Arab Israeli leaders have for the first time backed a plan that would see Arab youth volunteering for post-high school community programs — a period when the majority of Jewish and Druze Israelis do their compulsory military service.

However, the program, which would see Arab municipalities organizing the volunteering, would be separate from the existing national service program that is favored by religiously observant Jewish women and other groups who traditionally shy away from military service.

Arab Israelis, who constitute around 20% of the country’s 8.6 million citizens, have been exempted from military service since the Jewish state’s founding.

For longstanding political reasons, they have also resisted letting Arab youths join the national service program, which sees young people who are exempted from the draft for various reasons volunteer for a year or two in community schools, hospitals, public-service programs and charities.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population has also shunned the national service program, winning for their youth a special deferment as long as they study in religious seminaries for several years after turning 18.

Ayman Odeh. (Courtesy Odeh’s office via JTA)

Ayman Odeh. (Courtesy Odeh’s office via JTA)

Last Thursday, the head of the Arab Joint List faction, MK Ayman Odeh, along with fellow Joint List lawmakers Masud Ganaim and Jamal Zahalka, backed a plan developed by two coexistence NGOs that would see Arab towns establish their own local volunteering programs for local army-age youth.

The program is a joint initiative of the Abraham Fund, an Israeli non-profit working on Arab-Jewish coexistence issues, and the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation (JEEC-NISPED), and was presented during a roundtable discussion in Kfar Qassem.

The program has already seen a pilot launched a year ago, and now boasts 160 participants in six Arab towns, including Bedouin communities where some members serve as soldiers in the IDF: Rahat, Hura, Segev Shalom, Qalanswa, Kfar Qassem and Eloud.

Funding has come from the Jerusalem-based charity of the Rothschild family, Yad Hanadiv.

As with the official national service program, the volunteers in the new initiative are given a monthly stipend, as well as one day off a week to study for college entrance exams, attend Hebrew language classes, or other educational commitments.

The Abraham Fund is planning to appeal to the Welfare Ministry to take on the funding of the program once it grows to ten towns, the group says.

Co-CEO Dr. Thabet Abu Rass told The Times of Israel last week that in practice, the participants do the same jobs as their counterparts in the regular national service program funded by the ministry.

Thabet Abu Ras, Co-Executive Director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives photo credit: courtesy/The Abraham Fund

Thabet Abu Ras, Co-Executive Director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives photo credit: courtesy/The Abraham Fund

He explained that Arab Israelis don’t want to be part of the national service program because of its historic connections to the Ministry of Defense.

“They don’t want to ‘serve’; they want to volunteer. Service has a security connotation,” he said.

Abu Rass sees volunteerism in the Arab community as a catalyst for greater equality between Arabs and Jews.

The new initiative comes as government agencies are working to make the existing national service program more appealing to the Arab community, and showing some success in the effort.

In 2007, the government established a civilian agency outside the military to run the national service program, with the specific intention of detaching it from the “military framework” and “giving both Arabs and religious Jews [who have resisted military service] the opportunity to contribute more to the community.”

Six years ago, only 600 non-Jews took part in the state’s national service program; there are now 4,500, about 100 of them Palestinians from East Jerusalem. At the same time, the number of ultra-Orthodox participants has risen to 1,500, mostly men who obtained a religious exemption from the army but still wanted to do some form of public service. There are also 8,500 volunteers from the nationalist-religious community, most of them women.

Bara’a Abed, a 20-year-old from East Jerusalem. She is part of a growing trend of Arabs joining Israel's national service. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

Bara’a Abed, a 20-year-old from East Jerusalem. She is part of a growing trend of Arabs joining Israel’s national service. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

From the total 4,500 non-Jewish volunteers, 70% are Muslim, while the rest are Christian, Druze and Circassians. Ninety percent are women.

According to Sar Shalom Gerbi, general director of Israel’s national service agency, Arab volunteers are intentionally placed where they can help their own communities — like Arabic-language schools or hospitals with many Arabic speakers — and are able to live at home. Jewish volunteers can be placed in positions around the country that oblige them to live away from home.

Even so, the Arab community’s political leadership continues to oppose the national service program in principle, saying it remains a politicized entity under the control of the current right-wing government.

During the roundtable on Thursday, MK Odeh insisted that “volunteering is a value, but we are against the politicization of community volunteering. To connect rights with obligations” – the demand by some far-right politicians that Arabs must serve as Jews do in order to continue to enjoy equal rights – “this is politicization. To connect civil volunteering with the Defense Ministry, this is politicization…. Any alternative project in this context is welcome.”

MK Ganaim echoed Odeh. “Volunteering is a value,” he said, “and we are for volunteering, but the budget should be given to local authorities to develop plans in accordance with the needs of the community.”

Zahalka, of the Palestinian nationalist Balad party within the larger Joint List alliance, said the concern was one of Arab identity.

“We do not want our young people to lose their identity and that is our responsibility as the political leadership. We are in favor of volunteering and it is an important message for young Arab boys and girls living here today. But this volunteerism is of course to promote good causes and civic solidarity, and it must exist out of a sense of civic responsibility and community, not as a result of coercion on the part of the establishment.”