David Rosenberg
The Media Line
May 9, 2012 - 12:00am

Five years after the government launched a program to encourage Israeli-Arab youth to take time off from school and work to perform volunteer work in lieu army service, Israeli-Arab support for the program is lower than ever.

A poll of Israeli-Arabs released this week found that only 39.7% of the country’s 18-22-year-old Arabs – the target demographic for the program – are personally willing to sign up for the national service program, down 53% in 2009. Among all Israeli-Arabs, support for national service has also become more tepid, with 62.2% backing the idea, down from as much as 78% in 2007.

“The general trend among Arabs in Israel over the last five years, and especially in last three years, is of a hardening of attitudes towards the Jewish state. Their views are becoming more critical of Israel and how they are treated by it.,” Sammy Smooha, the University of Haifa professor who conducted the survey, told The Media Line.

Nevertheless, he stressed, the level of support is “still high,” especially given the controversy within the Israeli-Arab community on participating in the program.

The findings come as a public debate heats up over mandatory army service or its civilian alternative, a national program that places youth in schools, hospitals, community centers and other social programs for one or two years. The terms of the national unity government formed on Tuesday include a pledge for legislation that will require Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the army or to perform national service. Israeli-Arabs might be included in the law.

While Israel’s Jewish majority is subject to military draft, national service is offered as an alterative for those who cannot or will not join the army. Until 2007, the national service program was limited mainly to young Jewish women who declined to serve in the army for religious reasons; since then it has been expanded to include young Jewish men as well as Israeli-Arab men and women.

Since then, the number of Israel-Arab volunteers – nearly 90% of them female – has more than doubled since then to 2,399 in 2011-2012, according to the government’s Civil-National Service Administration, which runs the program. Part of the recruitment drive, was to soften the image of the program by adding the word “Civil” to the name of the National Service Directorate, the body that oversees the program.

Despite the growing interest, however, national service remains a highly contentious issue among Israeli-Arabs, who make up about a quarter of Israel’s population.

Organizations like the Haifa-based youth organization Baladna run campaigns in high schools and community centers discouraging national services. "Anyone who volunteers for national service will be treated like a leper and will be vomited out of Arab society." Jamal Zahalka, a lawmaker with Balad, an Israeli Arab political party, told a rally as the program was getting underway in 2008.

National service strikes at the heart of the dilemma facing Israeli-Arabs. They view themselves as one and the same as the Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza or as refugees in neighboring countries, yet they are citizens of Israel and under the law are entitled to equal rights, even if in practice they face discrimination.

Events of the last two decades have only served to alienate many of them from Israeli society, starting with the Second Intifada in 2000 that led to years of violence between Israel and Palestinians. The 2006 Lebanon War, in which Israeli Arabs suffered from Hizbullah rockets as much as Jews, and Israel’s Cast Lead assault on Gaza in 2008 sharpened the dual-loyalty dilemma.

Domestically, said Haifa’s Smooha, many Israeli-Arabs are distressed by growing Jewish nationalism, particularly by the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which is led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Nevertheless, Smooha said the hostility many Israeli-Arab leaders express toward national service isn’t shared by ordinary people, which explains why the recruitment drive has been largely successful.

“We have more volunteers because the volunteers feel there are a lot benefits from service. In addition to personal benefits, they contribute to Arab society and to the state. They do not see a contradiction between the two,” he said.

Israeli-Arab national service volunteers tend to work inside their own communities, which Smooha said undermines the contention of its opponents, like Zahalka, that volunteering will cause Israeli-Arabs to assimilate into broader Israeli society. On the other hand, it also means that national service is not helping Israeli-Arabs to better integrate into general Israeli society.

The survey, which was conducted together with Zohar Lechtman, a lecturer at the Western Galilee Academic College last year, found that a high proportion of current and former national service volunteers expressed support for the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a position that is controversial among Israeli-Arabs who argue that Israel cannot be both.

Opposition to national service could grow worse if plans move ahead to make it compulsorily, an idea that won the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month and has long been supported by Lieberman. 

Based on his survey, Smooha said that most Israeli-Arab look positively on national service as a voluntary contribution to their communities and the state. By forcing young people to join, it will turn into a burden and provoke those who worry that it will eventually lead to mandatory army service, from which Israeli-Arabs are now exempt.

“If the leadership is opposed to voluntary service, they will oppose compulsory services even more and may be able to mobilize the population,” Smooha said. “It will not bring the Arabs nearer to the state. and it will become a real bone of contention between Arabs and Jews.”


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