Serving Israel, At A Cost


Jerusalem — Leen Jaber is in high demand in the hematological oncological day ward at Hadassah-Ein Kerem.

“Leen, can you translate?” a Hebrew-speaking nurse asks before treating an Arabic-speaking patient.

“Leen, can you catch him?” asks a social worker, gazing down the corridor at the bald toddler rushing around on a riding toy.

When she’s not translating or catching, Jaber – who speaks fluent Hebrew as well as Arabic – goes from one family to the next, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Druze, offering them encouragement and a sympathetic ear.

Jaber, 19, is one of Israel’s growing number of non-Jewish Sherut Leumi (National Service) volunteers. Most are Arab citizens of Israel, with a small but determined group of non-Israeli Arabs from East Jerusalem.

Contrary to what many Israelis believe, Israel National Service isn’t just for religious 18-year-old girls who opt out of army service. In 2006 Sherut Leumi opened offices in the Arab sector to assist non-Jews who wish to perform National Service.

Today there are 4,500 non-Jews doing Sherut Leumi (up from 600 in 2010), including 100 from East Jerusalem who do not have Israeli citizenship. Seventy percent are Muslim, the rest being Druze, Christian or Circassian.

They join 8,500 religious Zionists (the vast majority of them women), 1,500 ultra-Orthodox men, 700 at-risk youths and 100 youths with criminal records. About 85 percent of Arab volunteers serve within their own communities, performing health care, working with children or the elderly, in social service agencies, in education.

The remaining 15 percent choose to assist Arabic-speakers in hospitals, courtrooms and police departments, among other venues in the non-Arab sector.

Volunteers can sign up for one or two years. Jaber, who comes from Abu Gosh, an Arab town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that was loyal to Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, served in the police the first year and at Hadassah the second.

In between tasks at the day ward, Jaber said she was motivated to join Sherut Leumi “first of all to serve my country. My father is a policeman and he encouraged me to apply when I graduated from high school. A lot of my friends do Sherut Leumi.”

Jaber, who like other Sherut Leumi volunteers receives about $200 per month and a free bus pass, feels she is making a difference.

“If I weren’t here families that speak only Arabic, including ones from Gaza, would find it difficult to communicate with Hebrew-speaking staffers. And it’s nice to make the kids smile.”

Some, perhaps many, of the other volunteers are motivated less by the desire to serve Israel as a country than by the desire to help their Arabic-speaking communities. Another incentive: financial grants – nearly $3,000 per year of service, enough to cover a year’s tuition at an Israeli university – once they complete their volunteer service.

Few Arab communities are as welcoming to Sherut Leumi volunteers as Abu Ghosh, and some are openly hostile, Sar Shalom Jerby, director of Sherut Leumi, acknowledged.

“An Arab Knesset member called those who join the IDF or do Sherut ‘collaborators,’ and one volunteer had his windows smashed. Some have received threats,” Jerby said.

“Unfortunately part of the Arab leadership is opposed to any service to the state,” Jerby said. “They claim Sherut volunteers assist the IDF and must wear IDF uniforms. The truth is that there’s no connection to the IDF, there are no weapons.”

Jerby said that 85 percent of Arab volunteers who complete National Service (8 to 10 percent drop out) join the workforce or attend university.

“They become an integral part of Israeli society and because of this I have no doubt the number of volunteers will continue to rise.”

Zeinab Abu Sweid, the coordinator for Sherut Leumi in the Arab sector, said that Bedouin society “has a high regard for national service.” That’s especially true of Bedouin in the north, “where coexistence with Jews is stronger” than in the south, she said.

Sweid, a Bedouin herself, said she joined Sherut Leumi because “I wanted to be part of Israeli society and have an impact. Sherut Leumi wasn’t the goal. It was the tool.”

Bara’a Abed, a 20-year-old volunteer from East Jerusalem, agrees. Removed from her home as a child due to family problems and sent to an Israeli boarding school, Abed said she’s always felt compelled “to better myself.”

But it was only after Abed married an Arab citizen of Israel serving in an IDF combat unit that she began to consider doing Sherut Leumi.

“When I saw what benefits my husband will receive from the state – funding toward education and job opportunities – I wanted those things too.”

She has spent the past year volunteering at the Ministry of the Interior’s East Jerusalem office, where she helps Arabs navigate government bureaucracy.

Abed said she didn’t make her decision to do Sherut Leumi lightly, given that the vast majority of Arabs in East Jerusalem have chosen not to accept Israeli citizenship out of fear of being labeled Israeli collaborators, and concerns that citizenship could undermine Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem.

“At first I was worried the community would mock me,” she said. “There’s a stigma attached to army service and national service. But then I thought: What will I get from these people? I know what I’ll get from the state. The state has given me the stability I’ve been yearning for. I’m loyal to the state.”

Even so, Abed asked not to be photographed for this article out of fear that her neighbors – and parents – will learn of her volunteer work.

If anything, A.H., a 21-year-old male volunteer from East Jerusalem, was even more circumspect about having his name or photograph published.

“Except for my close friends I keep my volunteering a secret from people in the neighborhood,” said A.H., who also volunteers at the Interior Ministry’s East Jerusalem office.

His neighbors, he said, are angry that they are forced to pay high city taxes while receiving services inferior to those in the western, Jewish part of the city.

Like Abed, A.H. said that when he encounters a neighbor at the ministry, he lets them think he is a paid employee – something that doesn’t carry a stigma in Arab society.

A.H., whose year of volunteerism ends next month, hopes his experience and contacts will land him a paying job.

“Never in my life have I felt so appreciated. I’m comfortable here. I’m helping people. I interact with the public. And yes, I feel loyal to the state and feel I should serve it.”

Back at Hadassah, when Leen Jaber asks parents in hijabs and Orthodox attire whether it would be OK for a journalist to include their children in a photograph – together – they smile warmly and agree.

“She’s lovely,” Eliahu Greenwald, the Orthodox Jewish father of 2-year-old Shlomo said of Jaber after she gathered Shlomo and two Arab children, both bald from chemotherapy, to her side. “She comes over all the time to see if the families are OK. The ward is lucky to have her.”