Israel as a challenge for collective identity

The non-participation of Israel’s Arab citizens in military service is an anomaly inconsistent with the principle of equality of rights.

Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
A feeling of collective identity generally seems to come naturally among people sharing a common ethnic background, a common language, or a common religion. Forging such a feeling of collective identity becomes a challenge, not always successfully met, among peoples of diverse background – ethnically, in their language, or their religion. However there are examples of nations that have successfully met this challenge despite the diversity of their constituent populations. First and foremost the United States of America.
The American nation, composed of peoples of diverse ethnic backgrounds and religions, and different countries of origin and historic backgrounds, is an example of such people having a sense of national solidarity and a feeling of pride, reflecting a feeling of being at home in America, felt by the vast majority of the population in the US, even recent immigrants to that country. Countries as diverse as Switzerland and Australia are other examples of nations that have developed a sense of collective identity. On the other hand, some of the countries of Western Europe are at the present struggling with the integration of waves of Muslim immigrants that have arrived in recent years into their societies and achieving a sense of collective identity with the indigenous population.
Among nation trying to forge a sense of collective identity among its population, Israel is unique. Unique in the sense that the Arab minority in Israel is sizable, and unique in the sense that Israel has been involved in almost continuous conflict with its Arab neighbors, a situation that has naturally posed a question of dual loyalty for its Arab citizens – loyalty to their homeland, Israel, or support for those Arab nations and movements hostile to Israel. Some of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have faced similar problems and have not always overcome them successfully.
The United States, with a sizable minority of German immigrants, was engaged in two wars against Germany during the 20th century, but it seems not to have encountered this problem. Its citizens of German origin were unquestionably loyal to the United States during those wars. Such was the case with the many Italian immigrants to America and their descendants during World War II. More difficult was the problem faced by American citizens of Japanese origin during that war. Not because they chose to be disloyal to the United States or loyal to Japan, but because the government of the United States at the time questioned their loyalty to America, moving them from their homes into policed enclosures.
That this was a mistake is now generally recognized in America. As a matter of fact, many of America’s Japanese citizens, despite the harsh treatment they received from the government, insisted on demonstrating their loyalty to the US by volunteering for US army combat duty.
Sometimes a sense of collective identity, despite a diversity of ethnic or religious backgrounds, stems from an interest to preserve the sovereignty and independence of a common national framework. I suppose that Switzerland is an example of a sense of collective identity of peoples of diverse national characteristics whose sense of collective identity is based on a common interest to preserve the national sovereignty of Switzerland.
Seventeen percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs. The Arab population of Israel is indigenous. In other words, most of them, or their ancestors, were there before the State of Israel was created 63 years ago, and many were there even before the large Jewish immigration during the first half of the 20th century that led to the establishment of the State of Israel.
They are a heterogeneous population – Muslims, Druse, Christians – their common denominator being that their ethnic origin is Arab and Arabic is their mother tongue. One segment of the Muslim population – the Beduin in the Negev and in the Galilee – has a different historic background than the rest of the Muslim population in Israel and an ancient tradition of a nomadic lifestyle. The biggest challenge facing Israel is the integration of the Arab minority into the fabric of Israeli society: giving them the feeling that they are Israelis, and a sense of pride in being Israelis. In meeting this challenge within the norms of a liberal democratic society this minority must enjoy equal rights with the majority population and have access to equal opportunities. It is the second – the equality of opportunities – that is the ultimate criterion of successful integration.
In a democratic society like Israel equality of rights and equality of opportunities have to be accompanied by an equal sharing of the obligations of citizenship with the rest of Israel’s citizens. That entails sharing the burden of defense of the country.
This is the key to arriving at a collective identity for all of Israel’s citizens. It determines how the minority sees itself as an integral part of Israeli society, and how the majority of Israel’s citizens view them.
In a society under siege, like Israel, the brotherhood of arms is a key unifying element.
In addition equality of opportunity in the Israeli economy, which is closely linked to the defense effort, is in large measure contingent on prior military service of a candidate for employment. Therefore equality of opportunity and an equal sharing of the burden of defense of the country are closely linked in Israel, a country that has compulsory military service for all, except for Muslim and Christian youngsters.
INTEGRATING ISRAEL’s Arab minority presents special problems since throughout its history until the present time Israel has had to face hostility from its Arab neighbors. Those of Israel’s Arab citizens who tend to identify with the enemies of Israel cannot, and do not want to assume an Israeli collective identity, nor do they want to take part in the defense of Israel.
The Islamic Movement in Israel is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It is an example of a movement that preaches hostility to Israel, denies the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and has in the past been a breeding ground for terrorism. The “northern branch” of this movement refuses to recognize Israel as a nation-state and will not participate in the elections to the Knesset.
So what progress has Israel made in forging a common collective identity for its Jewish and Arab citizens? The one bright light is Israel’s Arab Druse community.
Over 100,000 strong, Israeli Druse are by and large proud of being Israelis, feel at home in Israel, and young Druze men carry out obligatory military service like Israel’s Jewish youth. They serve in all the branches of the Israel Defense Forces and many of them have reached the highest ranks of the army’s hierarchy.
There is little doubt that that service in Israel’s armed forces is a key element in the integration of Israel’s Druse population in Israeli society. As is well known, the IDF is a melting pot in which the young people of Israel, who are the sons and daughters of immigrants who arrived in Israel from the four corners of the earth, develop a common Israeli identity. It is part of Israel’s success story.
And the Druse by virtue of their service in Israel’s armed forces have also “melted” into Israeli society.
One of many indications of the integration of the Israeli Druse community in Israeli society is the decrease in the rate of natural increase of that community over the years. It was higher than the rate of natural increase of the Muslim community when Israel was created and at present it is about equal to that of the Jewish community.
This is no doubt due, at least in part, to the westernizing influence of military service.
And more than that: Jewish Israelis who see the Druse sharing the dangers and hardships of military service with them feel a strong bond with Israel’s Druse citizens.
Can this example be duplicated with the other Arab citizens of Israel? They at the present time are not obligated to do mandatory military service. They do have the option of volunteering for such service.
Very few exercise that option. Not doing the nominal three-year service in the IDF, of course, entails very significant economic benefits. Foregoing these benefits is hardly an incentive for volunteering for the IDF. What’s more, after these many years of being exempted from compulsory military service, that exemption now seems natural. When to this is added the ideological argument that you should not expect Arabs to be prepared to fight Arabs, that exemption has almost become a fact of life that is now difficult to change.
A modest beginning has been made with the Beduin. A Beduin infantry battalion exists in the IDF, composed of young Beduin from the Negev and the Galilee who have volunteered for three years of military service. If properly encouraged this could be the beginning of compulsory military service for Israel’s young Beduin, and possibly a stepping stone to universal compulsory military service for all of Israel’s citizens.
It is very tempting to believe that once peace has come to the Middle East, the hostility between Jews and Arabs will have vanished, and there will be no need in Israel for compulsory military service, so this problem will have disappeared. Unfortunately this does not seem in the cards at the moment. Some would like to believe that this problem will at least partially solve itself once Israel has reached an agreement with the Palestinians, and that a proper feeling of collective identity for all of Israel’ Arab citizens will have to wait until then.
It is not at all clear that the problem “will solve itself” at that time. If we have not by then succeeded to forge a feeling of collective Israeli identity that includes most of Israel’s Arab citizens, it is not unlikely that an irredentist movement will make its appearance among Israel’s Arab population at that time, and make forging a collective identity that will include Jews and Arabs even more difficult.
The non-participation of Israel’s Arab citizens in military service is an anomaly which is inconsistent with the principle of equality of rights and equality of duties that exists in democratic societies. It also raises a barrier to the integration of Israel’s Arab citizens in Israel’s society. Arab youngsters must be saying to themselves that the fact that they are exempted from service in the IDF is an indication that Israel’s Jewish population evidently does not trust them to take their place in the armed forces; while Israel’s Jewish citizens see their non-participation in the defense of the country as evidence of lack of loyalty to the country. The initiative for changing this situation has to come from the Israeli government. It should be gradual and be coordinated with leading personalities in the Arab community.
If the non-sharing of the duties connected with the defense of the country by Israel’s Arab citizens is really the major obstacle to forging a feeling of common identity for all of Israel’s citizens, can the obstacles that have arisen over the years to the participation of Israeli Arabs in the defense of the country be overcome? Is it possible that Israeli Arabs can feel pride in living in the Middle East’s only democracy, enjoying the highest standard of living in the area, having the benefit of Israel’s welfare services? That this feeling would take precedence over a sense of tribal affinity with Arabs, Palestinians, Iranian Muslims hostile to Israel, with terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah? That Israel’s Arab citizens appreciate the benefits of living in Israel is clear from a number of polls that have been conducted among them. The overwhelming majority would prefer to remain in Israel rather being joined to a Palestinian state if it were to be established. Even Arab residents of east Jerusalem, who are not citizens of Israel, have indicated a preference to being incorporated in Israel in such a case. Is it possible to build on this preference and create a common collective identity with Jewish Israelis? That is a question that Israel faces. I believe it can be done.
The writer is a former defense minister, foreign minister and ambassador to the US. This op-ed is based on a lecture he gave at a conference in Ascona, Switzerland in November 2011, whose proceedings have just been published.