Volunteerism and National Service


Volunteerism and National Service

On the whole Arab citizens do not serve in the Israeli army.  Though they can volunteer, they are officially exempt from mandatory service (with the exception of Druze and Circassian men). While this exemption evades complex identity, security and political issues associated with Arab citizen military service, it also results in exacerbated inequalities since service in the IDF comes with a host of financial benefits, not to mention cultural cachet and a social and professional network.

The alternative system available to Arab youngsters is National-Civic Service. This alternative was initially established in the 1950s for national-religious girls, but has been gradually expanded to include any groups not serving in the IDF. Anyone completing national-civic service is entitled to benefits equivalent to military service. Currently, more than 16,000 volunteers participate in national-civic service, of which around 3,000 are Arabs. 

Growing demand among Arab youngsters runs parallel to growing controversy about this type of service. While the number of Arab national-civic service volunteers rose from 240 in 2004-2005 to 1,050 in 2008-2009 and to 2,399 in 2011-2012, Arab public objections to national-civil service rose as well. On the one hand, national-civic service provides incentives and opportunities for Arab youngsters after high school. Currently, a high percentage of Arab youngsters between the ages of 18 and 22 neither works nor studies, with far-reaching social and economic implications for Arab society and the country as a whole. National-civic service is seen by many as a meaningful solution to these ‘lost years.’ On the other hand, national-civic service raises concerns for Arab citizens related to "Israelization" and the loss of identity, the lack meaningful service placements, social pressure, political and power struggles, and the fact that the conditionality of benefits upon service is often interpreted as needing to “give in order to receive full equality.”

Within Arab civil society, a number of significant models have been developed to create frameworks for service that are more acceptable to Arab society. These models emphasize volunteerism over national service, a concept that has a strong, if historically informal, cultural basis in Arab society that can be applied in a way that is less politically problematic for Arab youth. Many of these programs aim to work in partnership with the government so that effective frameworks for volunteering can be adopted and taken to scale. 

There are also civil society and philanthropic efforts beyond Arab society that are working to enhance national-civic service on the whole. These efforts aim to increase the number of funded service slots available, ensure that service placements are meaningful and beneficial for both the community and volunteer, and advance models that are effective for Arab society. 

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