National Service Official: Israeli Arabs Are More Pragmatic Than Their Leaders

Despite opposition from the top, they are turning out in larger numbers for national service programs.

Israel planned to have 2,100 Arab volunteers doing national service in 2012. In the event, 2,400 turned out, an increase of 60% from 2011.

The Science and Technology Ministry's National-Civilian Service Administration is very proud of this success; it sees it as a sign the Israeli Arab leaders, who are united in their opposition to Arabs doing national service, have failed, and that their constituents are voting against them with their feet.

"The Arab community understands that volunteering for national service opens doors and makes it possible to join the job market," says a senior national service official.

"Apart from that, 75% of the volunteers work in their own communities. They support themselves; for example, by helping schoolchildren or helping hospital patients who don't speak Hebrew - so there's really no place for the leadership's complaints about national service. The only reason the Arab leadership is opposed to the service is that it wants to perpetuate the deprivation of the Arabs. Because otherwise the leadership has has no raison d'etre."

Still, the national service administration realizes that things are more complex. Yes, 2,400 volunteers is a nice accomplishment, and most research shows that the administration can recruit several hundred or even several thousand more Arabs. But of about 40,000 Israeli Arabs between 18 and 20, most of whom don't work or study, only about 5% enlist. (In Israel, a large percentage of the benefits for working and studying begin at 20, when many Israelis leave the army. )

Meanwhile, the minority that volunteers is under heavy attack from many people in Israel Arab society. The national service administration tells of school principals who have expelled volunteers after the mayor threatened to cancel the school budget if volunteers were accepted. National service volunteers have suffered threats and harassment. Many Arab national service volunteers are accused of betraying Arab society.

The Arab press regularly publishes articles against national service - in which volunteering is presented as a betrayal of the Arab nation. The nonprofit organizations that recruit volunteers for Arab national service don't even visit most Arab communities, especially the larger ones, because they have no chance of recruiting volunteers there. It's almost hard to believe that there are young Arabs willing to do national service.

"There are contradictory trends in Arab society," says the director of an organization that recruits volunteers. "On the one hand, there is an increasing politicization of the issue by the Arab leadership. On the other, people are discovering the advantages."

The main advantage stems from the identity of the volunteers - mostly young Arab women.

"An Arab girl who comes from a small village and learns to answer phones and give service in Hebrew, and to work on Excel - that raises her level significantly," says an activist in a pro-coexistence organization.

"National service represents a potential for empowerment for Arab women, and they sense that. That's why they put on pressure to be allowed to volunteer despite the social opposition, because it's their opportunity to breach the boundaries of the village."

The numbers indicate that only 25% of Arab women work - one reason being that Israeli Arab women almost never leave their villages, so their Hebrew isn't as good as the men's. National service, even if it's done in villages and with little training, allows the women to acquire the minimum skills that help them develop. In the end, some people - both Jews and Arabs - blame the Arab leaders' opposition to national service on gender-based opposition to female empowerment.

Prof. Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa's sociology department notes a similar trend. Despite the Arab leadership's strong opposition, most Israeli Arabs actually support national service, Smooha's surveys reveal. In 2007, 75% of the Arab community supported national service. In 2011 this number was 63%, still an impressive majority.

The erosion of support is explained in part by the success of the Arab leaders' campaign against national service. But the main explanation is the decline of Israeli Arabs' confidence in their country - "because of the diplomatic freeze, the wars and the deterioration of the public atmosphere against Arab citizens," says Smooha.

Smooha maintains that "the Arab public is more pragmatic than its leadership." But that doesn't mean this community has clearly come out against its leaders, who absolutely reject national service.

Tomorrow: How Arabs doing national service became traitors

Number of minority volunteers in national service
Science Ministry, National-Civilian Service Administration
Migrants in Israel.
Moti Milrod