JERUSALEM (Reuters) - They may inhabit parallel universes, but most ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and Israeli Arabs share the same instinctive aversion to the idea they should be forced into military service.
A court decision earlier this year to annul a draft law has forced the government to review rules surrounding military and civilian conscription of young men, with growing calls for all members of Israel’s disparate society to share the burden.
The inward-looking ultra-Orthodox community has long been mobilized to forestall efforts to curtail bible study for their young men and draw them into the military.
Muslim and Christian Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the Israeli population and complain of cradle-to-grave discrimination, are only now being sucked into the debate.
“There is no reason why young Jews, Muslims or Christians should not be recruited at age 18,” Israel’s ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said on Monday, adding he would present a bill for a universal national service next week.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, obliged by the Supreme Court to devise a new law by August 1, hopes to put the Arab issue on hold as he tries to defuse the ultra-Orthodox timebomb, and can expect a furious response if he challenges the status quo.
“Arabs will resist any attempt to draft them or to implement plans that are not agreed first with our communities,” Hanna Swaid, an Arab Christian member of the Israeli parliament (Knesset), told Reuters.
“We have already raised the prospect of civil disobedience.”
Military service is a rite of passage for most Israelis, who view the army as a core element of national identity. That is where the problem starts for many Arabs, who associate more closely with the Palestinians and feel alienated in a country created in 1948 that defines itself as a Jewish state.
“They keep on talking about a Jewish state and then they want the Arabs to serve this Jewish state? This is impossible,” said Swaid, a member of the Democratic Front for Change party.
Military service in Israel is onerous. Men are expected to serve three years and women two, with reserve duties continuing thereafter until the age of 40, or 45 for officers.
Supporters of the draft say this is not only vital for national security but also key to successful integration into Israeli society thereafter, with employment prospects and plum jobs often closely tied to one’s military networking.
Arabs are exempt from compulsory military service but a handful of Arabs do volunteer and say many more would do so if their leaders were not so fiercely opposed.
“I am a proud Arab, Muslim Israeli. I call on Israeli Arabs to leave your ghetto ... stop being a silent voice, a discriminated-against and bitter people,” said Annette Haskiyah, a 43-year-old divorced mother of three, addressing a large, pro-draft rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night.
Two of her children have already enlisted and the third is set to do so. “Give, and you well get. Belong, and you will receive the respect you deserve,” she later told Channel Two television station.
The government estimates that just over half of Arab families live under the poverty line, but Arab leaders dismiss the idea that the army will lead to well-being, pointing to the experience of the Israeli Druze, who are part of the draft.
The Druze are ethnic Arabs, who emerged 1,000 years ago as a sect of Islam with a distinct identity. Sprinkled across the Middle East, their elders in Israel agreed to conscription for their men in 1956, hoping it would improve their lot in life.
More than 50 years later, and despite often illustrious careers, a growing number of Druze openly question the benefits.
Amal Asa’ad retired from the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in 2000 as a brigadier general - the second-highest rank achieved by a non-Jewish officer. Tall, with a neat moustache and impeccably dressed, Asa’ad says the Druze suffer neglect by comparison with the Jews, despite sharing security duties.
“In the IDF, the Druze feel exactly the same as the Jews. You get the same rights, you feel part of a team. But that ends when you leave the army. You return to your village and it is like getting a slap in the face,” he said. “It kills you.”
Asa’ad complains that whereas Israel has authorized countless gleaming new towns to welcome in hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants since the founding of the state in 1948, they have failed to build a single new village for the Druze.
“There is respect for the Druze, but it ends there,” he said, speaking in the Druze village Isfiya, in northern Israel.
While the IDF has embraced the Druze, perhaps seeing them as ethnically distinct from other Arabs, there is much skepticism that it would want to absorb large numbers of non-Druze Arabs, given that all its wars have been against various Arab armies.
“I am sure many of the Jews think it is better not to have us in the army because they don’t trust us,” said Nadim Nashaf, who heads Baladna, a group devoted to helping Arab youths.
“And we don’t want to fight their wars against our fellow Arabs,” he added, speaking by telephone from Haifa.
He also opposes calls for a mandatory civilian service for those who do not go to the army, saying the money for such a scheme should be spent on education and better infrastructure for Israel’s notoriously ramshackle Arab towns.
At present just 2,400 Arab youths - 90 percent of them women - are signed up to the volunteer national service, which involves poorly paid work for one or two years in a variety of places, such as hospitals and schools.
The parliamentarian Swaid said Arabs would reject any attempt to impose an obligatory civilian service, but might be prepared to discuss proposals under certain conditions.
“We cannot accept a situation where an Arab youth serves in a Jewish institution. We would want any voluntary work to be carried out within our own constituencies,” he said.
As the government plots a way forward, the big question is whether it has the resources to pay for this and how much it wants to disrupt relations with its recalcitrant Arab citizens.
“On the surface things are quiet right now, but underneath you can see there are problems,” said Nashaf, whose Baladna group plans an anti-draft rally in Nazareth later this month.
“Adding compulsory service to the mix would bring nothing positive to the relationship,” he predicted.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams; editing by Ralph Boulton