Scare Campaign, or Just Plain Unpopular?

A battle is underway over exactly how many young Israeli Arabs seek to do national service.

Is the attempt to include young Arabs in national service programs a resounding failure, or is the Arab community actually responding favorably? A new action committee in the Arab community against national service is sparring with the National Service Administration over the meaning of recent trends.

The action committee, sponsored by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and Women Against Violence, presented a survey a few days ago: About 80 percent of young Israeli Arabs oppose national service.

Dib Mugrabi and Rina Khatib Oct. 31, 2010 (Haggai Frid)
Haggai Frid

The action committee says 75 percent of the participants knew what national service was, and 60 percent were girls. Girls make up a majority of those volunteering for national service in the Arab community. In the survey, 500 people were interviewed all over the country aged 17 to 20.

Attorney Ayman Ouda, the committee's chairman, said the figures show that young Arabs are more aware of their rights and the significance of national service in the process of Israelization. He says Arabs here favor institutionalized volunteer work, but oppose linking national service to the Defense Ministry, which was behind the initiative. They are also against conditioning the rights of the Arab community on such service.

"Rights are absolute and obligations are relative," says Ouda. "The fact is, Druze Arabs serve in the army and don't have full equal rights, and ultra-Orthodox Jews don't do army service and enjoy every right. We're opposed to the politicization of volunteer work."

In the past four years, he says, several surveys, some by Prof. Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa, have shown a significant increase in opposition to national service. "In 2005, only 17 percent of young Arabs were opposed to national service," he says. "We can clearly see that the tendency to oppose it has increased over the years."

'It's manipulation'

The National Service Administration, meanwhile, says the number of Arabs doing national service has tripled, from 500 in 2005 to around 1,500 today.

The action committee does not reject these figures, which it says supports their argument. "An increase from 500 to 1,500 in five years sounds like a lot," says Nadim Nashef of the Baladna Association for Arab Youth, which works among young Arabs against national service. "But 1,500 young people, or even 2,000, is a small percentage of young Arabs. So it's manipulation."

The director general of the National Service Administration, Sar-Shalom Jerbi, accuses the monitoring committee and the other opponents of national service of conducting a scare campaign among young Arabs. Jerbi, in his fifth month in his position, speaks of 900 new slots that will soon be allocated to young Arabs, and of long lists of young people who want to volunteer.

"Every year we witness an increase in the numbers; we're in favor of additional budgets and resources from the government, because it's unacceptable that on the one hand they want national service, and on the other they won't grant budgets and slots," Jerbi says.

"We also know that in Arab society there's a trend to serve, but young people are deterred because of the scare campaign and the threats, and because of the attempt to portray them as collaborators."

Jerbi adds that "it's impossible to understand the reasons for the opposition. Every attempt to link the service to the defense establishment is divorced from reality. For an Arab MK to pledge allegiance to the state and receive all the services from it - that's all right. But for a young Arab to want to do national service - that's not all right? National service contributes to everyone, both young people starting out and institutions where they serve."

It's just PR

Others reject the claims of scare tactics. "We work only through public relations," Ouda says. "The fact is, you can see an increasing trend toward opposition even in the surveys, without putting pressure on anyone."

Ninety-two percent of young Arabs doing national service are women. Aida Touma Suleiman from Women Against Violence says women are the weak link in society. Because most young men go out to the job market and women don't have enough opportunities, they choose a framework like national service.

Rina Khatib, 19, from Shfaram, is doing national service in the children's emergency room at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. "I want to study nursing, so it was important to me to experience work through national service," she says. She adds that when she looked for work she was turned away, and that at several places army or national service was required as a condition for being hired.

Eliana Asali, 20, from Acre, is doing national service in the plastic surgery department at Rambam. "I don't see anything wrong with it," she says. "I wanted to study a nursing profession, and national service gives me that opportunity. We mustn't forget the benefits you receive at the end. I won't talk about the criticism, because in the end there's no coercion here."