Israeli Arabs conflicted over national service

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The young Israeli is a volunteer working with severely disabled children. He helps them to eat, dress, go to the bathroom. For this, he says, he has been branded a traitor.

That’s because 20-year-old Moham-med Abu Rumi is an Arab, and his work is part of his national service — an Israeli attempt to incorporate its Arab minority into mainstream society by letting them volunteer in schools and hospitals in lieu of military service, from which almost all Israeli Arabs are exempted.

So far, it’s not working very well.

Arab leaders are urging youths to reject the program, saying it’s window-dressing by a government unwilling to rectify decades of discrimination that have left half of Israel’s 1.4 million Arab citizens living in poverty.

Under such pressure, fewer than 300 signed up for national service in 2007, frustrating government officials.

They take some consolation from the higher number registered for this year: 560. But the low number is still striking, considering that national service entitles them to the same bonuses an army conscript enjoys: discounted mortgages, cash grants, preferential treatment for state jobs and access to financial aid and dormitories at Israeli universities.

Still, the fact that any Israeli Arabs are volunteering at all, and that their number is rising, worries some Arab leaders.

Recently in Haifa, ordinarily fractious community representatives banded together for a conference against the program.

“It should be a mark of shame,” Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of Israel’s parliament, declared to dozens of cheering, whistling youths, many of whom carried Palestinian flags and stickers saying “No to National Service.”

Israeli Arabs make up about one-fifth of Israel’s 7 million citizens. Born and raised in Israel, younger Arabs tend to pepper their Arabic with Hebrew and actively participate in Israel’s democracy. But for the most part, their ethnic identification is with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and they remain a distinct and largely disadvantaged minority.

This is in part because they are exempted from the military. The idea is to spare them divided loyalties, but it also denies them veterans’ benefits and the lifelong friendships and business connections forged in uniform.

National service originally was designed for religious Jewish women who did not want to serve in a coed military, but several years ago the government opened the program to Arabs. The idea has gained traction recently after signs of growing Israeli Arab alienation, and last summer an agency was established to attract more recruits.

The number has risen as young people completing their service encourage others to sign up, said Reuven Gal, director of Israel’s national service program.

Volunteers serve for one year, and can add another year if they so choose. That’s shorter than army service, which is three years for men and two years for women.

Abu Rumi, a Muslim who lives in the northern village of Tamra, decided to do national service to become eligible for schooling benefits. But he finds the program, where he helps severely disabled Jewish and Arab children, has done much more for him.

“I opened up to the world,” he said. Before national service, he rarely ventured outside his village. Now, he said, he counts as friends Jews and Arabs from the Druze and Christian communities, groups that tend to live in separate towns or neighborhoods.

But his local community does not support his choice. “I’ve been called a traitor,” he said.

Arab newspaper editorials malign those who do national service, and Abu Rumi says he avoids talking about it with strangers.

According to government statistics, an Israeli Arab worker earns $1,270 a month on average, while Jews make nearly 50 percent more; unemployment among Israeli Arabs is 11 percent, compared with 8 percent for Jews. Fifty-one percent of Arabs live under the poverty line, compared with 15 percent of Jews.

Gal, the national service director, said those gaps are precisely what the program is designed to narrow.

“The youngsters will benefit a lot, the community will get a lot … and the entire Israeli society will benefit. You [the Arabs] will become a part of Israeli society and contribute to integration,” Gal said.

Arab leaders say the argument is misguided, pointing to Israel’s Druze, an Islamic sect. The Druze identify with Israel, their men are drafted, yet they their salaries and education levels are similar to other Arabs, not the Jews they serve alongside.

Zahalka sees national service as the “loyalty of the victim to his master.”

But 18 months into national service, Abu Rumi says he’s glad to have contributed something to himself and his community.

“I’m still an Arab,” he said. “And I would never join the army. In the army, my hand would hold a gun. Here, in national service, I extend my hand to help.”