"Anyone who volunteers for national service will be treated like a leper and will be vomited out of Arab society." These were the words of Jamal Zahalka at a rally in 2008. He's a lawmaker with Balad, an Israeli Arab political party. His harsh words were intended to stop young Israeli Arabs from volunteering in Israel's National Service program. But they are not working.(h/t Silke)
Israeli Arabs do not have to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Today, only about 300 Muslim and Christian Arabs (Muslim Arabs make up three-fourths of the Israeli-Arab sector) serve in a special unit of the IDF. But now they have the option of participating in National Service instead, along with Jewish Israelis who cannot go to the army for religious or medical reasons when facing mandatory conscription at age 18.
Despite the pressures in their communities and from Balad not to participate in National Service, gradually more young Israeli Arabs are going against the grain; this year, about 1,500 Israeli Arabs are enrolled in the program.
An alternative to the military
National Service became an option for Israelis as an alternative to the usual three years in the IDF for men and two years for women. Many different non-profit organizations coordinate the placements, typically in education and health facilities. About 90 percent of the volunteers are women. They serve for either one or two years, receiving a monthly stipend of about $200, and are rewarded afterward with benefits commensurate with time put in. Money earned can be used toward a new business, or higher education after their service.
Israeli Arabs have been joining National Service since an initiative of the Israeli government in 2007 to open Israeli national civic service to all populations. Now, as Israeli-Arab Muslims, Christians and Druze look to serve alongside their Jewish counterparts, they not only gain the concept of "giving back" to society, but also are entitled to the same attractive benefits - which also include better terms on a mortgage, good deals on eyeglasses and social benefits.
A success story
One of Israel's first-ever Arab volunteers is Nasra Hmod. Today she is a confident mother of three living in Ramle, not far from Tel Aviv. In 1994, when she graduated high school, she ran out of options. "I was looking for a framework to work within and couldn't find it. For Arabs, it's hard to find work and I didn't find the place where I wanted to study," she says.
Hmod heard about National Service and inquired at Shlomit, an NGO that helps coordinate placements. "I really wanted to volunteer for the Magen David Adom [the Israeli Red Cross] but didn't succeed. Then I heard about National Service, and contacted Chaya at Shlomit and told her I was an Arab." Almost right away, Shlomit had arranged a placement for Hmod in the emergency department of Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot, where today she works as a receptionist - basically the same work she is did as a volunteer, but now she has more responsibilities.
Hmod is a big fan of National Service and encourages other young Arabs to join. "I lied," she says, when asked how her community accepted her decision to volunteer. It was only after her year of volunteering was over that she told her family she had been involved in National Service. They wouldn't have accepted it otherwise, she says. To cover up for her lack of money, she'd told her family that she was in school.
When she met Jews on the job, they would always tell her "kol hakavod", a Hebrew expression of admiration, which literally means "all the honor goes to you." Hmod encourages young Arabs to do national service, even though it delays their plans to study, travel or make some quick money.
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