Galilee Diary #488, April 28, 2010 Marc Rosenstein
The official shall go on addressing the troops and say, "Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his." -Deuteronomy 20:8
Dugrinet, our Hebrew-Arabic internet magazine, has begun to sponsor public events as a way of creating a relationship between the site and the community. Last week, we held a panel discussion on the topic of national service by Arab youth. This is part of a larger, ongoing discussion (sometimes rational, sometimes not) in Israeli society about conscription.
It is a pillar of mainstream Israeli ideology that army service is a sacred obligation, a key Zionist mitzvah that has made possible "the Jewish emergence from powerlessness." It is considered heretical to question this value. And indeed, about 75% of Jewish 18-year olds are drafted. Among girls, about another 20% do alternative national service in hospitals, schools, etc. These are primarily Orthodox girls whose religious commitments make it impractical for them to serve in the army. Among boys, around 15% are exempted for medical, psychological, and other reasons, and over 10% are exempted as they are full-time yeshivah students. This category is hotly controversial, and is a major source of the antagonism felt by the general population toward the Ultra-Orthodox. It is also a contributing factor to the widespread poverty among the Ultra-Orthodox, because in order to receive a yeshivah-study deferment you must be a full-time student and thus may not be employed.
Regarding the Arab population, the state made the decision at the outset not to draft them, for obvious reasons (and probably unavoidable, even though one can wonder, in hindsight, if it was in fact a good idea); then in 1956, the Druze community agreed that its males be drafted, and about 85% of them serve. Among the Christians and Muslims, those who volunteer to serve constitute just a few percent. Almost no Arab girls, of any religion, serve in the army.
Over the years, the idea of alternative national service for Arabs has been in the air, and surveys have consistently shown that a majority of the Arab and Jewish populations favor it. Indeed, many wonder why we don't introduce the European model of compulsory service for everyone, with a variety of military and civilian options to choose from. It seems that the reason service for the Arabs has not developed (currently about 1,000 serve, about 3%) has been the unwillingness of the government to budget for the costs of the positions - and of the benefits to which the participants would be entitled.
Meanwhile, opposition to national service has been strident on the part of the political leadership of the Arab community, based on a number of arguments: a) Rejection of the "rights for responsibilities" rhetoric popular among Jewish Israelis ("if you want equal rights, you have to take on equal responsibilities"); the Arabs point out that that is not the norm in most countries: rights should be absolute, not conditional - "First treat us as equals, then we'll be happy to serve." b) National service is part of the defense establishment and they don't want to be part of it. c) Filling paid positions with volunteers contributes to the already severe unemployment in Arab communities. We heard all these arguments from one of our panelists last week, and I think it's fair to say that most of the Jews in the audience found themselves shaking their heads in frustration at what seems an irrational rejection of a project that can only benefit the Arab community and the country as a whole. And we applauded Lafez, the dynamic young director of the community center in the Muslim village of Dir el Assad, when he spoke passionately of the benefits to the kids and the community that he sees accruing to his national service volunteers - and when he accused the communal leadership of political opportunism on the backs of their own community.
The number of volunteers has gone up every year, but the opposition in the community has also become more strident. It seems to me that the state has an urgent interest in heading off the opposition by finally making a concerted effort to draw these kids into the program - or by instituting universal compulsory service.