Is Plesner Answering the Wrong Question?

There’s an old brain teaser. You’re driving on a stormy night and you pass a bus stop where you see the doctor who once saved your life, an old man who looks like he’ll die if he doesn’t get straight to a hospital, and the woman who you somehow strongly suspect is the love of your life. You only have one extra seat in your car. Whom do you take?

The Plesner committee made me think about that brain teaser. Because getting to the best answer is easier if you start with the best question.

As far as I can tell the Plesner committee is trying to answer the question of how do we compel the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs to serve three years in the army or national service.

But is that the right question?

Back to the brain teaser. Getting to the correct answer requires rejecting the question. Because “whom should you take?” is too narrow a question. The right question is broader, “what do you do?” The answer to that is you give the doctor the keys, ask him to drive the old man, and then you sit at the bus stop with the woman. But you can’t get to that answer without first questioning the “whom do you take?” question.

Are we sure “how do we draft everybody?” is the right question? Have we started with the broader question and rejected all the other alternatives?

There is a small subset of the population carrying an unfair share of Israel’s military (and economic) burden. How do we remove the unfair burden?

Some would state the problem as “how do we get ultra-Orthodox, Arabs, and others who don’t serve to carry their fair share of the burden?” But I always worry when I hear talk of fairness. It usually means that I want you to suffer as much as I think I do. Our thoughts regarding fairness should generally be in the sense of “I don’t want to be compelled to do more than my fair share,” not “I want you to be compelled to do what I’m being compelled to do.”

Our focus needs to be on reducing the burden some people are being compelled to carry. Universal draft is one potential solution, but perhaps not the best one.

Let’s start with the universal draft of women. I fully agree that women must have the full right to serve in the army and to attain all its benefits. But must they be compelled to serve in the army?

Surely we don’t have to compel women just to keep things fair. Women carry more than their fair share of society’s burdens. Would it be so horrible if we exempted them from compulsive army or national service? We could still allow those that want to serve to do so, but why must we compel them?

Yes, the army would lose some cheap labor. Sorry. There’s little question in my mind that the economy (and society) would be far better off if we let young women choose college or work or anything else instead of compulsory military service. They would likely enter the workforce earlier and better prepared, some would likely start families earlier, and the economic effect almost certainly be a net positive, even if the army lost its free labor. [Note: the labor may be almost free from the army’s budgetary perspective. It’s quite the opposite of free from any other perspective.]

I think as a society we’re too fixated on equality, and not concerned enough about individual liberty and growth. Compelling women to serve is an example of this. I suspect it would be better for everybody if we stopped.

Compulsory military service for Arabs certainly has some issues. Compelling them to do national service instead is an interesting idea. But whom does this serve? We’re coercing their young men and women into a service that they would not voluntarily perform, and to complete the Orwellian picture we call it ‘volunteering.’ And we use taxpayer money to fund these systems of coerced labor. Are we sure that forcing young men and women into social service for a few years is the best for society? I’m not. Their society doesn’t seem to want it. So why are we going to force Arab youngsters to sacrifice a few years of their lives in the name of fairness?

The issues involving the ultra-Orthodox are not much easier.

Have we given enough consideration to going the other way? Is it possible to cancel or greatly reduce everybody’s compulsory service?

I don’t have the inside information regarding army requirements. But I do wonder, have the army requirements changed at all in the last few decades? Technology has changed. Military strategies have changed. Geo-political issues have changed. Immigration rates have gone up and down. Everything has changed except the fact that the army needs each male citizen to serve exactly three years.The three year requirement is clearly not an absolute military need.

Israel set up a compulsory draft system around the values, assets, and requirements that it perceived generations ago. We stuck with it. If we’re reevaluating the status quo, could we reevaluate this too?

If we improved the pay and conditions for soldiers, could we get enough people to sign up without the threat of prison? How many jobs are currently performed by men and women compelled to serve that we wouldn’t bother doing if the army had to pay a reasonable wage? And would more sectors of society serve if army service were not in the context of a totalitarian takeover of a young man or woman’s life for three years?

The national draft was meant to fulfill not just military goals but social ones as well. It’s to put everybody through the melting pot, which seemed like a good idea once. But now it’s clear that we’re not going to force all Israelis into a single mold. And if we continue trying, we may find the ultra-Orthodox defining the mold.

The draft is also an initiation rite, which has its benefits. And for people who have already made it through initiation rites, it can be hard to fairly consider whether those rites were worth the cost, and whether we should stop inflicting those rites on the next generation. But those are questions society must ask.

It’s possible that the only reason society isn’t asking the question is that the answer is completely obvious to everybody but me. Maybe. Sometimes the emperor really does have clothes even if some fool fails to see them.

Here are the two things I do see:

  • A subset of society is unfairly carrying a huge burden. This is intolerable, immoral, and must be corrected.
  • Expanding the draft (or our enforcement thereof) is one possible solution, but we should consider other solutions as well.

Of course, I’d also like to see all the status quo issues re-opened and answered in ways that involve less coercion and more respect for others’ rights and opinions. But that’s for another post.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.