According to a report released this week, a fast-growing community of young Israeli Arabs are defying decades of anti-normalisation by signing up increasingly to serve in Israel’s national service programme. Six years ago, only 600 non-Jews served in Israel’s national service program, in which participants volunteer for one to two years in schools, hospitals, courts or health clinics. Presently, 4,500 non-Jews are doing national service, including 100 from East Jerusalem – a 650% increase in the last year years.
Israelis from the Arab and Ultra-Orthodox sectors of Israeli society are exempt from compulsory military or civil service. When President Reuven Rivlin met a group of volunteers earlier this month, he was surprised to hear that Arab enrolment outstrips the number of registered Ultra-Orthodox by three to one.
From the total 4,500 non-Jewish volunteers, 70% are Muslim, while the rest are Christian, Druze and Circassians. Ninety percent are women.
Those who sign up for national service receive the same benefits as IDF soldiers, which include: around NIS 800 (£160.31) monthly, free healthcare, free use of public transport and a 11,000 (£2,209) grant at the end of their service, which can go towards education or buying a home.
In addition, native Arabic speakers receive a fully funded university course designed to prepare them for service that lasts a year; while studying they will receive between £301.45 and £743.26 a month depending on their family situation.
Sar Shalom Gerbi, director of Israel’s national service, noted that 85% of Arab volunteers find good jobs afterwards. He said: “They want to help their communities and they understand this can also be an entry card into Israeli society”.
Mr Gerbi 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.
Mr 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 to assimilate, as well as to the positive results for participants. He said 85% of Arab volunteers find good jobs afterwards. He said: “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”.