Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Addressing Israel's Arab-integration problem

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When Israel's largest opposition party, Kadima, joined the ruling coalition, a great deal of attention went to the impending non-renewal of the "Tal Law" -- the law exempting Israel's Haredi (ultra-orthodox) communities from compulsory national service. Another side of the deal between Kadima and the government did not receive quite as much attention: in addition to Haredim, the proposed replacement for the Tal Law also requires that Israel's Arab citizens participate in the national service program. This involves numerous options, including charity work within their own communities.

Israeli Arabs make-up around 20% of the Israeli population and Haredim make-up 10%. While the two communities may seem completely different on the surface, in many ways they are very similar. In addition to not serving in the army, Large segments of both communities tend to reject the Israeli state, at least in theory. Both traditionally tended to have large families and be less educated than Israelis at large (though both these realities have been changing rapidly in recent years among Israelis Arabs, and to a lesser extent, Haredim). Both have huge issues with welfare dependency and unemployment, as well as higher than average rates of poverty. Most importantly, as a result of all these factors and more, both have had difficulty integrating into Israeli society.

David Green has an interesting piece in Tablet containing interviews with a number of Arab-Israeli leaders and several Jewish Israelis who work towards reconciliation with and the integration of Israel's Arab citizens. 

Green makes a number of important points. For example, he notes that, while most Arab-Israeli leaders are adamantly opposed to their people integrating into Israeli society, the Israeli Arab populace tends to be far more amenable to the idea:

Last month, Prof. Sammy Smooha, of the University of Haifa, who has been checking the pulse of the Arab population with regular public-opinion surveys since 1980, presented the results of a new survey on the topic at a recent conference at the university. He found that 39.7 percent of Arab Israelis ages 18-22 would themselves be willing to volunteer for national service and that 62.2 percent of the Arab population in general supports the idea, a drop from 68 percent in 2009 and 78 percent two years before that.

Smooha, who is himself Jewish, has long argued that, as he put it recently in an interview with me, "the Arab public is more pragmatic than its leadership. The leadership is ideological, just as the Jewish leadership is, whereas the public just wants to live." In early May, Smooha brought out another study, his latest "Index of Arab-Jewish Relations," in which he found, he says, that "more than half of the Arab public is ready to reconcile itself to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, whereas the leadership won't."

Many 18-year-old Arabs here are indeed voting for national service-with their feet. The existing program began in 2005, and the first year it attracted 240 18-year-olds to volunteer for civilian service, mostly in schools and also in hospitals. Three years later, the number was up to 1,050, and by 2011, 2,399 young people chose to volunteer for national service. They did this in spite of the fact that organized Arab society in Israel was broadcasting a clear message that they should not participate in this government-administered program.

The Israeli Arab leaders have used some extremely vitriolic language to refer to civilian national service, labelling any Arabs who volunteer as "traitors" or "lepers". The same people, however, have been very critical of the alleged discrimination in the Israeli establishment -- in particular, the under-representation of Arab Israelis in the civil service.

Discrimination against Arabs in employment is a problem that Israeli society faces, however national service is a significant component. While there are many factors contributing to the under-employment of Arabs national service in general -- and military service in particular -- is often seen as an important advantage in Israeli society due to the skills, experience and networks that it develops.

Unfortunately, more "conventional" discrimination is also also a problem affecting Israeli Arabs. As reported by the Jerusalem Post's Jonathan Rosen, in order to combat this, the Prime Minister's office has just launched a large-scale anti-discrimination campaign:

The Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druse and Circassian Sectors in the Prime Minister's Office launched a large-scale ad campaign on Sunday geared to encourage companies to hire Arab university graduates.

The campaign, which urges prospective employers not to discriminate against non-Jewish applicants for jobs, was designed in response to data showing generally lower levels of employment among Arab university graduates relative to their Jewish counterparts, and a number of glaring disparities in certain fields, such as high-tech jobs.

Israeli-Arab integration presents many difficult challenges to the Israeli leadership. That said, these initiatives seem like encouraging steps in the right direction. The Israeli-Arabs have, for a long time, been betrayed by a leadership that seems to be intent on keeping their people impoverished and separate from Israeli society in order to prove some kind of ideological point. Hopefully, with the help of both national or military service and greater efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination, common sense will eventually overcome this demagoguery.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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