Fact: There are 200 Christian Arab Israelis serving in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Fact: There are 200 Muslim Arab Israelis serving in the IDF. Fact: There are 1,400 Bedouin serving in the IDF. Fact: There are 4,000 Druze serving in the IDF. Fact: There are 100 Circassians serving in the IDF.
Why don’t journalists write about them? Perhaps because most might find it hard to believe that these 5,900 view their citizenship to mean they have a role to play in defending their country. How do these minority members of the IDF come to the decision to serve their country?
A recent meeting with parents of minority soldiers in the IDF presented some context. The visit was organized by MediaCentral, an independent Jerusalem-based nongovernmental organization that provides support services for journalists based in or visiting Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the region.
Anett Haskia is an attractive, fashionably dressed blond with long, manicured fingernails. She is an Israeli Muslim Arab and outspoken. Growing up, she said, “It was not acceptable for our kids to join the army. Everyone [who wanted to join the army was] considered to be a traitor, but I didn’t see it as [being] a traitor. I saw it as taking responsibility like every other citizen.”
Twenty-two years ago, after a divorce, she and her three children moved to a kibbutz and she went to enrol them in a Jewish school, the first time that school had been approached to enrol an Arab child. He was accepted in three days.
As her children grew up, her older son decided to volunteer to serve in the IDF infantry; her daughter volunteered to serve in an education unit and became one of the first Arab Israeli women to serve in the IDF. Haskia’s youngest son is part of the Golani Brigade (an infantry brigade) currently serving in Gaza.
“The aim was not to integrate into Israeli society,” she said. “They [already] are Israeli. They want to live in the present and future as Israelis. They never suffered from being Arab and they never hid their heritage.” Haskia said she didn’t tell them to join the IDF, rather, it was a choice the children made as individuals.
Speaking to reporters, Yusuf Jahja said proudly, “I am a Muslim Arab citizen of the state of Israel.” A blue-collar worker most of his life, Jahja comes from an Arab village up north and has six sons and two daughters. His was the first family from his village to send their children to the Israeli army.
Three of the sons went to serve in the IDF together – two served in combat units and one in border patrol. In 2004, one of the sons was killed in an explosion in Gaza. The family’s home community initially boycotted the funeral. Today, two of Jahja’s sons are still serving their country.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads weekly Shuk Walks in English in Jerusalem’s Jewish food market.