Israeli Arabs split over national service plan

Times Staff Writer

Seated in the corner of a bustling classroom, school volunteer Hanan Masarwa is barely visible amid a scrum of first-graders.

The 18-year-old Masarwa is teaching the children to add as part of an Israeli national service program created in August. The volunteer program is an attempt to provide avenues, other than mandatory military service from which they are exempt, for integrating Arabs and religious Jews more fully into the mainstream Jewish state.

Civilian volunteers agree to work full time for one or two years. In return, they receive a $150-per-month stipend and qualify for up to $2,000 more in payouts upon completion of their term.

The dark-haired and diminutive Masarwa, one of 600 volunteers to sign up for the program so far, sees it as a way for her to help children in the Arab village in central Israel where she grew up, and as a way to prepare herself for becoming a teacher.


But the initiative has stoked a fierce debate among Israel’s 1.4 million Arab citizens. Arab politicians and activists in Israel have denounced it as a government attempt to co-opt young Arab citizens into serving the Jewish state, erode their sense of identity as a minority group and possibly one day integrate them into the Israeli military, where they could end up fighting their Arab brethren.

For Arab citizens of Israel, the controversy highlights the lingering quandaries over identity and how their community -- a fifth of the Israeli population -- is supposed to fit in to a society they have long accused of discriminating against them -- in jobs, education and political clout.

Supporters of the volunteer program, formally called “national civilian service,” say it could benefit long-neglected communities by mobilizing a small army of helpers, and they accuse Arab political and religious leaders of being out of touch with ordinary Arab citizens.

“What harm is there for a young person completing 12 years of education to give back to the community for a year, in a school or anywhere else?” said Ali Zahalka, the principal of the elementary school where Masarwa and 17 other local teens are volunteering.

But Jamal Zahalka, an Arab lawmaker from Kafr Qara who belongs to the same extended family as the school principal, has referred to the volunteers as “pariahs.”

He said he is not opposed to Arab youths donating their time in schools or hospitals, but said the goal of the government program marks a new attempt by Israel to reshape the identity of young Arabs by trying to “Zionize” them.

Arabs and religious Jews have long been exempt from compulsory army service, often leaving them at a disadvantage in a nation where the army is vaunted as both melting pot and societal glue.

“The word ‘service’ and the verb ‘to serve’ has become almost synonymous with military service, as if there are no other ways to serve the community or the society or the nation,” said Reuven Gal, a former chief army psychologist who heads the new agency.


Gal said the idea was to expand that definition and allow Arabs to earn benefits of the same type earned by Jews who go into the army. Military service has helped many Jews get a leg up in the job market through the skills they learned and social networking.

Since the 1970s, devout Jewish women have been allowed to volunteer for civilian roles as an alternative to the two-year army service requirement; about 9,000 currently take part.

In recent years, a handful of Jewish men, after petitioning the Supreme Court, have won the right to volunteer. That opened the way for a modest number of Arab volunteers, fewer than 300 last year.

The program’s top goal is to reinforce “the connection and identification between citizen and state.”


But that language worries many Arab skeptics, who say the purpose is to weaken their community’s claim to be treated as an indigenous national minority with collective rights, as well as to erode their sense of kinship with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The young ones who would go into civic service, they would be, as we define it, kind of brainwashed: ‘Yes, Israel is a great state, yes, we all love Israel,’ ” said Nadim Nashif, director of the Baladna Assn. for Arab Youth, a Haifa-based group.

Nashif said that for decades, Israel has excluded Arabs from the mainstream, leaving them impoverished, underemployed and with little political clout. He said the program “gives legitimacy to discrimination.”

Nashif’s group is at the forefront of a public relations campaign to dissuade Arab teenagers from signing up for the volunteer civilian service. The activists have posted videos on YouTube and organized a rolling protest in Arab villages around the country. A popular Arab rap group, called DAM, lent its support with a song called “Wanted: An Arab Who Lost His Memory.”


Much of the campaign revolves around what the program’s foes say is a hidden plan to force Arab citizens into the military, where they might have to fight against fellow Arabs. One poster features an M-16 with a cigarette-type health warning in Arabic script: “They are trying to recruit you.”

But Israeli officials reject such assertions as scare tactics. They say there is no plan to make civilian service mandatory, or to draft Arabs into the military. Israel’s founders decided against drafting Arabs to avoid putting them in a position in which their loyalties might be divided.

“The issue has expanded beyond the issue of civic service,” Gal said. “It’s an issue of the place, the position of Israeli Arabs vis-a-vis the Israeli state. Are they willing to become part of the Israeli state or not?”

But Sammy Smooha, a sociology professor at Haifa University, said the goal of strengthening volunteers’ attachment to the state clashes with a quest by Arab political leaders for more autonomy and power-sharing within Israel.


“They feel they were disregarded,” said Smooha, a specialist on relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. “They are afraid that Israelization will increase to such an extent that they will lose control of the Arab community.”

Ali Zahalka, the school principal, has taken on the Arab political leadership by writing opinion articles, in Hebrew, in the Israeli press in support of the service program. He said he had been criticized during Friday sermons in some mosques, but believes most Arabs agree with him.

“The silence of the Arab public and deference to the Arab politicians has given the Jewish public in Israel the wrong impression that we are all like that, that these positions represent all of us,” Zahalka said during an interview in his office, the playful squealing of schoolchildren audible through the wall.

Smooha found in a new poll of Arab citizens that more than 70% favored civilian service if it offered benefits similar to those granted for the military.


The noisy debate -- and a few reported threats -- has added to the strain for Masarwa and other young Arab volunteers. Masarwa said she was turned down at another school because the principal opposed the volunteer program.

The atmosphere has grown so tense that the nonprofit agencies overseeing the volunteers are refusing most requests for interviews with the youths.

Masarwa, working in a gaily decorated classroom with 36 pupils, said her parents support her decision to take part. She labeled the political brouhaha as “nonsense,” saying that the program would benefit the children -- and, later, her.

“I believe in this service,” she said.