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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.

By Correspondent / December 4, 2010

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

Ariel Schalit/AP Photo


Shfaram, Israel

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

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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.

"It's as if the opponents from both communities are helping one another," he says.

Status of Arab citizens 'most sensitive' issue in Israel

The public has focused more on Israeli Arabs since they engaged in widespread rioting in parallel to the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada 10 years ago. In a 2003 report on clashes with police that left 12 Israeli Arabs and one Israeli Jew dead, an independent state commission called the status of Arab citizens "the most sensitive and important issue on the domestic Israeli agenda."

Israeli Arabs' higher birthrates and frustration with government policies that they see as discriminatory are testing Israel's aspiration to be both Jewish and democratic. But despite their status as central to both Israel's internal politics and its relations with the broader Arab world, relations have deteriorated in the past decade.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's ultranationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu became the third largest in parliament last year, and has pushed laws questioning the loyalty of Arabs. Arab leaders, meanwhile, are arguing that Israel seeks to perpetuate the ethnic superiority of Jews by severing ties between its Arab minority and Palestinians.

"The situation is as explosive as it was 10 years ago and perhaps even more," says Elie Rekhess, a recognized authority on Israel's Arabs.

Modeled on program for Orthodox women