The case against a mandatory draft

Let's create alternative national service options for those who want to engage in social justice.

IDF Gaza 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
IDF Gaza 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In the six years I served as a soldier and combat officer in the Israeli army, beginning in 1996, I learned to cherish the role of the IDF in Israeli society. In a land of immigrants, mandatory military service functions as the ultimate melting pot. Young men and women from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds work together in an intense and prolonged manner, building lasting friendships with people they might never have socialized with before. I experienced that diversity during my basic training days, when an Ashkenazi secular kibbutznik, a Russian soldier who could barely speak Hebrew, a dark-skinned young man from Holon, and I, an American new immigrant, marched proudly behind our Moroccan religious-Zionist commander and became brothers. Nevertheless we need to reexamine mandatory military service and consider possible alternatives. That is because the army is not for everyone. Many soldiers do not reach their full potential in the roles they are given, while many others are simply not suited to serve in such a demanding and confining environment. Of course there are tasks that must be performed regardless of how unsatisfying they may be. And many soldiers do learn to cope and even enjoy their service over time. When I served as an officer, soldiers came to me at the beginning of basic training asking to be let out of combat duty; later, at the end of a rewarding service, these same soldiers thanked me for denying their requests. Still, anyone who has served in the IDF knows that there is plenty of waste, and many people could be put to better use. Indeed, not every teenager needs to be mobilized for defense purposes. Israel must stop neglecting other priorities like education and social justice, however pressing our defense needs are. Over the years a strong social ethos formed around army service. Those who avoided the draft were stigmatized, while combat soldiers were held in the highest esteem. Contemporary Israel can potentially create a similar ethos around alternative national service, especially at a time when the major internal threats against Israeli society are shifting from suicide bombings to educational and social issues. We must continue to value combat soldiers and their contribution, but we must also begin, on a collective level, to acknowledge and support those who choose to engage in social justice and educational projects as their form of contribution. AN ALTERNATIVE national service needs to become a viable option, not only for religious Zionist young women, but for both religious and secular men and women. A secular young woman I know, who did not want to serve in the army, had to pretend to be observant in order to be eligible for national service. She had such a meaningful service that she decided to volunteer for an additional year. Her father, initially disappointed by her choice as it broke from the norm, is now proud of her accomplishments. We need to enable each individual to fulfill his or her potential and not allow old paradigms to lock us into counterproductive policies. An additional crucial benefit to expanding national service would be drawing Israeli Arabs and Ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli ethos by recruiting them for alternative modes of national service. Serving Israel in some capacity, even if they chose to volunteer in their own communities, could help connect these alienated populations to the Israeli collective. National service, itself a recognition of the Jewish state's sovereignty, would at once ingrain in them a sense of belonging and improve their standing among fellow Israelis who tend to look down upon their failure to serve. Finally, Diaspora Jews would be invited to participate in this revamped alternative national service alongside Israelis. Hundreds of young Diaspora Jews take part in volunteer programs in Israel every year. Allowing them to serve side-by-side with Israelis would strengthen their connection to Israel and to Israelis, and deepen the connection of young Israelis to the Diaspora. Israelis would come to view Diaspora Jews not just as sources of funding, but as genuine partners who can contribute inside and outside of Israel in the name of the Jewish people. Diaspora Jews should feel not just welcomed as tourists but should be encouraged to participate in the Zionist project directly and to feel a sense of ownership over its development. Creating a significant alternative national service, open to Israelis as well as to Diaspora Jews, could help narrow some of the cultural and ideological divides that currently separate these communities. Israel already has the structure of mandatory national service in place. Now we need to find the courage to reassess our priorities and encourage contributions to Israeli society beyond the current framework. Serving the country should be mandatory for all Israeli citizens, but the form of service should be voluntary. The writer moved to Israel from Los Angeles in his teens and served in the IDF's infantry as a company commander. He is currently a Legacy Heritage Fellow, working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.