The Hebrew media reported last week on a Bank of Israel study showing that elementary schools in the state religious system receive the most weekly teaching hours from the state, while Arab elementary schools receive the least. Yet since official Education Ministry policy is to allocate more hours to schools that serve weaker socioeconomic population groups, Arab schools should have topped the list.
Is this yet another example of how the Jewish state discriminates against Arabs? Well, not quite – because the study found that one significant reason for the gap was supplemental teaching hours provided by national service volunteers, who are subsidized by the state.Religious schools get the most such hours because most national service volunteers are religious girls, and not only do these girls often prefer to serve in their own community, but nonreligious schools are sometimes unenthusiastic about taking them. That’s certainly grounds for secular schools to cry discrimination, since their dearth of volunteers is not their community’s fault, but the law’s: Secular girls are drafted, whereas religious girls are allowed to choose between army and national service. Were secular girls given the same choice, many might also prefer national service.
But in the Arab community, neither men nor women are drafted, so both sexes are eligible to volunteer for national service. Thus in theory, this community could be producing even more volunteers than the religious community.
Instead, it produces very few: Though the number rose from 240 in 2005 to 1,256 in 2009, that is less than 7 percent of the 19,000 Arab teens who graduate high school each year. This scarcity is not mere happenstance; it is deliberately engineered. Both the Arab community’s political leadership and many prominent Arab civil-society organizations are vehemently opposed to “serving the Zionist state,” and therefore do everything in their power to dissuade Arab teens from volunteering.
Thus when the government launched a campaign to persuade Arab teens to volunteer for national service a few years ago, not only did all the Arab political parties decry the idea, but they set up a joint task force to coordinate the battle against it. Arab newspapers editorialized against national service; youth groups campaigned against it; a popular hip-hop group even wrote a song condemning it. As MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) put it, national service “is a political effort to increase the domination of the Arab population, and to blur their identity … the purpose is to identify with the state against the Palestinian people — or to make them more Zionist and less Palestinian.”
Teens who volunteered despite this pressure often found themselves branded as “traitors.” The orchestrated opposition also caused some schools to refuse to accept national service volunteers, since that too, would be a form of cooperation with the hated Zionist state.
That attitude would obviously preclude Jewish volunteers as well, but they would be less useful in any case, due to the language barrier: Arabic is the principal language of instruction in Arab schools, and few Jewish teens speak fluent Arabic.
All of the above is not to say that discrimination doesn’t exist; it definitely does. And the Arab leadership frequently cites this as justification for their opposition to national service: Arab citizens owe the state nothing, they argue, because the state isn’t fulfilling its obligations to them.
If their goal is to end discrimination, the efficacy of this tactic was always dubious. Nothing makes a majority feel more justified in discriminating than a sense that a minority is not merely different, but actively hostile. And a minority whose leadership stridently proclaims itself devoid of any desire to either identify with or contribute to the state clearly encourages the perception that it is hostile.
But what the Bank of Israel data shows is that this tactic is not merely ineffective, but downright harmful – not just to the goal of equality, but to the Arab community’s overall quality of life. It turns out that the prime victim of the Arab leadership’s opposition to “serving the state” has been neither the state nor its Jewish majority, but the Arab community itself.
The writer is a journalist and commentator