National Service for all

In recent years, there’s been a growing number of young Israeli men and women trying to get out of national service.

Soldiers at Itamar settlement 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Soldiers at Itamar settlement 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
This week, my daughter will embark on a new stage in her life, that of a typical 18-year old. As my oldest child, it’s one of those milestones for our whole family which we approach as a learning experience, one for which we have supposedly been preparing. It’s a milestone I celebrate with pride at her maturity and achievement, and with a little trepidation, wondering whether I’ve done a good enough job preparing her.
Though my daughter was born in the US and looks forward to being able to vote like a typical 18-yearold, in doing what’s normal for her life now, her path will take her in an entirely different direction from her peers in the US. Most of them are on their way to college, or a gap-year program giving them some outside world experience.
My daughter will be moving out of the house where we have cared for and nurtured her, and enter a home with a young couple she doesn’t know, helping take care of children who are neither her siblings, nor her own. In essence, my daughter will become a surrogate parent to children she has not even met.
She’ll be living with troubled children from homes that cannot care for them – an interesting juxtaposition for the relationships she’s had with her siblings. Typical, but where the “problems” they allege about one another, and about which they bicker, will pale by comparison.
What’s normal for my daughter, her friends, and the vast majority of young Israeli men and women is not to graduate high school and go off to college, but to first serve their country for one to three years. Her male friends will either begin compulsory military service, or attend a post high school religious program where they’ll prepare for the military. This is something they do with pride, and unlike other segments of Israeli society, without hesitation.
Typically, young Israeli women also serve in the army, though for reasons of religious sensitivity, some go to an array of National Service programs such as that which my daughter will do.
Other friends will do their National Service in programs for children with cancer, in schools with a large portion of underprivileged kids, in community programs bridging differences between religious and secular Israelis, and working in communities on the periphery to add quality of life, just to name a few. These National Service jobs are every bit as competitive as the most elite military units, and play no less an important role in Israeli society.
It’s a special point of pride that all my daughter’s friends run to participate, and compete to get assignments that will have the most impact.
In recent years, there’s been a growing number of young Israeli men and women trying to get out of national service. There’s been a parallel effort to catch those who skip out. The saddest part is that these people don’t have anything close to the sense of pride for, or responsibility to, their country as my daughter and her friends have.
Another trend is the increasing number of people joining special military units and National Service assignments from sectors of society that have been largely exempt: ultra Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs. Quietly, and for a multitude of reasons, members of these large minority communities have slowly been choosing to participate.
These trends are not without their detractors, and some of the most strident objections come from the Arab members of Israel’s parliament. The irony is that though there’s no greater affirmation of Israeli democracy and equality than having Arab members of parliament, the loudest voices protesting Arab participation in National Service come from Arab parliamentarians.
At her graduation ceremony, one of my daughter’s teachers spoke movingly about the 30 young women who were about to enter a new relationship with their country, and that Israel will be better off for it. This is certain, and our pride overflows.
While my daughter is about to become a role model for at-risk youth who need a helping hand, for too many Israeli Arabs their role models teach them not to serve, not to volunteer, not to work to make their communities and country a better place, not to offer a helping hand, but to expect a handout.
Rather than teaching a sense of responsibility, they are looking for all the rights of citizenship with none of the reciprocal commitment. That they expect all the benefits of a democracy which provides their leaders the parliamentary platform to separate from their country rather than build it, is a great loss.
I have no doubt that my daughter and her friends will rise to the new challenges and opportunities that await them. I am proud that she embraces a sense of responsibility to her country.
If nothing else, at least as her father, I can take credit for helping do one thing right.
The writer immigrated to Israel in 2004. He blogs on