Avoiding a Confrontation on Arab National Service

A responsible debate, in which Arab MKs and other leaders play a genuine role, could lead to agreement on the principles of an alternative, popular civic service program for Arab youngsters.

Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Mohammad Darawashe
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Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Mohammad Darawashe

If there is an issue that captures the essence of the deep-rooted disputes, mistrust and lack of dialogue between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in Israel, it surely must be the subject of national-civic service.

Now, with the formation of a new government coalition, and after the High Court ordered the drafting of a new bill to replace the Tal Law, there is a likelihood we will see passage of a bill mandating universal service in either the army or a national or civic framework. Hence, it is possible that within weeks, Arab citizens will be told they are required to serve in a civic service corps.

It would be a grave mistake, however, to bundle ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs together in the same basket. It's true that both groups are not drafted into the army, but the reasons for this are fundamentally different. Any attempt to change the status quo with the Arabs must take into account their present lack of representation in decision-making circles, and the long-standing mistrust between Arabs and the state - a situation deeply rooted in a public climate that questions the legitimacy of their citizenship.

Advocates for civic service from the Jewish majority suggest that Arab youngsters should volunteer for service as an expression of their willingness to assume their share of the national burden and to advance their own integration. The Arab leadership has long rejected this line of thinking, fearing that agreement would be interpreted as acceptance of the second-class status quo and affirmation of Israel's definition as a Jewish state. They are also concerned that it would perpetuate existing discrimination, by legitimizing the anti-democratic notion that civil rights can be made contingent upon service.

Added to these misgivings is Arab mistrust of the genuine aims of the existing national service program which initially involved organizations associated with the security establishment. These suspicions have been so deep as to trigger speculation that the current system is only the first phase of a plan to institute mandatory Israel Defense Forces service for Arabs, which would put them in an unbearable confrontation with their brethren across the borders. That the budget for national service volunteers comes out of the Fund for Discharged Soldiers within the Defense Ministry does nothing to dispel such fears.

Arab concerns are also aggravated by the unilateral manner in which the national-civic service apparatus was established, in 2007: without consultation with prominent members of their community. This is a classic example of the state's disregard of what it considers to be the "irrelevant" leadership of the Arab minority, a type of official indifference that triggers intense anger and frustration again and again.

All these factors have produced and fueled an opposition front to national service, organized by the Arab leadership. But they have also promoted thinking about possible alternatives.

Despite broad public opposition, there are Arab youngsters who do volunteer through the national-civic service administration, which operates today under the Ministry of Science. True, they number only 2,000 each year, representing a mere 5 percent of the 40,000 young people who reach age 18 during the same period. But, many perform a significant social service, primarily within the Arab community itself. And there is growing appreciation of the benefits such service can have for the youngsters themselves.

Such service can enhance their chances of success in academic studies and the job market. Today, tens of thousands of high-school graduates are not realizing their potential: Some sink into idleness or menial jobs, while others wait to continue their education, sometimes due to intentional age restrictions at colleges and universities.

Fundamental support for social solidarity and voluntarism, as well as recognition of the need to offer more constructive opportunities to these young Arabs, have led to a search for alternative volunteering initiatives within Arab society. However localized and limited these initiatives may be right now - they are not recognized or funded by the national-civic service administration - they prove that Arab society has the desire and the ability to establish and independently administer such projects.

Still, if the initiators of the civic-service program had hopes that it would become a major, legitimate tool for widespread volunteer community service and integration of young Arabs in Israeli society, these hopes have been dashed. Needless to say, compelling Arab youngsters to serve by law will not repair this situation, but only deepen alienation and frustration among them.

Broad, sweeping legislation is not the way to settle this issue. However, the fact that the topic now tops the public agenda creates an important opportunity for dialogue. A responsible, significant parliamentary debate, in which Arab MKs and other leaders play a genuine role, could lead to a breakthrough and even to agreement on the principles of an alternative, popular civic service program for Arab youngsters.

One alternative is to establish a volunteer community service organization operated by Arab local governments. Its programs would be subject to supervision of a regulatory-professional authority in the welfare or interior ministries, and funded by government budgets earmarked for this purpose. Such an initiative should be part of a comprehensive government program to reduce the gaps between Jews and Arabs, and grounded in a dialogue with elected officials of the Arab public. The service would be purely civic in nature and would give Arab local governments the additional power and agency they so need. Above all, such a program would clearly signal to Arab society that its welfare, its empowerment, and the future of its young people are at the center of public interest and concern.

Amnon Be'eri-Sulitzeanu and Mohammad Darawshe are co-executive directors of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that promotes coexistence and equality between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens.

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