All four of my children have undertaken their obligatory national service. Some of them spent a great deal more than the minimum three (men) or two (women) years in the service of their country, combining military service with additional years of social voluntary projects. By the time they started studying in their mid-twenties, they were at an age where most people elsewhere in the world have obtained their degrees and are in the job market – including many in Israel who, for a variety of reasons, do not fulfill their obligations to the state.
They are no different from tens of thousands of young adults in Israel who do the same. It is one of the prices we pay for living in this challenging society. But equally it has matured them as young adults and made them acutely aware of the diverse social, welfare and political context within which we live. And like hundreds of thousands of others, they see their future as intricately tied up with the future of the State of Israel and do not have any intentions or desire to relocate elsewhere, beyond periods of tourism or study.
Like so many other parents of these amazing kids – young adults – I would like them to move ahead with their lives. I would like them to finish their studies, become qualified and get into the job market. I would like them to get a foot into the over-priced housing market, and I would like them to settle down and start the next chapter in their lives as tax paying and responsible adults.
I should therefore support the law which is being forced through the Knesset and which is aimed at providing these young adults with financial and housing benefits as a reward for the years they have devoted to the state, while so many others have not fulfilled the same duties.
These others have not served for a variety of reasons – either because they are orthodox and believe that a life spent studying in yeshiva is more important and contributes more to the security of the state than do three years in the army, or because they are part of the 20% Arab-Palestinian minority of the country’s population who are not called up for military service, or because they are part of an increasing number of “regular” Israeli citizens who simply do not serve in the army for a variety of personal reasons – and whom the state has decided to give up on. The so-called “army of the people” has long since ceased to exist, with little over 60% of the eligible population actually undertaking army or alternative national service.
But I oppose the law because it is, in its very essence, discriminatory. It is particularly discriminatory with regard to the Arab citizens of the state who, unlike the yeshiva students or those who opt out of national service, are not required and not desired by the army. With the exception of the Druse and small groups of Beduin, the country’s Arab population are not trusted by the state authorities, and there is no way that the government would ever issue a compulsory conscription edict for those whom they perceived to constitute a “fifth column” and as not to be trusted.
Israel finds itself in the midst of a PR war throughout the world, aimed at showing that we live in a democracy, where everyone is equal, and where no one suffers discrimination based on his/her ethnic or religious background.
Passing a law which would automatically discriminate between distinct groups who are not even offered the same opportunities to begin with, however worthy we may believe one group is over the other, will only serve to blacken Israel’s image even more.
That does not mean, however, that all of Israel’s citizens should not be expected to contribute to the common good. There is absolutely no logical reason why those groups who, for whatever reasons, do not undertake regular military service should not contribute the same two to three years of their life in an alternative form of national service, similar to that which is undertaken by girls from the national religious population.
There is absolutely no reason why both men and women should not undertake service within hospitals, schools and welfare organizations, and make a significant contribution to strengthening the support systems which are so lacking within and among the country’s weaker populations and development towns. And if there are cultural issues which are problematic, a system can be developed whereby people undertake their national service within their own communities – even if this is only second- best to actually going out and becoming part of society at large.
Certainly, as a first stage, it would be a step forward and would provide an auxiliary workforce which could greatly improve conditions for so many others who are disadvantaged within society as a whole.
In the past such national service was perceived as constituting the “poor” partner of full military service and was limited to a specific groups within society, specifically girls from the religious Zionist world and a few men who were rejected by the army for health reasons but insisted on undertaking some form of national service.
But given the changed social and demographic characteristics of Israel, this should now be put on an equal footing with military service, organized nationally by the government and structured in such a way that participants would be required to put in the same working hours and effort, even if it is in civilian clothes and beyond the rigid discipline of an army framework.
For good and for ill, Israel is no longer the Israel of the 1950s and 1960s. The focus on military service as the only way in which to serve a country which had just been established and whose future was still not assured, is no longer the same. The army has moved from being an organization based on manpower to one which is increasingly sophisticated and hi-tech.
It doesn’t even need all the potential recruits it already has, and it doesn’t always have appropriate jobs or tasks for them. The army is not looking to recruit tens of thousands of haredim, who will impose more stringent religious standards on the army, or tens of thousands of Arab citizens who will always be held in suspicion. And since the army now gives up on recruiting all of the rest who do not even fall into these two groups, it can no longer use the argument that military service is the common obligation for all citizens.
But some form of national service definitely is. This can be undertaken without sacrificing cultural or religious beliefs and behavior. It can be undertaken within the communities for those who are afraid of venturing outside. And it can result in a significant improvement in in the quality of life for all of the country’s citizens as they benefit from auxiliary help and support which is presently lacking.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.