Among the justifications (or excuses) offered by Netanyahu and Mofaz for the creation of Israel’s new national unity government is that they will soon try to institute mandatory national service for all Israeli citizens. Intended to replace the much-maligned Tal Law, which allowed ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to avoid military service and was declared unconstitutional by Israel’s Supreme Court, the promised law will ensure that all Israelis share the national burden, as Netanyahu put it.
In other words, the law will apply not only to the ultra-Orthodox—whose "draft-dodging" has long been a cause of resentment and bitterness for secular Israeli Jews—but also to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are currently exempt from any kind of national service (military and civilian). Requiring Haredim to do national service is justified, but, demanding that Palestinian Israelis do is not.
On the face of it, the demand that all Israeli citizens should equally share the national burden seems absolutely legitimate. Why should some Israelis have to spend years of their life, especially the precious years of their youth, serving the state, while others do not? Why should ultra-Orthodox or Palestinian youth in Israel be treated any differently?
But this apparently reasonable argument ignores the glaring inequality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, an equality that has been well-documented and even acknowledged by the Israeli state itself (in the 2003 report of the Orr Commission of Inquiry into the events of October 2000 when thirteen Palestinian citizens were killed by the Israeli police). Unlike the ultra-Orthodox who, being Jewish, have full equality in Israel and have, in fact, received preferential treatment by the state for decades, Palestinian citizens of Israel have long been neglected and discriminated against by the state.
This discrimination is both de jure in terms of the state’s immigration and citizenship laws and de facto in terms of the allocation of state funds and land. Arab municipalities, for example, consistently receive less government money than Jewish ones, including Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Thus, although they have benefited from rising living standards and enjoy more democratic freedoms than most Arabs elsewhere, Palestinian citizens of Israel still have to contend with persistent poverty, high unemployment, inadequate educational resources, land confiscations, home demolitions, and laws that effectively restrict their political and cultural activities (such as the recent Nakba Law and the ban on political parties that oppose Israel’s definition as a Jewish and democratic state).
As long as they are effectively second-class citizens, a requirement for Palestinian Israelis to do national service cannot be justified (even if this doesn’t involve serving in the IDF). Only once they are treated as fully equal citizens, can Palestinians in Israel be required to perform national service.
If Israel’s leaders are serious about equally distributing the burdens of citizenship, then they should first ensure that the benefits of Israeli citizenship are distributed equally. This means not only ending all discrimination, official and unofficial, against Palestinian citizens, but also leveling the playing field for them by instituting a major program of affirmative action. Palestinian citizens of Israel should also be recognized as a national minority. Once they are recognized, respected, and treated fairly, Palestinian Israelis will be much more willing to undertake national service, and it will be more legitimate to demand this of them.
Against this argument, many Jews in Israel and the Diaspora reply that only by performing national service will Arabs be entitled to full equality. This view essentially claims that: “Israeli Arabs don’t deserve equality because they don’t do national service.” But what about those Arabs who serve in the IDF, specifically, the Druze who are conscripted and the Bedouin who volunteer? They generally fare little better in Israel than Arabs who don’t serve in the army. Although the Druze have enjoyed some benefits due to their military service, they still do not receive the same treatment by the state as Israeli Jews do. Like Palestinians in Israel, they continue to suffer from inequalities in municipal budgets, education, and employment.
Although it is wrong to impose national service on Palestinian citizens of Israel, at least until they are equal in status with their Jewish counterparts, they should still be strongly encouraged to volunteer for national service.
For the last five years, some young Palestinian citizens of Israel have in fact chosen to participate in a national service scheme run by the Prime Minister’s Office—the vast majority of them are Arab girls who provide various educational and welfare services in their own communities. Since the scheme began in 2007, the number of Arab volunteers has continued to grow, increasing from 1,050 in 2008-2009 to 2,399 in 2010-2011, although this remains just a small fraction of the 19,000 Arabs who graduate from Israeli high schools each year.
Many more Arab youth would be willing to perform national service—a recent survey conducted by researchers at the University of Haifa found that already 40% of Arab youth aged 18-22 were willing to volunteer—were it not for the vocal and sustained opposition to it coming from the leadership of the Palestinian community in Israel. Arab politicians, civil society activists, and religious leaders overwhelmingly oppose Arab participation in national service, even when it’s voluntary. Animating this opposition is their fear that it might eventually pave the way to military conscription, which could lead to Palestinian Israelis fighting against their Palestinian cousins in the Occupied Territories. They also fear that national service encourages the “Israelization” of Arab youth at the expense of their Palestinian Arab identity.
Such fears are misplaced. Volunteering for national service will not necessarily weaken the Palestinian identity of Arab youth, especially since volunteers can choose to serve in Arab towns and villages (as three-quarters of volunteers currently do). Nor is there any likelihood of forcing Arabs to serve in the IDF since this is neither necessary nor desirable from the IDF’s point of view given the security risks it could entail.
The Palestinian leadership in Israel should change its attitude towards national service since it provides Arab youth with training, skills and benefits that improve their career prospects. National service volunteers receive a monthly stipend and at the end of their service they are eligible for tax breaks and grants (similar to the grants given to non-combatant IDF soldiers when they are discharged). Further, by participating in national service Palestinian Israelis will strengthen their claim to equal citizenship. Just as African Americans strengthened their campaign for civil rights by their service in the U.S. army during World War II, the long-running Palestinian demand for equality in Israel will be harder to resist if Israeli Jews see Palestinians as contributing to the state.
National service should not be thought of as a test of the loyalty of Palestinian citizens of Israel, or as a way to deprive them of rights and benefits if they do not serve the state. As long as they are not being treated fairly by the state, it should not be imposed upon them. But it should still be encouraged and supported.