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For Israeli Arab teens, a way to serve the country – without joining the army

A civil service program gives Israel's Arab high school graduates – who are exempt from the military draft faced by Jewish 18-year-olds – the opportunity to contribute to their state.

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Israeli Arabs youth ride a bicycle in the Arab-Jewish Israeli town of Ramle, in this Aug. 12 file photo.

Ariel Schalit/AP Photo

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Six years ago, Rabah Rizik quit his banking career to help reverse decades of public neglect toward Israel's 20 percent Arab minority.

His new job? Helping to implement a pioneering civil service program akin to AmeriCorps in the United States. The initiative gave Arab high school graduates – who are exempt from the draft faced by Jewish 18-year-olds – the opportunity to contribute to their state, just as most of their Jewish counterparts do through military service.

"It's win-win-win," says Mr. Rizik, the founder and director of the Arab-run Association for Civic Equality, the biggest subcontractor for the state-run program. "Our goal is that participants will be connected to the state. We are loyal citizens."

In return for one to two years of community work, Arabs get the same benefits as noncombat conscripts, including college stipends or business assistance. The goal is to help integrate Israeli Arabs, who have become increasingly disillusioned about achieving equality in a state that defines itself as both Jewish and democratic.

But in some respects, the state program has been lose-lose: Dozens of Arab opponents demonstrated outside Rizik's home in April, calling him a traitor and an Israeli collaborator. And this year, he couldn't get enough funding for new volunteer spots, undermining the program's credibility among hundreds of prospective participants who were turned away.

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