They sound like your average religious Zionist couple in Israel: she serves in the Jewish state’s national service and he is an army combat veteran. Except they are both Muslim Arabs, and she, Bara’a Abed, is from East Jerusalem while her husband (unnamed) is from a village in the north.
Abed, 20, who now does works as a volunteer in an Israeli Interior Ministry office, is part of a fast-growing community of young Arabs who are eschewing decades of anti-normalization with the majority-Jewish Israeli government to both give back and receive from the state.
Historically, nearly all national service participants were Jewish religious-Zionist women, who wanted to serve their country but for religious reasons didn’t want to be in the army. Such women receive near-automatic exemptions from the military, though the last several years have seen a large increase in those choosing to serve in the IDF.
Six years ago, only 600 non-Jews served in Israel’s national service program, in which participants volunteer for one to two years in public institutions like schools, hospitals, courts or health clinics.
Presently, 4,500 non-Jews are doing national service, of whom 100 are from East Jerusalem. That total is three times more than those coming from the ultra-Orthodox community (1,500), most of whom are men obtained a religious exemption from the army but still wanted to serve their country. There are also 8,500 religious Zionists doing national service, mostly women.
Non-Jewish Israelis, mostly Arab, constitute around 20% of the country’s 8.6 million citizens.
Speaking to a group of journalists on Monday in Jerusalem, Abed said her husband inspired her to volunteer.
She saw the benefits he received from the country as a soldier — including money for education, healthcare and job opportunities — and decided she wanted the same for herself.
A former saleswoman in an East Jerusalem clothing shop, Abed lived alone in a boarding school away from her abusive family and said that experience also encouraged her to take control of her life.
“At first I was afraid and thought the Arab community wouldn’t accept me. Then I thought to myself, what will I get from them? The state will give me what I need,” said Abed, who for safety reasons requested her face not be shown.
Those doing national service receive exactly the same benefits as soldiers, which include: around NIS 800 ($209) monthly, free healthcare, free use of public transportation, and a NIS 11,000 ($2,880) grant at the end of their service for every year served, which can go toward education or buying a home. If they serve two years, one full year of university is also paid for.
In addition there is a special program available only to native Arabic speakers: a fully funded year-long university preparation program. During this program, participants receive NIS 1,500 to NIS 3,700 ($393-$969) a month depending on their family situation.
Abed, who is not an Israeli citizen and only has permanent residency status — like most of the half million East Jerusalem Arabs — said her symbiotic ties with the state have fostered patriotic sentiments.
“I feel loyal to this state. I see what it provides to people in the community despite all the harsh words they say about the state,” she said.
Once Abed started working at the Interior Ministry, where she helps Arabic speakers navigate processes such as renewing IDs and getting travel documents, she said, “I finally reached the stability that I was looking for.”
Serving their country in secret
Up late at night around a year ago, a 20-year-old male from the East Jerusalem refugee camp of Shuafat was surfing the internet and happened upon the website for Israel’s national service.
A., 21, who asked his name and face not appear in the article for his safety, called the office and said he wanted to volunteer. His first offer was to serve in a psychiatric ward, which he promptly refused. A. took his time waiting for a position at a courthouse to open up. Soon he got a call to come in to the Interior Ministry.
“I didn’t realize it was a job interview. I thought they were calling me in for a residency issue,” recalled A., who is also not an Israeli citizen but a permanent resident of Jerusalem.
“I feel good every day after work. This is the first time I feel appreciated and welcome,” said A., who used to work at a gas station and now works helping Arabic speakers at the Interior Ministry like Abed.
“I feel like I am working with my bigger family,” said A., recalling with a smile celebrating Jewish holidays for the first time with his workmates.
When asked if he feels loyal to the state, he smiled again: “Certainly.”
But for the Shuafat resident — just like with Abed — his service is a secret known only by his close family and best friends. Were word to get out, his life could be in danger. In April, Baha Nabata, 31, a well-regarded civil rights and youth group leader, was murdered in the camp, reportedly for “collaboration” with Israeli authorities during his quest to improve municipal services there.
Sar Shalom Gerbi, general director of Israel’s national service, said Arab volunteers outside of Jerusalem can also find themselves in “tough situations.”
Speaking at his office in Jerusalem on Monday, he listed a litany of incidents of abuse against Arab volunteers, including being called “lepers” by an Arab MK, an instance in which four students were expelled from their school by the town council leader, and one coordinator who had the windshield of her car shattered by a brick.
Only some Arab volunteers in the national service face such threats, and none so far have been life-threatening. Most have the blessing of their families, Gerbi said. However, he accused a portion of the Arab-Israeli leadership of smearing national service by conflating it with obligatory military service.
Arab volunteers, like any others, can leave national service whenever they please, Gerbi pointed out. Additionally, Arab volunteers are intentionally placed where they can help their own communities — like Arab 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.
Gerbi said it is understandable why Arabs don’t want to serve in the Israeli army, which they are not obligated to do by law.
“Now they can serve their own communities and get the benefits of a soldier,” he said.
Why numbers are rising
Gerbi said he has “no doubt” the numbers of non-Jewish volunteers in national service will continue to rise.
The success of the program, he argued, is due to the trust gained from the Arab community by not trying to force them into a melting pot, as well as to the positive results for participants. He said 85% of Arab volunteers find good jobs afterwards.
“They want to help their communities and they understand this can also be an entry card into Israeli society. It’s okay if they feel both,” he said.
From the total 4,500 non-Jewish volunteers, 70% are Muslim, while the rest are Christian, Druze and Circassians. Ninety percent are women.
Zienab Abu Swaid, the coordinator for national service in the Arabic sector, said, “Today the youth are voting with their feet. Those who oppose national service can’t stop them.”
Abu Swaid, who is from a northern Bedouin community, also asked her picture not be shown, as some hold her “in contempt” for her work.
Abu Swaid has a degree in education and first thought she would teach at a local school, but decided she wanted to make a larger impact. After seeing the “wonderful” result of national service for her own nephews, she was convinced her current position was the best way to help.
According to Abu Swaid, many Arabs do not volunteer just to receive the government freebies.
“For many people it’s not about the benefits,” she said, “but about becoming more a part of Israeli society.”