Frictions, suspicions, and hostile incidents involving Arab-Jewish relations are all too common in Israel. Betar Jerusalem soccer fans are notorious for their racist opposition to any Arab or Muslim connection to their team as expressed not only by racist chants and demonstrations at Betar games, but by assaults on Arab workers and even an effort to burn down the club’s headquarters to protest hiring of Muslim players. Assaults by young Jews on Arabs (and by Arabs upon Jews) are also common, particularly in Jerusalem. Last week, several Haredi youths cursed and threw rocks at two teachers (one Jewish and one Arab) who had together come to Jerusalem on a condolence call to a colleague. An Arab woman was assaulted at a light-rail station. And Jewish youths in Tel Aviv assaulted an Arab municipal worker, requiring the worker’s hospitalization.
Given such background tensions and hostility, it is a delight to notice any development pointing toward reconciliation of Arabs and Jews within Israeli society. An article in the February 25 supplement to the newspaper Yediot Achronot highlights one such phenomenon – a considerable increase in Arab volunteers performing national service. The number of such Arab volunteers has grown from 100 in 2003 and 240 in 2005 to 2700 as of February 2013. That number is projected to increase to 3500 in 2014.
These national service volunteers work in a wide variety of settings. They serve as aides in health care institutions, schools, and public safety settings such as firefighting, first aid, and police stations. In short, these volunteers help provide critical services to the elderly, to children, and to the general public. Some volunteer placements are in the Arab sector, but most are not.
The impetus to join national service varies. Beyond the satisfaction from assisting people, some volunteers perceive their experience as a means of integration into the broader society – a way to lower social hurdles and shatter prejudicial stereotypes. Others see the service as an appropriate gesture of return for benefits that Israeli society provides to the general population such as national health insurance and a social security system.
The picture of Arab participation in national service is not all sweetness and light. Arab political leadership tends to vigorously oppose such service. Within the local Arab population, some voices deride and condemn the volunteers. An Arab woman who worked as a recruiter of national service volunteers was subjected to demonstrations at her home labeling her a traitor; the harassment from Arab sources eventually impelled her resignation. Yet she takes pride in the 340 people she successfully recruited and continues to support the program. (Yediot, 3/11/13). And the young Arab volunteers quoted in the Yediot article of February 25 contend that Arab sector perceptions of national service are changing. They report support and understanding about their national service choice from both family and peers.
National service is not a panacea for the frictions and tensions among Arabs and Jews in Israel. But the willingness of increasing numbers of Arab youth to seek a route to integration into the broader society and to simultaneously promote the general welfare is at least a positive ray of light.