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The Other “Other” Israel

It is widely believed that Israeli Arabs despise the Jewish state, actively support its enemies, and willingly constitute a kind of fifth column in the Jewish state’s population. This is backed up by the wild rhetoric of Arab-Israeli politicians, who frequently bend over backwards to voice their hatred of the country that hosts them.

But is this belief true? A new survey of Israeli Arabs’ opinions about national service has a lot of people scratching their heads.

In Israel, young men and women spend at least two years in mandatory military service–except, of course, for Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are exempt. Failure to enlist often makes it much harder for members of these groups to find jobs later on, however, and doesn’t do much for their patriotism.

But between the military service and exemption, there is a third option: The national service program, in which thousands of Israelis, mostly Orthodox women, spend one to two years serving their country by serving their communities–helping the needy, working in hospitals, or assisting in daycare centers. In recent years, an effort has been under way to expand the program to include the Israeli Arab population, which has been seen as a way to help integrate them into mainstream Israel, help their economic situation, and remove the stigma of disloyalty.

These efforts have been met with virulent opposition from Israeli-Arab leaders, however. MK Jamal Zahalka, of the Balad party, for example, warned in October that Arab society would “vomit out” those who volunteered for national service, and consider them “lepers.” This has been the near-uniform tone coming from the leadership of the Arab community, as it has campaigned against the plan.

But their campaign, apparently, hasn’t worked. According to the study, no fewer than 75 percent of Israeli Arab youth, and over 70 percent of the overall Arab population, support the idea of national service. Nor is this just a matter of getting better jobs, or equality with Jews: According to the poll, “68 percent of those who support national service said they are in favor because it contributes to the country and Israeli society.”

This is astonishing on a number of fronts: First, it suggests that what most people think about the loyalty of Israeli Arabs may be just wrong. Second, it suggests an enormous disparity between what elected officials are saying on a central issue of political identity, and what their own voters actually believe–which makes one wonder what the point of all those elections was. Third, it suggests that Israeli Arab leaders are much more interested in appearing to be a part of the Arab world than in advancing the actual interests of their constituents–which makes one wonder where their funding must be coming from. Finally, it suggests that, contrary to proper democratic functioning, there is something preventing more reasonable candidates from being fielded among the Israeli Arab community.

Perhaps what makes the anti-Israel politicians so upset is the deepest implication of it all: That an Arab growing up in Israel, as a citizen in a democratic state with rights, real elections, and economic opportunity, looks around him, and then looks at the Palestinians next door, in Gaza, in Jordan, and in Lebanon, and he knows that no matter how much he is supposed to be suffering, his life is still infinitely better there than it would have been elsewhere.

It is not genuine equality, and there is certainly much room for improvement. But it might be enough to inspire a sense of gratitude among actual Israeli Arabs. Even patriotism.


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