Israel’s discriminatory civil service program challenged

Israeli police officers confiscate a Palestinian flag during a protest at Hebrew University, May 2008. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)


Only a few months away from her high school graduation, 17-year-old May Jabareen will soon be preparing applications for university. Soft-spoken yet confident, the Palestinian teenager from Haifa told The Electronic Intifada she hopes to study law and media at Tel Aviv University next year. This big transition may be more difficult for Jabareen, however, as she doesn’t plan to participate in the Israeli civic service program before applying to university.

Criticism has mounted in recent months around the Israeli civic service program, a volunteering program aimed at individuals otherwise exempt from military service, which individuals say conditions their inalienable rights, such as equal access to education and the job market.

But as one of many Palestinian youth holding Israeli citizenship who reject the Israeli government’s push to join its civic service program, Jabareen says she isn’t afraid of missing out on educational opportunities because of her stance on the issue.

“I’m not afraid not to get the privileges,” Jabareen said. “Now there are some things that we don’t get. It’s the same. Arabs who do [the civic service program] don’t get anything more than I get. They can’t take away from me my rights if I don’t do it.”

The Israeli civic service program is a volunteerism program that young men and women who are exempted from Israel’s compulsory army service can participate in. Supervised by the National Service Administration, a national body which operates under the control of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, more than 1,500 individuals from various minority communities within Israel did the civic service this past year.

Most volunteers assist staff in schools, hospitals and other public institutions throughout the country. But some can also serve in security institutions such as the Israeli police forces.

According to Nadim Nashif, the Director of the Baladna Center for Arab Youth, an empowerment and capacity-building organization in Haifa, a wide variety of issues have caused the Palestinian community within Israel to question the merits of the program. These include the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel and their leaders weren’t consulted during the state’s creation, how it makes an unfair link between rights and duties, and its clear and widespread connections to the Israeli military establishment.

“As much as it’s being marketed as something that is civic, it is actually very much related to the army personalities, to the army institutions. It is linked because every person who [finishes the civic service program] gets a status of a released soldier and a released soldier’s certificate. It is coming from the security establishment with a very much militarized vision,” Nashif explained.

Nashif added that participants in the program will also be automatically placed into Israeli military positions during a time of war or crisis, as needed domestically.

But this isn’t the only connection the civic service program has with Israel’s military establishment, however.

The Israeli Minister of Defense was also involved in appointing a Commission for the Foundation of a Civic and National Service, known as the Ivri Commission, in 2003. The Israeli Prime Minister created the Administration of National and Civic Service (ANCS) to oversee the program in 2007, based on the Commission’s findings.

Former Israeli Knesset member Ami Ayalon was the minister in charge of the program before he lost his re-election bid in 2009. Ayalon previously worked as the head of the Israeli secret service agency, the Shin Bet, and as the commander-in-chief of the Israeli navy.

In addition, the former head of the ANCS, Dr. Reuven Gal, has a long history of
employment within Israel’s security and military establishment, serving as Deputy National Security Advisor for Domestic Policy in the Israeli National Security Council and as a leading psychologist in both the Israeli army and navy.

Israeli Education Ministry re-ignites debate

A recent Israeli Education Ministry decision to give priority to Palestinian teachers having done their national civic service highlighted the debate around the merits of the civic service program as a whole in late 2010.

The Education Ministry announced it would give thirty extra points to Palestinian teaching candidates during the job application process if they have volunteered in the national service program. All candidates applying for jobs in Israel get evaluated based on a number of criteria, including academic results, past job experience and completion of army or civic service. The thirty extra points would therefore be a significant boost for applicants.

The move sparked strong feelings and condemnations from Israeli teachers, politicians and Palestinian groups throughout Israel. As a result of the negative outcry, the ministry said it would reconsider the proposal.

“Granting preferences to those individuals seeking employment as teachers, based on the performance of national service, aims to strengthen support for a particular political vision at the expense of education and this is legally unacceptable,” stated Sawsan Zaher, an attorney with Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, in a December 2010 press release (“The High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel Demands …”).

Adalah sent a letter to the Israeli Education Minister on behalf of the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel and its sub-group, the Committee against National Service. It argued that the ministry should overturn its plans since there is no connection between someone’s performance as a teacher and their participation in the civic service program.

“[Zaher] further argued that the preference violates the Equal Employment Opportunities Law (1988), which prohibits discrimination against applicants based on their national belonging or political opinions,” the press release added.

The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz quoted Knesset member and Hadash political party chairman Mohammad Barakeh describing the move as reflecting “a policy that attempts to force national service on young Arabs” and “tame [them], as well as damage the freedom of speech and thought of the overwhelming majority of the Arab public” (“Education Ministry rethinks plan to give priority to Arabs who did national service,” 12 February 2010).

The same Haaretz article quoted MK Haneen Zoabi, who survived the Israeli attack on the Turkish humanitarian aid ship Mavi Marmara last summer, who stated that “The ministry is turning itself into an arm of the Shin Bet security service in its attempt to control Arab citizens’ thoughts and identity.”

Palestinian youth largely critical of program

In summer 2009, the Baladna Association for Arab Youth and the Jaffa Center for Research surveyed more than 500 Palestinian citizens of Israel between the ages of 17 and 20 about their opinions on the Israeli civic service program (“Survey Results: Palestinian Arab Youth Opinion on Civic and Military Service” [Word doc]).

The survey found that 53.8 percent of respondents highly disagreed with the
statement that “Arab citizens of Israel should support and participate in the civic service program,” while only 17.2 percent “highly agreed” with it.

A further 48.4 percent said that their “national identity as a Palestinian Arab” was the main factor why they were against the civic service program, while 26.8 percent said that their belief that “civic service is the foundation of recruiting Arab youth to later join military service” was why they didn’t support the program.

Indeed, May Jabareen said she thinks that by participating in the civic service program, Palestinian youth come dangerously close to the Israeli military establishment, and some may even turn their backs on their community.

“A lot of the people that participate go in the end to join the army or start forgetting about them being Arabs and Palestinians, and they want to be more Israeli. We really need to remember who we are and where we come from. Participating in that program really takes them away from the whole Palestinian-Arab [community],” she told The Electronic Intifada.

She added that there are ways for her to help the Palestinian community other than by participating in the program.

“I don’t need them to give me money or tell me they will pay for college to make me do something good for my community. There are a lot of places I can volunteer in. I don’t need the country or the government to come tell me to do something good. If I want to do something good, I do it for free because I want to,” Jabareen said.

Baladna Director Nadim Nashif explained that granting basic human rights to individuals — and access to specific sectors of the job market — based on whether or not they have served in the Israeli army, or the civic service, is another reason many Palestinian youth and leaders reject the program.

“For us, rights are something that are natural: your human rights, your citizen rights, any basic rights are your rights. This is not something to condition by whether you did the service or not,” he told The Electronic Intifada.

He added that examples exist today in Israeli society to disprove the idea that serving the Israeli state through programs such as the civic service will automatically grant individuals from minority groups rights and privileges.

“In the case of the Druze, they are serving in the army but they are not getting their rights. You can see this in infrastructure, in education, et cetera. They are discriminated against like the rest of the Arabs. In the case of the Haredim, the ultra-orthodox Jews, they are not serving in the army but they are getting their rights,” Nashif said.

“This means basically, your rights and to be a first-class citizen, it’s only about your religion or your ethnicity,” Nashif added. “It’s not about whether you served or not. At the end of the day, the whole system here is built to serve the Jewish people as the state defines itself as a Jewish state. In the case that you’re not a Jewish person, then you will get less rights and you will be discriminated against.”

Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in occupied East Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jilldamours.wordpress.com.