of Arab leaders in the program's planning, Gal says, "Whoever makes this criticism should direct it at themselves. When the Ivry Committee, which was established to design this program, asked the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee and other leading Arab bodies to send us representatives who could be permanent members of the committee, the response we got - across the board - was that they were not willing to cooperate with such an effort. There was only one person from the Arab community who agreed to show up at even one meeting of our committee, and he said that although he supported our work, he could not participate formally - he could not even have his name recorded on the list of those present - because he would receive threats from the community." At each stage of the project to establish the national service program for Arab youths, Gal says, he went out of his way to include Arabs, only to have doors slammed in his face. ACCORDING TO Prof. Sammy Smooha, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Haifa who has been awarded this year's Israel Prize for his work in sociology, the Arab leaders' objections to Arab recruitment for national service are both disingenuous and out of step with the larger Arab population. "There is a lot of support among young Arabs for a national service program," Smooha says, citing his recent polling data that show more than 70 percent support it. "Even parents of those aged 18-22 support it." That Arab leaders are dead-set against the plan, Smooha says, means that "there is a big gap between the leadership and the community itself." Support for civilian service comes, he adds, from the realization that it would benefit the youths themselves and the community as well. "One of the most important things is that the vast majority of volunteers until now have been girls. For them, escaping the 'bubble' of the village and the family, to independence, is a form of self-actualization. They get out from under the guardianship of the village. It helps them achieve equality," he explains. Arab leaders, however, see things differently. "They say they fear that it will wipe out the Arab identity of the youths, because the program states that its aim is to strengthen the Arab youths' ties to the wider community and to the state. What they mean is that it'll be hard to conscript these youths to an anti-state agenda if they have been brought into contact with the Israeli establishment." As for the desire to see any service program brought under the exclusive aegis of Arab bodies, Smooha says, "What they want is autonomy. They want to run their affairs by themselves. But if you allow the Arab leadership to run this program, they'll tear it apart." AT LEAST one Arab leader has broken ranks with the opposition movement. Nadia Hilu, a Catholic Arab Knesset member from Labor, disagrees with other Arab MKs who reject national service. "I feel, unequivocally, that the Arab sector needs this program," Hilu says in between frantic votes in the Knesset plenum. "The Arab community is desperately in need of the human resources that its young men and women can provide. My hope is that, after participating in this program, these young men and women will want to continue serving their communities in some capacity for years afterward." Before entering politics, Hilu was a social worker and an activist for women's and children's issues. As director of the Hirsch Early Childhood Development Center in her hometown of Jaffa, she says, she "saw firsthand how much volunteers contributed to our efforts in a very hands-on way - and how that experience affected those young people, making them want to come back and continue to make a difference for years afterward." Zahalka's harsh comments about those who would join the national service program, Hilu adds, are "unacceptable." "No political leader has the right to denounce young people because of their choices," says Hilu, her face scrunching up in a scowl. "No one has the right to label young men and women because of their free choices. I utterly reject such a thing. We can disagree, but we cannot treat others as if they were sick or perverse. It isn't moral." Neither does Hilu believe the claim that those who serve the interests of the state by serving their communities will lose their Arab identity. Before running in to the plenum to vote on an initiative the coalition wants to pass, she says, "The idea that, by serving in this program, Arab youths will lose their identity, is an expression of insecurity in our young people and in our families. Personally, I think the suggestion that young Arabs will somehow succumb to assimilation is a show of disrespect to them. I, however, am confident in my community's ability to transmit a solid education. Why not give young Arab men and women some credit?" Bounding out again after supporting the motion in the plenum, Hilu concludes, "If you are confident in the way that you transmit your values and in the way that you teach your young people, then you have no need to fear that a year of service will make them forget all their values, all their culture, etc. If you are a real leader, and you have successfully ingrained within your followers a set of values, then no matter where a young person ends up, they will be able to stand on their own and maintain those values." Baladna, ironically, is counting on the same idea. Only, Nashif hopes, Israeli Arabs will remain true to their anti-state education. Asked why the posters and pamphlets his organization distributes contain only threatening images of what the government wants to do to Arab youths, without projecting any positive images of the kind of accomplished and civic-minded people Baladna would like Arab citizens to become, he shrugs his shoulders. "What can I say? It's a negative campaign - we had to use negative images."