David Ben Gurion envisioned the Israel Defense Forces as a “people’s army,” a standing military comprised of the citizens of the nation it protects. This was the beginning of an interdependency between the military and Israeli society – without the citizen-soldier there is no army, and without the army there is no people. The recent decision, if enacted, of the IDF to fund university and professional studies for combat veterans is a clear tribute to Ben Gurion’s vision. This news represents a source of hope and pride for all Israelis.
During my military service, I had the privilege to serve with many quality and motivated young men and women who came from failing secondary school systems, often in the neglected communities of the periphery. Young combat enlistees who barely dodged a lifelong criminal lifestyle just before their enlistment, found refuge in the army and opportunity to go on to become some of the best commanders. Soldiers who may not have completed twelve years of education as a result of financial constraints at home or having not understood the importance of education towards shaping their future, were offered the opportunity to complete their Bagruyot exams. These young combat soldiers were encouraged to take control of their destiny and could truly explore their passions through real professional experience. The countless success stories I witnessed represent such a beautiful and humane side of the army. I suppose that the real battle for many of these soldiers is after their release from the military. After having gained this inspiration during their military service, these released soldiers are once again confined to the realities of their neglected communities. This recent policy decision changes that reality; it sets the precedent that regardless of one’s background, the army wants individuals to continue to better themselves through learning after their service.
Following my military service, after experiencing and seeing the enormous positive impact of the army on young peoples’ lives, I passionately volunteered as a pre-army coach for high school students in South Tel Aviv. The goal of this amazing program was for former combat commanders to prepare these mature young people for a purposeful service in the IDF, often to guide them to physical and mental readiness for a combat service. Many of these participants came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and could not understand why it was in their interest to enlist to a combat unit, let alone to the army at all. I often found it very hard, if not impossible, to explain to these incredible high school students why it is worthwhile to serve three years in a stressful and dangerous environment as opposed to holding a professional job, thus helping their families financially. This proposed plan offers an additional practical motivation to join the military in that a high school student who believes that higher education will be an impossible goal to attain due to financial constraints, now sees that a meaningful service in the IDF can open the door to pursue an academic future.
The importance of academics to the Jewish people was emphasized by Elie Wiesel when he stated that he does not “recall a Jewish home without a book on the table.” Indeed, our people have achieved such an immense amount for the betterment of humanity largely because of the societal importance of learning. It is no wonder that Israelis have excelled in making “the desert bloom” – transforming an unforgiving land into a world capital of Hi-Tech, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and research. Education is the greatest gift society can give to a young person as it is a lifelong tool to better self and the world. This decision will make higher education in Israel more accessible, creating a society of more educated and thoughtful individuals. In a nation that must invest so much, both financially and emotionally, into conflict, this policy reinforces that education is still a top priority. A program that begins with recognizing the sacrifices of released combat veterans may have the catalyst effect of enhancing public discussion that could result in revolutionizing access to higher education for all in Israel.
This new policy does not come without concerns. I strongly oppose any attempt by the army to use this initiative as an incentive to compel young Israelis to enlist into combat roles. Serving in a combat unit is a very personal decision and is not suitable for all. To use this policy to manipulate a child into a combat unit would be morally wrong. The implementation of the GI Bill in the United States had positive results in that it made higher education much more accessible. At the same time, it was also used as a means to attract young men and women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to serve in the military since it was their only way to afford university studies. The mandatory military service for most Israelis, accompanied with the stated desire of the IDF Chief of Staff to make higher education free for all IDF soldiers (not just combat fighters) in the future, leave me feeling much more confident in this program’s expected outcomes. Since the IDF’s combat units are home to most Israelis across all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, I do not foresee the IDF transforming into a defense force in which the service burden is entailed only upon the poor and minorities. After all, the army’s strength is in its ability to combine the nation’s defensive needs with a social body that unites society. Young men and women in Israel continue to demonstrate their commitment to the defense of their nation by serving in the army. With the IDF Chief of Staff’s recent decision, the military has reaffirmed its commitment to the society that serves it.