Every so often the suggestion is raised that Palestinian citizens of Israel, like Jewish citizens, should do some form of national service. Since Israel effectively bars them from military service, and since most of them have no desire anyway to fight in an army that oppresses Palestinians, the proposed alternative is some sort of non-military national service. The claim has been heard recently because of the work of the Plessner Committee, which is recommending military and national service for the ultra-othodox.
A state that defines itself as a state of the Jews, and only of the Jews, and then foundationally discriminates in a myriad of ways against its non-Jewish citizens, cannot morally demand equality of obligations. The answer is to transform the State of Israel into a state of all its citizens, with equal rights and obligations for all. With 5 1/2 million Jews, and with Israel’s history, it would still very much be a state in which Hebrew and Jewish culture would be dominant in the public sphere, a state that would look like an ethnic democracy rather than an ethnocracy. And in that case, we could have the philosophical and practical argument about whether national service is a good idea.
Some of my liberal Zionist friends will demur, and it’s for them that I write this post. Some, like Peter Beinart, will claim that while Israel is a flawed democracy, it is a democracy nonetheless. They will say that it is indeed unfortunate that there has been a systematic, inegalitarian distribution of resources that favor Jews at the expense of Arabs. But Israel has, at least, in principle, the resources that can make the system more egalitarian. Who knows? Were the Palestinian Israelis to accept some sort of national service, perhaps that would make it easier for them to be accepted within the society, and then they could make the case for a more equitable distribution.
Akiva Eldar, a man whom I respect immensely, agrees with me that under the present circumstances, Palestinian Israelis should not be required to participate in national service. But he also argues today in Haaretz that Palestinian Israelis have more political power than they they think. Instead of staying home in droves whenever there are national elections (only a bit over 50% vote), they could promise to vote for a center-left coalition if some of their political demands are met. After all, and here I return to Beinart, during the years of the second Rabin government, because of coalition arrangments, there were significant steps taken to bridge the gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens. It is, theoretically, possible — if only the Palestinian Israelis would vote.
Sadly, Eldar’s stance is typical liberal Israeli self-delusion. Discrimination against Palestinian Israelis is not just institutional, it is foundational. They are 20% of the population, yet they have virtually no political power. Why not? Because it’s a Jewish state.