Borderline View: Rethinking our national responsibilities

Borderline View Rethink

The festival period is over and it is that time of year when many of the younger generation start new lives. Like tens of thousands of other Israeli families from all strata of life, one of my children will commence his university studies this week, following a five-year period of army service and additional voluntary social work with his committed school friends. Another child, having recently finished high school, is beginning two years of National Service, working with blind students as an auxiliary assistant. Young Israelis are required to give the best years of their lives to the service of the state before they can get on with getting a profession and earning a normal living. By the time they reach university, or simply get involved in the job market, students here are some four or five years older than their counterparts in most Western societies. They are older, more mature and in a rush to succeed and move on in life. Some of them have already experienced responsibilities and experienced dangers of which young adults and students in Europe or North America have little understanding. But the concept of national service for all has changed during the past 60 years. Although the army remains an obligatory stepping-stone in the transition from childhood to adulthood, it no longer commands the collective ethos that it did in the past. Not only have those groups who are exempt from service, such as Arabs and haredim, experienced significant demographic growth, but there has also been a substantial growth in the number of young people who are liable for service but have found ways of avoiding their national responsibility. The real numbers are not publicized for fear that the trend will increase but it is a sad fact that many are prepared to let others take on the heavy responsibilities of national service while they simply get a head start with civilian life. The ethos that the army is the people's army is only a partial truth today. While the mantra of army service for all remains part of the national ideology, the IDF simply does not need vast numbers of young people as cannon fodder in an era when it has become a highly technological and capital-intensive fighting force. But this also cannot be stated publicly for fear that it will give legitimacy to a system in which only those who want to serve and make a contribution will do so. BUT THERE is an alternative - the system of National Service (Sherut Leumi) which is mostly undertaken by girls within the religious Zionist world. Unlike their haredi counterparts, these girls understand the need to contribute to society at large, despite having been socialized into the belief that an army is not the place for a religious girl. Those who do serve, and there are many that do, have to be prepared for the pressure from their teachers, rabbis and even parents, to stand up for themselves and their own beliefs - and they are to be commended. But for those who do not go to the army, the alternative National Service has proved to be a major contributor to society. Many of the girls work in a diverse range of institutions, hospitals, old age homes, hostels for disadvantaged or orphaned children and take on a whole host of essential jobs as auxiliary workers which the State is unable to provide for. Working through a system of non-profit organizations, such as Bat Ami, Aguda Lehitnadvut, Shlomi and Aminadav, the National Service system has become transformed into a semi-official appendix for the overstretched welfare and education services. Today's National Service includes non-religious youth and has also, in recent years, expanded to take on a limited number of men who are unable to serve in the army for bona fide medical reasons. It has often been argued that this alternative form of National Service should be made obligatory for all those who are exempt from regular army service for either religious (haredi) or national (Arab) reasons. But these groups have, in turn, constantly refused to consider such an idea because they see it as a form of acquiescence to political pressure. In their constant refusal to adopt some form of national service, the leaders of these communities are not serving the best interests of their constituents. For those who are afraid to go beyond the walls of their self-imposed segregated ghettos, national service could be arranged in such a way that they could work within their own communities. Both the haredi and Arab communities are among the poorer sectors of society, and it would be to their benefit if thousands of their young adults were to spend two years in their own hospitals, welfare institutions and schools as auxiliary workers. For as long as these growing communities do not take on some of the burden, for as long as they are perceived as only taking but never giving, they will never succeed in becoming more integrated or accepted in society than they are now. There will always be residual resentment that while some of our young adults give anything from two to five years of their lives to the state, there are those who do not undertake the same commitment. Within the haredi world, it may be possible to convince people that full-time yeshiva studies (to an extent that was unheard of in the heyday of prewar Eastern Europe) is their own equivalent form of service, but this will never be understood or accepted by the majority of society. IT IS time to change the way National Service is organized. Given the changing needs of the army, the two forms of service should be on equal footing and part of a single national system. Everyone should be required to make their contribution, according to the needs of the state on the one hand, and the ability and willingness to serve on the other. Alternative National Service should be expanded to cater to men, not just women. There are many social service, welfare and educational needs which require male workers, just as there are many army jobs (including combat soldiers and fighter pilots) which are now open to women. By diversifying the definition of what national service constitutes, the state will be able to become even more inclusive, drawing in those who have not served in the past, or those who are increasingly searching for ways of avoiding military service. Not everything will be equivalent to the sacrifice and bravery of those who undertake the most dangerous and difficult jobs in the army, and this should be reflected in a differential system of student grants and mortgages given to those who do the more dangerous jobs. But equally not everyone is cut out for those jobs , and it is better to get them to give two or three years of their lives to something that they can make a real contribution, rather than to have them sitting in offices making coffee for their officers and becoming disgruntled. For as long as we expect our young adults to give of themselves to society, we need to seek ways through which as many as possible will want to be part of the collective effort. After 60 years of the people's army , it is time to rethink the way in which we do national service. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of The International Journal of Geopolitics.