A Different Kind of Service

Rather than bring our society together, the idea of imposing mandatory military service on Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens would only undermine the vision of a shared future for all Israelis.

“Loyalty to a country is something that must come naturally,” wrote former defense minister Moshe Arens in a recent column in this paper ‏(“Allegiance by choice,” Haaretz English Edition, August 3‏) − not through forced oaths. And how, according to Arens, might loyalty develop among Israel’s Arab citizens? Through mandatory army service, suggests Arens. Indeed, that would be very natural.

Rather than bring our society together, the idea of imposing mandatory military service on Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens would only undermine the vision of a shared future for all Israelis. It would back the Arab community into an impossible corner, in which whatever decision they made would brand them as traitors: either traitors to the State of Israel, or traitors to the Arab-Palestinian people.

Especially in light of the recent surge of proposed bills intended to put people’s citizenship and loyalty to the test, and widespread manifestations of exclusion and racism directed at the country’s Arab citizens, the call for mandatory military service for Arabs is akin to pouring oil on a fire of animosity already ignited by some of our finest leaders.

If that isn’t enough, the concept of army conscription further fuels the arguments of those Arab leaders who reject the notion of even voluntary community service. These particular leaders ‏(including but not limited to members of the Islamic Movement‏) resist the very idea of being part of Israeli society. They claim that community service is merely the leading edge of a conspiracy ultimately designed to draft Arab youngsters into the military and force them to battle their Palestinian and Arab brethren across the borders.

“The whole nation is the army” is no longer the paradigm of Israeli society, which long ago effectively relieved the Israel Defense Forces of its role as the country’s social melting pot − a role assigned to it by David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s. And it is right that this paradigm has changed. The increasing military, budgetary and social challenges facing the IDF have made it a leaner, more efficient and more professional force. The military need no longer undertake assignments that are civilian by their nature.
Roughly one-half of all Israelis who reach the age of 18 today do not serve in the army.

This group includes not only Arabs, but also Haredi Jews, new immigrants and individuals with special needs. Does that make them less Israeli? Certainly not. What is certain, however, is that since IDF service offers a better jumping-off point for civilian life, those groups remaining outside have become, by definition, an underprivileged social periphery.

The question arises as to how we can construct a truly inclusive Israeli society and state, in which all communities, including the Arab one, feel a sense of real belonging and of home.

In the absence of a genuine socialization agent for all young Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, what we need is an nationwide community-volunteerism program.

A civilian program of this type, completely separate from the military establishment, would allow young Arab and Jewish Israelis to serve together either within or beyond their own communities. It would create a new, common Israeli experience, reflecting commitment to Israeli society as a whole, demonstrated by young people caring for the elderly and people with disabilities, volunteering in civilian emergency services, welfare institutions and charities, or by assuming other demanding roles in a volunteer capacity.

For young Arab citizens ‏(some 19,000 of whom turn 18 each year‏), such a program would “normalize” their Israeli citizenship. In today’s reality, where that citizenship is in fact more formal than substantial, community volunteering would introduce a component of genuine belonging and participation − provided that it is accompanied by effective action to reduce the disparities between Arabs and Jews, including equitable distribution of resources and fair representation throughout society’s institutions.

Additional advantages of such a program, in terms of the Arab community, would include empowerment of young individuals, putting them at a better starting point vis-a-vis employment and further education; reinstatement of the value of volunteerism inherent in Arab culture; and of course, concrete economic benefits such as a monthly allowance and an end-of-volunteering-term grant.

Prior attempts to promote national and civilian service within the Arab community have had limited success, even among those citizens who support the idea of shared living with the Jewish majority − because such attempts did not derive from meaningful dialogue between the communities. Especially in view of continued inaction on the part of the Israeli establishment, which misses no opportunity to turn its back on its Arab citizens and signal their lack of full acceptance, these attempts have been perceived as one more test of loyalty imposed upon the Arabs.

The widening social divide and the glaring gaps between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in Israel, which are consuming and eroding our society, are bringing us nearer to the moment when a shared, cohesive society will be beyond reach. We will all pay the terrible price − Arabs and Jews alike. A courageous dialogue between leaders of both communities is very much needed now, before this window of opportunity closes on all of us.

Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu is the co-executive director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that promotes a shared society of inclusion and equality for Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens.