Share the Defense Burden? Let’s Do It!

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he’s committed to an equitable division of the defense burden. This sharing of the burden must “include all Israeli citizens, including the Haredi public and the Arab public,” Netanyahu declared at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier this month.

Slogans thrown around by the right, Netanyahu chief among them, calling for equal sharing of the burden with regard to Arab citizens are merely another tool in the populist toolbox. Those who rashly toss about these slogans aren’t really interested in drafting Arabs. For them, the slogans provide an excuse for the existing inequality and are intended to cover up the discriminatory legislation they are promoting in the Knesset – in a supposedly egalitarian guise.

You can easily burst this bubble of lies, but to do so you need imagination – and unfortunately that’s a rare commodity in these parts. More than once I’ve said that attributing the eastern imagination to the Arabs, and particularly to the Arab MKs, borders on libel. If they had even a smidgen of imagination they could expose the bluff of the knights of equal burden and shatter their illusions.

Such things have already happened, because efforts to draft Arabs are not new. Here is a quote from a report submitted to Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon in 1954, on the pre-draft registration of minorities: “Most young people make a good impression and express their satisfaction at being able to serve in the army. They want to know in which corps they will serve. Many asked to be registered for the navy, tank units, etc.”

That’s a description of Arab youths who reported to the country’s draft boards in response to an order issued by the defense minister that aimed to apply the Defense Service Law to all the state’s residents. In other words, these Arab youths wanted to enlist – but this process, as we know, has not been completed to this day.

According to the report, the goal was to “relieve the Arab population of its feeling of being discriminated against, and to equalize their rights and obligations with those of all the country’s [other] residents.” This aim was totally in line with the positions of the Israeli Communist Party, which demanded that Arabs be drafted. The late MK Tawfik Toubi went even further when he said that not drafting Arabs was a form of discrimination, and he argued from the Knesset podium that this policy “contravenes any effort to earn the friendship of the Arab masses.”

Keep in mind that these were the days of Jewish independence and the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe). And yet, according to the report, “In the days following its publication there was a certain enthusiasm among the young people covered by the registration order. The idea of carrying weapons and wearing a soldier's uniform appealed to them, as did the immediate opportunity to leave the boring, routine life of their Arab village or town. What was interesting was that older youths, over 20, were clearly jealous and hoped that their time to be called would also come.”

The report also praised the level of education of those young Arabs who reported. “The overwhelming majority can speak and write Hebrew,” the report said. “Many have finished high school.”

And there are also a few amusing anecdotes. For example, there were young people who came to register accompanied by their fathers, as well as a group of young people from the Christian village of Jish who came accompanied by a priest who introduced them and spoke their praises. In Taibeh, meanwhile, the mukhtar (village leader) accompanied a group of young people to the recruiting office and, according to the report, “claimed credit for this and wanted to take the opportunity to get his son released from the draft.”

So, as we’ve said, if the current Arab MKs had any imagination at all, they would follow in Toubi’s shoes and submit their own bill obligating every citizen – regardless of ethnicity, religion, race, color and gender – to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Then we’d see how the knights of the equal burden would vote. 

Israeli Arab MK Ahmed Tibi at his office in Jerusalem in May, 2010Credit: Emil Salman

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