More Arab Israelis join national service, discovering state benefits, patriotism

Bara’a Abed, a 20-year-old from East Jerusalem. She is part of a growing trend of Arabs joining Israel's national service. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

THE TIMES OF ISRAEL — August 15, 2016 — They sound like your average religious Zionist couple in Israel: she serves in the Jewish state’s national service and he is an army combat veteran. Except they are both Muslim Arabs, and she, Bara’a Abed, is from East Jerusalem while her husband (unnamed) is from a village in the north.

Abed, 20, who now does works as a volunteer in an Israeli Interior Ministry office, is part of a fast-growing community of young Arabs who are eschewing decades of anti-normalization with the majority-Jewish Israeli government to both give back and receive from the state.

Historically, nearly all national service participants were Jewish religious-Zionist women, who wanted to serve their country but for religious reasons didn’t want to be in the army. Such women receive near-automatic exemptions from the military, though the last several years have seen a large increase in those choosing to serve in the IDF.

Six years ago, only 600 non-Jews served in Israel’s national service program, in which participants volunteer for one to two years in public institutions like schools, hospitals, courts or health clinics.

Presently, 4,500 non-Jews are doing national service, of whom 100 are from East Jerusalem. That total is three times more than those coming from the ultra-Orthodox community (1,500), most of whom are men obtained a religious exemption from the army but still wanted to serve their country. There are also 8,500 religious Zionists doing national service, mostly women.

Non-Jewish Israelis, mostly Arab, constitute around 20% of the country’s 8.6 million citizens.

Speaking to a group of journalists on Monday in Jerusalem, Abed said her husband inspired her to volunteer.

She saw the benefits he received from the country as a soldier — including money for education, healthcare and job opportunities — and decided she wanted the same for herself.

A former saleswoman in an East Jerusalem clothing shop, Abed lived alone in a boarding school away from her abusive family and said that experience also encouraged her to take control of her life.

“At first I was afraid and thought the Arab community wouldn’t accept me. Then I thought to myself, what will I get from them? The state will give me what I need,” said Abed, who for safety reasons requested her face not be shown.

Those doing national service receive exactly the same benefits as soldiers, which include: around NIS 800 ($209) monthly, free healthcare, free use of public transportation, and a NIS 11,000 ($2,880) grant at the end of their service for every year served, which can go toward education or buying a home. If they serve two years, one full year of university is also paid for.

In addition there is a special program available only to native Arabic speakers: a fully funded year-long university preparation program. During this program, participants receive NIS 1,500 to NIS 3,700 ($393-$969) a month depending on their family situation.

Abed, who is not an Israeli citizen and only has permanent residency status — like most of the half million East Jerusalem Arabs — said her symbiotic ties with the state have fostered patriotic sentiments.

“I feel loyal to this state. I see what it provides to people in the community despite all the harsh words they say about the state,” she said.

Once Abed started working at the Interior Ministry, where she helps Arabic speakers navigate processes such as renewing IDs and getting travel documents, she said, “I finally reached the stability that I was looking for.”

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