Israeli Arabs should do national service – for everyone’s sake

It would do wonders for equality and integration, and Israeli Arabs seem willing to volunteer, but they’re being pounded from both sides by Arab and Jewish nationalists.

In principle, I don’t think there would be anything unjust in going so far as to draft Israeli Arab youths to do a year or two of civilian national service in hospitals, schools, etc.  – even though there is a well-known, deeply entrenched pattern of discrimination against Arab citizens in this country. If it’s unjust to draft them to do national service in an old-age home, it’s much more unjust to force them to pay income taxes, much of which goes toward the state machinery that keeps them second-class citizens, occupies the Palestinians and occasionally attacks neighboring Arab countries – and I don’t hear Israeli Arabs saying they should be exempt from income taxes, or national health insurance payments, or traffic fines or other obligations borne by all Israeli citizens. (I use the term “Israeli Arab” or “Arab citizen” rather than “Palestinian” just to avoid confusion with Palestinians elsewhere, not to make a political point.)

I said “in principle,” though; in practice, drafting Israeli Arabs into national civilian service would meet far, far more resistance than it would be worth; even the Netanyahu government, which supports such a program, isn’t trying to actually implement it. Furthermore, it would have to be done in consultation with Israeli Arabs, with Israeli Arabs in key leadership positions and be free of any “Zionist content,” because no Arab should be expected to be a Zionist.

But yesterday, the government gave its support to a new bill that, even though its main purpose is to screw Israeli Arabs, and even though it’s been deemed discriminatory and unconstitutional by the attorney general, inadvertently offers Israel Arabs a historic opportunity, one that they should jump on if the bill gets through the Knesset and the Supreme Court (which, however, seems unlikely).

The bill gives veterans of IDF and national civilian service preference in hiring, salary, allocation of state land for housing, acceptance to college, and student housing. This would do more for the cause of Israeli Arab equality than anything I’ve ever heard of. But Israeli Arabs are against the bill not only because of its clearly malign intent (it was introduced by one of the Knesset’s great Arab-bashers, Likud’s Yariv Levin), but because Israeli Arab political leaders and opinion-makers have, for the last decade, been waging a campaign that brands Arabs who do national civilian service as the local version of Uncle Toms. At a meeting earlier this month of the Arab Monitoring Committee, which is made up of Arab Knesset members, mayors and other political leaders, MK Jamal Zahalka, head of the Balad party, warned:

Anyone who does national service should be ashamed. A young woman needs to know that if she performs national service, there is a chance no one will marry her and she will be ostracized. The same is true for every boy.

The main argument against national service for Israeli Arabs, whether compulsory or voluntary, is that they shouldn’t serve a state that denies them their right to equality. But in any plausible arrangement, they wouldn’t be serving the state as it oppresses Arabs or advances the Zionist cause; they would be serving regular people getting health care, education, practical assistance and other basic human services.

Above all, they would be paying their dues and thereby gaining legitimacy as Israeli citizens – not Zionists. This, I’m convinced, would reduce the alienation from Israeli Arabs on the part of Israeli Jews, and make it much, much harder for Israel to keep them down.

I know, and I agree, that Israeli Arabs shouldn’t first have to do national service to gain civic equality. But the fact is that standing on that principle isn’t getting them anything, while doing national service in rehabilitation centers and the like – which does not shame anyone – would bring progress.

And the thing is, the Israeli Arab public has shown a lot of support for national service, which is why their political leadership has been working so hard against it. Haifa Prof. Sammy Smooha, the leading pollster of Arab-Jewish relations in this country, found in 2007 that 78 percent of Arabs aged 18-22 would be willing to volunteer for national service. That figure dropped to 40 percent last year – but even then, support for national service among the Arab public at large was still at 62 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Israeli Arabs volunteering for national service multiplied tenfold – from 240 to 2,399 – in the six years after a new program was instituted in 2005.

And this is despite the organized, intense campaign by Israeli Arab leaders – as well as the steadily growing antipathy toward Israeli Arabs by Israel’s Jewish majority, especially in the four years since Netanyahu and the far right took over.

Arab citizens are not Zionists and don’t want to be, but they do want to be equal, integrated members of Israeli society. If the Arab nationalists and Jewish nationalists would stop pounding at them from both sides, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t go into national service in large numbers, which I believe would do wonders for the cause of equality and integration. It would be good for the Arabs, good for the Jews, good for the society. And it doesn’t have a chance in hell of happening, all because of our old friend, nationalism.

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