Disabled Israelis must also serve equally in IDF

Former diplomat was automatically exempt from military service because of blindness, and not offered the option to volunteer.

IDF disabled veteran race 311 (photo credit: IDF)
IDF disabled veteran race 311
(photo credit: IDF)
At a September 2 ceremony honoring the invaluable role played by reservist units in the IDF, President Shimon Peres called upon all citizens to assume their share of the responsibility for the country’s defense. “All of us,” he said, “have an obligation to take part in building the nation, and all of us have an obligation to take part in defending it.”
How I wish President Peres really meant what he said! The one group that is always excluded from this “all must serve” mantra is Israelis with disabilities.
The IDF considers people with disabilities automatically eligible for exemption from mandatory service, even if they are found to be kshirim, or fit for duty. By absolving the disabled of the obligation to share in the country’s defense, the IDF reinforces their marginalization as well as the notion that people with disabilities are necessarily helpless, non-contributing burdens on society, who deserve our compassion and kid-glove treatment rather than be compelled to serve.
I reject the IDF’s dogmatic equation of disability with inability. The London 2012 Paralympic Games now daily on our television screens should convince us beyond any reasonable doubt that people with disabilities are every bit as capable of performing non-combat duties in the military as any non-disabled recruit. Inbal Pezaro, who has so far won two paralympic medals (an achievement far surpassing that of any of our Olympic athletes), was herself reportedly exempted from mandatory military service. What could possibly have been the rationale for such a decision? The IDF does offer to people with disabilities, who are found to be kshirim and who, to their credit, insist on serving, as did Inbal Pezaro, the option of voluntary enlistment, and assigns them to meaningful jobs, even sensitive jobs requiring the handling of classified information. However, voluntary enlistment, too, is far from satisfactory. It is a patronizing alternative which implicitly labels recruits with disabilities as different, second class, and only there thanks to the IDF’s charitable impulses. Given the dangers facing Israel, military service should not be a matter of personal preference for anyone, disabled or non-disabled.
I urge the Defense Ministry to revise its policy with respect to people with disabilities so as to include the following procedure:
a) mandatory call-up of people with disabilities at induction centers accessible to them,
b) assessment of the full range of capabilities of each disabled candidate, including the willingness to make the accommodations necessary to maximize the candidate’s performance, and
c) mandatory assignment of every person with a disability found to be kashir to a suitable non-combat military unit.
The criteria for judging the soundness of any public policy regarding people with disabilities should surely be the extent to which it dispels the stigma attached to disability, promotes equality of opportunity for the disabled, advances their full integration into the labor market and wider society, and encourages people with disabilities themselves not only to claim their equal rights but also to share equally in the responsibilities of citizenship. Compulsory military service will go a long way toward achieving all those goals.
I myself was automatically exempted from military service because of my blindness, and was not even offered the option to volunteer. As a result, I was excluded from what is a vital experience for every young Israeli, and a fundamental component of Israeli culture. Let us stop harming the future prospects of young Israelis with disabilities in this way, and cease turning them into outsiders in their own land.
The author is a blind person. A former diplomat, he retired from the US Foreign Service in 2007 and now resides in Tel Aviv.