The issue of national service for Israel's Arabs has recently turned into a hot topic in the political arena. As expected, all Israeli Arab organizations presented a unified front on the subject: Leftists and rightists, seculars and religious eagerly competed with one another over who would come up with the most ardent slogans against the notion of national service, while childishly and dangerously inciting against those who volunteer to serve.
Some even equated civil service with military service, which many claim distorts national identity, and others vehemently slammed youth who volunteered for civil service.
I perceive civil service not as part of the duties, but as part of the rights we have been struggling to obtain for 60 years. There is, of course, no justification for the government's policy against the Arab minority in Israel. There is no justification for the national discrimination and racism, and the inequality regarding land development.
But do these reasons warrant a policy of self-punishment? A policy of separatism and isolationism?
The Arab parties' stance regarding national service reflects a political discourse, prevalent in the Arab sector, that is disconnected from reality. The only reason for this blind opposition emanates from a crisis of leadership; a partisan, organizational and ideological crisis; and the political groups' detachment from Arab society's true problems.
More and more choose to serve
A poll conducted by Prof. Sammy Smooha and Dr. Nahed Ali from Haifa University recently revealed that 75% of the Arab population support civil service in some form. Ignoring Prof. Smooha's Arab colleague, the opponents to civil service automatically labeled the survey as "Jewish" and confused, saying it failed to accurately reflect reality.
Another piece of data serves as further indication that the willingness to serve in the sector is stronger than the objection of the public's representatives: The number of Arab volunteers for national service has doubled in the last year, reaching 560 (another source cites about 900), compared to 280 last year.
Most of the Arab volunteers serve in Arab schools, hospitals and homes for the aged.
In the meantime, only 270 people attended a conference against national service in Haifa. Some were paid party activists; others have already passed the service age.
Despite claims by those who oppose it, civil service in no way resembles military service. It is a service founded on volunteering, not duty. For years I have been involved in civil service activities in some of the schools and hospitals in Nazareth, and I have never found volunteering to be a sign of weakness or national treason, or alternately – an activity that involves conceding one's national identity.
Some of the young volunteers come from communist or nationalistic homes, and their volunteer work at a school or a hospital can in no way be described as serving the interest of the "occupation army" or Israeli military operations. Every society needs volunteer services in its social, health, educational and municipal institutions.
Step out of the bubble
It would be good for the Arab leadership to thoroughly look into the national service program, in order to understand its scope and help turn it into a leverage that can serve our society. Irrational objection would only widen the rift between the public and those who are considered its leaders.
Unfortunately, any proposal by the government, even when it contains positive elements – for instance, the decision to instate affirmative action in the state service – prompts an attack by the Arab parties, and not an effort to make sure those decisions are indeed implemented.
What role should we, as Palestinian Arabs and citizens of the State of Israel, play in order to best serve our interests and prove that we are an integral part of the political reality in the country? Will this policy of isolationism eventually serve us and our needs? Will it strengthen the national struggle we have initiated for the right of our Palestinian nation to establish a sovereign state alongside Israel?
Civil service is a cultural tool for changing the individual, a tool that teaches us to give and support the underprivileged. In other words: A tool to deepen the social bond within Arab society, experiment in social and education work, a means to develop personal and collective consciousness to the various problems of society, especially to the ills of violence and drugs. The term of service heightens the sensitivity for social problems and provides the volunteers with a general awareness and a broad worldview, generates motivation and empowers the volunteers themselves.
Nabil Oudeh, an author and journalist, is a member of the Civil Service Administration's advising committee