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arabs in israel

On National Service for Arabs


OR DECADES ISRAEL has justified the unequal status of its Arab citizens, who now compose 19% of the population (1.4 million), by pointing out that they do not serve in the army. This claim is easily dispelled. Many Bedouin do serve, yet they remain on the lowest economic rung. Even the Druze, whose males are subject to compulsory draft, are in no better shape than Arabs who do not serve.

The Arabs know why the army doesn't draft them: it assumes that their sympathies will be with the enemy. But what about some form of National Service, that is, voluntary work for the community lasting a year or two? Could the Arabs not do that? In fact, a muted version of such a program has existed for some time. It accommodates young ultraorthodox Jews who have avoided the army on grounds that they wish to continue their religious way of life. Some 10,000 of these, mostly women, have gone into National Service. As for Arabs, the number is only 300.

Now something new is in the air. A National Service Administration (NSA) was established in August 2007 and attached to the Prime Minister's Office. It is aimed at attracting Arab youth among others. This has led to an outcry among Arab leaders. Civilian organizations, along with the Knesset representatives of Hadash and Balad, marched with banners condemning the idea. The Arab Monitoring Committee formed a subcommittee opposing National Service. It was said that the State is trying to blur the Arab identity of the youth and "Israelize" them. It was also claimed that National Service is just a first step toward drafting Arab youth into the army. Arab civil rights, it was said, are not conditional on fulfilling obligations.

Indeed Arabs should oppose the National Service idea, but for a different reason: it is, we shall see, a fig leaf used to avoid a much deeper structural problem.

The NSA is supposed to answer two needs. First, growing numbers of Jewish secular youth have been avoiding army service; the NSA is to provide them with an alternative. Second, the NSA is one of several new measures that are supposed to combat poverty, which has spread to 20% of Israel's total population. Ultraorthodox Jews head the list of the poor, because most choose religious study over gainful employment. Next come the Arabs. If we take, for example, the government's Economic and Social Agenda for the Years 2008-2010, it identifies two population groups that remain outside the circle of labor: 42,000 ultraorthodox Jewish males and about 297,700 Arabs, mostly women. Among Arab citizens of working age (according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics), only 40% participate in the labor force, compared with 56% for Israel as a whole. As for women, only 19% of Arab women participate, compared to 56% of Jewish women.

The government's Agenda suggests National Service as one of the tools that can lead to employment for ultraorthodox and Arab youth. In the NSA's founding document, published on August 19, the matter is put as follows:

"To establish an Administration within whose framework young men and women, citizens of Israel from all population groups who do not serve according to law in the Defense Service, will contribute a year or two of their time to civilian activity that will benefit the society as a whole and weak populations in particular. The Administration will strengthen the young citizen's tie to, and identification with, the community, the society and the State. It will strengthen his professional abilities and his preparation for future employment. It will work toward developing his personality and his leadership abilities.

"In return, the volunteer will receive a living allowance of 700 shekels per month (175$). At the end of the service, he will also be entitled to conditions similar to those of a soldier on the home front. [Soldiers in battle units receive additional benefits-AA.] At the end of the period, the volunteers will receive a grant and a monetary deposit."

Illegitimate comparison

With regard to job opportunities, it is misleading to compare ultraorthodox Jews with Arabs. The former choose to remain outside the circle of labor. Torah is their vocation. As Jews they receive full equality from the State. With the Arabs, the case is utterly different. They want to work, but whole professions and jobs are closed to them. Education in the Arab sector prepares them to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water," not high-tech professionals. Moreover, because the technological jobs are often connected to the security establishment, Arabs are off limits there. Most official government jobs are out of reach.

Go look for industrial areas in Arab cities or villages. You will find none, aside from a few small pockets. For all these reasons, the better-educated Arabs must gravitate toward the independent professions (law, accountancy, teaching, medicine, dentistry), in which they serve their fellow Arabs. Those with no higher education are shunted toward manual labor in construction, restaurants, and agriculture.

In manual labor too, opportunities are dwindling. The textile industry, which employed thousands of young Arab women until the mid-1990's, has gone to other countries where labor is cheap. In the fields of nursing care, construction and agriculture, most of the jobs have been taken by foreign workers.

The State knows that 57% of the Arab population is below the poverty line, but it remains unwilling to change diskettes: it continues to behave toward its Arab citizens as toward a threat. It refuses to stop the importation of foreign workers. It refuses to shift employment away from the hands of the subcontractors and into those of organized labor.

In this situation, the government introduces National Service. Instead of acknowledging the State's responsibility for the long neglect of the Arab sector, instead of instituting a major program of affirmative action, and instead of confronting the market forces that scour the globe in search of cheap labor, it blames the poor for their poverty: the Arabs don't deserve equality because they don't do National Service.

And suppose they were to do it? Let us imagine that the program succeeds. Arab youngsters join National Service and go out to volunteer at local clinics, hospitals, schools or old-age homes. They will quickly find that these institutions hardly exist in the Arab sector. They will rediscover the inequality that they have known all their lives. And if they volunteer in Jewish institutions, they will relieve the latter of the need to hire regular Arab workers.
Suppose the Arab youngster completes National Service and becomes eligible for a mortgage. Where will he find an apartment? Not a single new Arab locality has been built since Israel was founded. No lands have been allotted to meet the needs that result from natural increase; on the contrary, most Arab lands have been confiscated by the State. Arab villages grow ever more crowded, for no master plans permit enlargement. Restrictions on land ownership—racism, in a word—would prevent the youngster from buying in Jewish localities. In the few mixed cities, prices are too high.

In this light, let us recall the overall purpose of National Service: "to strengthen the young citizen's tie to, and identification with, the community, the society and the State." How can you ask the Arab citizen to strengthen his tie to a state that discriminates against him in all walks of life? In effect, the National Service program asks the Arab youth to contribute to the State while agreeing to be inferior.

Arab youth long for education and employment—for a future. Two-thirds of that youth live beneath the poverty line. Some 30% leave school before the 12th grade, compared with 10% among Jews. Less than 15% of Arab high school graduates enter university, compared with 32% among Jews. The rest must cope with a labor market that wants them invisible, flexible and rightless, plugged in and out by personnel companies and subcontractors. National Service is no true option for them. With 700 NIS per month, you can't do much for your family.

Recently, Professor Sammy Smooha of Haifa University conducted a survey among 910 Arabs, including adults and youngsters aged 16-22. Of the total, 73.6% favored National Service if it brings the same benefits that army service does. The survey confirms that Arab youth want to become part of Israel's economy. From conversations we held with several, we gathered that what interests them is not a stronger connection to the State—about this they knew nothing—but rather an improvement in their chances of finding jobs. One woman said: after completing National Service, if the Arab must return to the same personnel company that today pockets 30% of her wage, then there is no need for the program.

The Arab Knesset members are right in opposing National Service-but we ought not to miss the main reason! There is little danger that the youth will become "more Israeli." The real reason to oppose it is the one voiced by the woman we talked to: after National Service, Arabs will return to the same jobs-in restaurants, cleaning or on the building scaffolds-without rights and without hope.

If the government really wants to lighten the economic burden of the Arab poor, it must make an immediate turnabout. It must focus on opening jobs for them, it must stop importing foreign labor, it must reduce the role of subcontractors and personnel companies, and it must invest in professional training. Without these essential steps any other program, including National Service, cannot advance the Arab population. On the contrary, National Service and the like only provide the government with further excuses to maintain the current inequality.

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