Tel Aviv — A government program to encourage volunteer work by Arab Israelis as a substitute for army enlistment enjoys wide support among the country’s one-fifth minority, despite a campaign by Arab political leaders to discourage youths from participating.
According to a survey released this week by University of Haifa sociologist Sammy Smooha, support for the national service project among Arab youths and the general Arab Israeli population runs between 75 to 80 percent.
At the same time, Reuven Gal director of Israel’s national civil service agency, says the program, which currently numbers more than 600 participants, was 50 percent oversubscribed.
Israel’s government hopes the program, which gives participants a symbolic salary and educational stipends, will help spur integration of the country’s Arab citizens into the Israeli mainstream.
But the program has triggered a debate among the Arab minority over the path toward equal rights, and whether that route should run through a program sponsored by the Israeli government.
Gal said that although the national service “strengthens the connection between [Arab] citizens and the entire society,” it raises questions of “do we want to be a part of Israel society” among Arab nationalists.
For decades, Arabs have been excluded from the compulsory military draft for Jewish high school graduates. That segregation has put public support for released soldiers out of reach of most Arab youth, and isolated them from the social network that help Jewish Israelis get ahead after the army.
The national civil service plan was adapted from the program made available to young Orthodox women who are not comfortable with the army’s coed work environment, but who want to perform volunteer work in service of the country.
Volunteers are most commonly integrated into workplaces in the educational, medical service and environmental fields.
Mariam Khiwan, a 21-year-old religious Muslim woman from the village of Majdal Crumm, works at a Kupat Holim health care center in the Jewish city of Carmiel assisting Arab women undergoing ultra-sound examinations.
Khiwan, who aspires to become an X-ray machine technician, said that her views about the national service program have evolved since she began volunteering nine months ago.
“At the beginning it wasn’t important, but now it is. [The Jews] should know that we’re not closed, but we’re open; and that it’s not only they who deserve to do public service, but us as well,” she said.
When asked about Arab politicians who have encouraged youths to boycott the program, Khiwan said that they are entitled to their own opinion and that she prefers not to challenge them. But then she added, “In our Koran, it’s written that you must contribute and help the people.”
Smooha’s survey, conducted at the end of 2007, found 84 percent support among Arab women, reflecting the fact that most of the volunteers are female. Ironically, support was also high among supporters of the very same Arab political parties that have come out against the service.
“It’s hard to believe that the opposition of the leadership, which is not affiliated with the Jewish establishment, will cause the project to collapse,” Smooha said in a statement. “If the civil service administration succeeds in reaching an understanding with the Arab leaders by including them in its operation, the project could achieve impressive results.”
Some Arab groups have campaigned vigorously against the program in an effort to discourage youths from signing up. One poster distributed by the youth movement Baladna warned “National Service – Your path to the army.”
The organization alleged that the appointment of Gal, the Israeli army’s former chief psychologist, exposed the program’s enduring link to the military and that one day participants could find themselves volunteering on an army base.
Knesset member Jamal Zalhaka, a member of the Balad Party, alleged that Israel’s government wants to make the civil rights of the Arab minority conditional on participation in the program. But his objection runs much deeper.
“The service is a political effort to increase the domination of the Arab population, and to blur their identity,” he said. “The government declared that the purpose is to increase with the solidarity with the state. The purpose is to identify with the state against the Palestinian people — or to make them more Zionist and less Palestinian.”
Sami Ziebak, an 18-year-old from Jaffa who is involved in an Arab-Jewish youth movement called Zadakah-Reut, works with children at a local community center, overseeing art and music enrichment classes and helping with the children’s homework. But if his volunteer work was suddenly linked to the national service, he would quit.
“This entity called the State of Israel is not connected to me and it does not represent me as an Arab.”
Nabil Oudeh, an Arab journalist from Nazareth, who supports the national service program, accused the Arab leadership in Israel of reflexively rejecting any proposal from the government, even if the idea is affirmative action.
“We must aspire to come out of our bubble, and to put at the top of our agenda becoming full partners in the Israeli experience, including decision making,” he said. “I don’t want to defend the policies of the Israeli government, but I am continuing to fight for equal civil rights. I consider the civil service as part of the rights bestowed upon the Arab minority.”
Israeli Arabs report that there is an atmosphere of tension in Arab communities regarding the service, and some participants are reluctant to have their name published. Ibrahim Abu Zindi, the director of the Arab-Jewish cultural center in Jaffa, said there was a convention organized several months ago in Jaffa to encourage youths not to participate.
Abu Zindi says the problem with the program is that national and military service programs have so far failed to eliminate discrimination against the country’s Arab minorities.
“The problem is that even if you do national service or military service, the Arab citizens don’t get the same rights as Jews,” he said.
An Arab community activist who assists youth in getting accepted to the program said she views the need to integrate in practical rather than political terms, and that there’s a gap with the Arab leadership.
“This is our fate. If we’re not part of the country, what will happen to us?” said the activist, who asked to remain anonymous. “After the ’48 war, there is a third nationality. We’re Palestinian and also Israeli. I can’t be in the Palestinian state, or in any other Arab state. We’re demanding the rights that we deserve.”