Following approval by the Israeli government of the recommendation submitted by the Plesnar Committee, and the committee’s subsequent disbanding, the struggle surrounding what has come to be known as “universal service” has entered a new phase. Based on Plesnar’s recommendations, it would appear that the prevailing trend is towards a tightening of the conditions surrounding military service for ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews and the imposition of penalties for draft-dodgers; and to implement and impose “national service” on Palestinian-Arab youth in Israel.
Far from being linked to election concerns, which influence political stances strongly in Israel on particularly thorny issues, or from any party’s acquisition of political power, the real reason behind the Israeli desire to recruit Haredi Jews into the military is demographic. According to all statistics, the number of Haredi Jews is increasing constantly; army recruitment levels, meanwhile, are expected to decrease to less than half the current rate within the next few years and to less than a quarter in the medium term. As such, this issue is considered by the political, military and economic elite to pose a significant danger to the future of the state. Thus, after years of being allowed to live in social, economic and cultural isolation, there are feverish attempts to integrate Haredi Jews into both the military and the labour market. Even if Netanyahu were to come to a compromise with the Haredim, it would not constitute their comprehensive recruitment, and the issue will float to the surface again when the demographic balance within Israeli society changes again.
In line with Israeli Supreme Court resolutions, and parallel to the debate on the drafting of Haredi Jews, all political parties in Israel have returned to the question of imposing compulsory national service on Arab citizens. The debate revolves around the slogan of ‘universal service’ and ‘equal share of the burden’. According to this logic, when the issue relates to the imposition of ‘service to the state’, Arab citizens are regarded as a portion of the whole, but when discussions turn to civil and legal rights and interests, they most certainly do not form part of this whole.
Israeli claims about the issue of national service, regardless of whether they come from the political right or left, assume that the relationship between an Arab citizen and the state, and vice versa, is normal. This ‘natural’ relationship is, however, tainted with certain defects such as ‘a little discrimination’ here and there, ‘manifestations of racism’ and ‘inequality in certain areas’.
It is on this basis that the astonished and censorious reaction in Israeli public opinion to Arab refusal to undertake civil service is predicated; it is as though no one comprehends such reluctance; and even if they do, they question why Arab citizens oppose service to their country, school, or the hospital where they receive treatment. More than this, there are those who would like to convince us that ‘service’ is the way to equality and to obtaining our rights, and question why Arabs refuse to play ball.
Unfortunately some, particularly Arab leaders, fall into the trap of ‘the natural relationship and its defects’ and say that in order to achieve equality, or even just to progress towards equality, is sufficient reason to accept ‘service’. Others say that it is our responsibility to find alternatives that keep us pure of the evils of service, while allowing us to keep the ‘good’ from it. Both of these suggestions, whether their advocates realise it or not, fall into the trap and open the window to civil service, at which point there is no value to closing the door on it and announcing our community’s rejection.
We are not citizens with either a natural or normal relationship with the state, and the state itself knows that it does not represent this sizeable segment of its own citizens. What is most important in this is that we are part of a people who have been displaced from their homeland, and the state has undertaken to destroy our homes therein. Our historic memory and our current reality do not allow us to normalise relations with the state of Israel. Civil service, in its comprehensive and strategic meaning, is part of the process of destroying that memory; severing ourselves from our history; denying our identity and denying our humanity.
It is clear that the state is exploiting ‘service’ to distort our national identity and expropriate our civil rights. Israeli national service begins with the expropriation of civil rights presenting it as a quasi-commercial agreement: “undertake service and we will return to you the rights we have stolen from you.”
Until this malicious plan fails, we must commit ourselves to two things. Firstly, the absolute refusal of the proposal: military service must be rejected, and its alternative must also be rejected; civil service is rejected and its alternative is also rejected. Second, there must be a unified stance in which there is no room for hesitation or dithering.
While debate is legitimate and criticism is necessary, we must remember that we, Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority, do not control the nature or terms of the debate. We must also understand that our community faces an imminent danger. As such, we should not divide our ranks from within; to do so, would be to open the way to national service for a nation which does not recognise our rights.
Although some of us would like to propose alternatives to military service, this is an error. They should back down from that stand while the sword of damocles is at our necks. We cannot and should not make decisions of such a magnitude while under such pressure. The difficult discourse can take place when the national service proposal has been withdrawn. Until then, we need to stay united.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.