More Arab-Israelis Volunteering for National Service

ABU GHOSH, Israel — A smile spreads across Anwar Aref Ibrahim’s face as she describes her plans to attend David Yellin College in Jerusalem after she completes two years of work in the national service.

“Volunteering and working with children has really influenced me.  My dream is to be an accountant but I am thinking of changing my mind and being a teacher,” said Ibrahim.

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Issa Jaber, director of the Education Department in Abu Ghosh, believes national service provides important benefits to Arab-Israeli youth, particularly women.

Her outfit, which consists of a floor-length black skirt, a blue-and-white long sleeve shirt and a black, bead-embroidered hijab, or head covering, is modest and sophisticated. It suits the 21-year-old Ibrahim, a resident of Abu Ghosh, a town near Jerusalem that is home to approximately 8,000 Arab-Israelis.

She reaches for a wall, presses a button and turns up the air conditioning in Abu Ghosh’s community center, where she will complete her two years of national service. After participating in a program called “Against Violence,” Ibrahim was inspired to volunteer for Israel’s national service, a program controlled by the Defense Ministry that functions as an alternative to military service.

Israel has a universal draft – when men and women reach the age of 18 they are sent to complete their military service. Men serve for three years while women serve for two.

Two large groups are exempt from serving in the military – ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Arab citizens of Israel. The first group is exempt for religious reasons, while the second is exempt because the state felt it best not to risk putting them in a situation where they might have to take up arms against their Arab brethren in order to defend the state.

National service was created to function as a voluntary alternative to military service, primarily for young ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls and women who felt uncomfortable serving in the army because of its mixed-gender nature.

However, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens of Israel are able to volunteer for the military and the national service, and in the last year there has been a significant increase in the number of Arab-Israeli volunteers in the national service. The number jumped from 1,700 volunteers last year to 3,000 this year, and the number continues to grow, according to reports from the National-Civic Service Administration.

But despite record-high numbers of Arab-Israeli volunteers participating in the national service, those volunteers represent a small minority of Arab-Israeli youth. More than 1.6 million Arabs live in Israel and only 3,000 of them have chosen to volunteer in the national service.

All statistics aside, there is something significant about these young men and women who have become something like pioneers, defying Arab Knesset members and local Arab leaders’ calls to shun state-run programs.

Knesset member Hanin Zoabi of the National Democratic Assembly party is firmly against Arab-Israeli participation in both the military and the national service, and she does not differentiate between the two programs.

She calls upon her constituents to fight against the national service because it “destroys our identities as Palestinians. This service will distort our unique, historical position as indigenous people, as Palestinians. We perceive this program as an illegitimate program intended to distort our unique national identity,” said Zoabi.

Why, then, are more Arab Israelis signing up for national service?  Volunteers who join the national service “understand that this program is good for them because they get financial benefits after they complete their service,” said Lior Shohat, spokesperson for the Administration for National-Civic Service. “Also, after contributing one or two years in the service they develop their own skills and learn how to work with many different people in their community.”

When asked about the benefits she’ll receive as a result of her participation in the national service, Ibrahim begins to list them excitedly. Since she plans to attend David Yellin College, a Jewish institution, the national service will pay for her first year of college.  After she graduates, she will receive money, and if she cannot find a job after graduating, the Administration for National-Civic Service will find one for her. She will be provided with financial support when she marries, and will continue to receive a monthly sum of money. When she buys a car, the national service will pay for half of it and will also pay for her car insurance.

She will receive life-long health insurance that covers her future family as well. The national service also provides volunteers with lectures about violence, children, and how to find jobs, and pays for educational trips as well. Volunteers who serve for one year receive 13,000 shekels (about $3,600) while volunteers who serve for two years receive 16,000 shekels (about $4,500) after they finish their service.

“We volunteer for other reasons and are interested in more than just financial benefits,” interrupts Suzan Khader Masalma, who had been sitting quietly next to Ibrahim. Masalma, an 18-year-old who is originally from Beit Hanina in Jerusalem but moved to Abu Ghosh when she was 13, is now volunteering in the national service and working in the town’s community center alongside Ibrahim.

The two volunteers, who are good friends, participate in the same activities within the community center, spending their mornings making jewelry with the elderly people of the “Golden Age People” club and performing office work and secretarial duties in the afternoons.

“I participate in national service because I enjoy helping my community and offering them my experience and skills,” said Masalma.

Ibrahim nodded in agreement, saying, “I support more Arab-Israelis volunteering for national service because I want to change people’s minds who mistakenly think that it’s about military service. It’s not; it’s about social services and about helping and serving the people in our community.”

Ibrahim explained that just over a year ago, many people in the community, including herself, were under the impression that national service was the same as military service. Then some of her friends became volunteers and explained that the two programs were different. They began to raise awareness in Abu Ghosh about the nature and benefits of the national service program.

Ibrahim and Masalma attribute the increase in the number of Arab-Israeli volunteers to wider knowledge of the difference between military service and national service and the financial benefits the national service offers.

“We all became more aware, and now there are many girls waiting to register for national service for next year,” said Masalma.

But still there is much resistance to national service in the Arab-Israeli community. Those who oppose it note that it is under the control of the Defense Ministry and is state-run. Some firmly believe that they are not obligated to serve the state, and should receive financial and other benefits, regardless of whether or not they voluntarily serve in the military or national service.

Those in opposition to the program may share the same fears as Amal Abd-Alrahman, 37, the director of the “Golden Age People” club in the Abu Ghosh community center.

“I fear that if [Arab-Israelis] start volunteering in National Service I don’t know where we will go after that.  I don’t think that we have to serve them or the Israeli state because we are not getting our full rights.”

Though Ibrahim and Masalma’s families support their decision to become volunteers in the national service, some of their friends’ families are not so supportive.

“I have a friend whose mother told her ‘If you get involved in the national service I will hit you,’” said Ibrahim. “I have another friend whose parents kept telling her [national service] was the same as military service.  They told her she would not get married and forced her to leave the national service after volunteering for just one month at the community center.”

But Ibrahim and Masalma have made it their mission to continue to raise awareness in the community and spread the word that “the national service is not military service,” and to paint the program in a positive light. They tell their friends “as a result of our service we are more experienced, educated, and skilled,” said Ibrahim.

“We tell them that we can help our community by volunteering in the national service, and that it is not military service. We want to help those who misunderstand the situation to realize that the two programs are not related.”

The town of Abu Ghosh is something of a pioneer, with its mayor, council and many of its residents encouraging its youth to volunteer for the national service. Advertisements in and around the town urge young men and women to register for program.

“I think that the national service is something that is a big gift to us to be given to our young people for one or two years, for themselves, and for the community itself, because by this new and young manpower, we can improve a lot of things in our local social structure, education, community center, and many other issues,” said Issa Jaber, director of the Education Department in Abu Ghosh and a chairperson for the Intereligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI).

“I support men and women serving in national service because our community benefits from such service and we gain manpower to help us in our educational institutes. I think we can cultivate the personality of a lot of girls to be responsible, to be able to develop new skills in life, and to get jobs and benefits,” said Jaber.

He also pointed out that serving for one or two years in the national service after graduating high school provides volunteers, 90 percent of whom are women, with a transitional period during which they can “rethink their plans for the future and become adults” while developing new skills and earning money.

“I would advise young girls to participate in the National Service.” Ibrahim said, “because it provides them with experience, education and life-long financial benefits.”


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