Israeli Arabs Lose Enthusiasm for National Service

Two years ago, a Knesset panel discussed the possibility that Israel’s Arabs — who are currently exempt from any national service — could perform civic service in schools, hospitals and other non-political institutions that need volunteers. The polling at the time was fascinating in revealing a gulf between leaders and their constituents. Three quarters of Israel’s young Arab citizens favored the idea, while 90% of their political leaders opposed it.

Now, the percentage of young Arab citizens who favor the idea has fallen to 54%, a new Haifa University Survey indicates. So what has happened over the last couple of years to change the figure? It would seem that the opposition of the leaders has rubbed off on the general Arab population. When the idea was mooted back in February 2008, Arab leaders made their objections very clear. “Anyone who volunteers for national service will be treated like a leper and will be vomited out of Arab society,” Jamal Zahalka, a lawmaker with the Balad party declared at a rally.

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, an umbrella organization for Israeli-Arab community, ran a campaign against the plan, as did Baladna, an Arab youth organization.

But interestingly, the campaign has left a significant number unconvinced that national service is a bad idea. The number of young Arabs prepared to stick their necks out and volunteer themselves has increased. In 2008 it was 628, and last year it was more than 1,000.

The interesting question, which unfortunately is not covered by the poll, is what motivates these young people — and if Zahalka is to believed puts them at risk of being “vomited out” of Arab society. Is it idealism? Is it that it looks good on a resume? It’s even conceivable that the economic crisis could be playing a part — at the end of service people get a grant of around $2,000 which can help them get started at university.

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