On the face of it, everyone who holds the value of equality dear, and wishes to both bolster and enhance the Israeli model of compulsory military service, which has been severely eroded in recent decades, should welcome the “Israeli Service” plan recently announced by Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot. The plan came as a reaction to the defense minister’s bill to regulate ultra-Orthodox men’s (non-)service in the IDF, while at the same time shortening the term of the draft and upgrading the material benefits for those who serve. This proposal has run into strong public criticism, rooted in the blow it deals to the fundamental Israeli ethos of compulsory military service.
The Israeli Service blueprint, based on a plan formulated by the Pnima Movement, led by Rabbi Shai Piron, is driven by an approach based on cultural relativism, and is very generous in its accommodation of the unique characteristics of the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors. The blueprint proposes three alternative service tracks, vastly different from one another in their contribution and the sacrifice they demand. The first is the familiar and customary military service track; the second is service in paramilitary organizations, such as the Israel Police, the Fire Department, Magen David Adom, the Prison Service, and United Hatzalah. The third track is essentially a significantly expanded form of the current civilian National Service model, in which women and men would serve in the fields of education, healthcare, social services, immigrant absorption, environmental protection, and so on — a sort of “service to society,” which, performed within the borders of each respective community, would make it very difficult to monitor the quality of the service and its benefits for individuals, the organization, and the state.
This plan would make it possible for young Israelis from every community and sector to serve, even if for only a brief period, and with a very modest investment of effort and at no risk (as compared to combat duty, for instance). The material incentives would be commensurate with the risk and difficulty involved. Enrollment in one of the three tracks would be compulsory, not voluntary. This means that the state’s authority to mandate enlistment in one of the “easy” tracks would apply to positions and organizations that are currently staffed entirely by volunteers and to populations that are from adopting the longstanding Israeli ethos of service and sacrifice for the state and society, on which the people’s army is based on.
A quick look at the proposal leads to a positive impression of a plan that creates an optimum fit to various population groups, compensates them in proportion to the nature of the service performed, and strengthens social solidarity. However, a closer look, published two-and-a-half years ago by the Samuel Neaman Institute, raises serious questions about the future.
- A plan that mandates service in an organization that is not essential for immediate security needs casts a heavy shadow on the principles of freedom and individual liberty (not to mention a violation of the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation) in the name of yet another creative attempt claiming equality among those in service tracks that are totally different in their value and the contribution they make, both to the collective and to the relevant individuals.
- We can assume that the imposition of compulsory civilian service on the Arab national minority and the insular ultra-Orthodox community, whether immediately and wall-to-wall or gradually and partial, would stir up fierce resistance that could lead to widespread civil disobedience.
- Expanding civilian service, as envisioned by the plan, would put those who serve in many technological and logistic roles in the IDF at a disadvantage and further erode the motivation of young people coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to perform military service.
- Flooding the social service track with tens of thousands of unwilling “volunteers” would strike a serious blow precisely at the weakest groups of unskilled workers at the bottom of the workforce, who have no protection or stability.
There is no doubt that there is a shortage of workers for many jobs that could be filled by these young people. But would it be possible to “protect” essential jobs from being filled by these “volunteers”? How many extra workers do the emergency and rescue services, the education, healthcare, and welfare systems really need? How many “volunteers” — can be enlisted for a meaningful term without upsetting the delicate balance of the labor market? Who will decide where volunteers can serve and where not, and on the basis of what criteria? How would these workers be supervised?
On top of this, special service frameworks for Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox (and probably other groups as well) would lead to the official, overt, and systematic creation of new social and cultural enclaves. Just as is the case today, separate service tracks would be devised for every community and sector, making it even more difficult to monitor performance and assess the job’s contribution to those serving and to the public at large. This would be a far cry from the current integrated IDF model, which permits, within clear and recognized limits, cross-cultural encounters that promote social solidarity and narrow the existing gaps. What is more, the Israeli Service alternative unfortunately proposes mainly incentives but very few sanctions against those who do not serve.
Finally, there is a latent paradox inherent to this initiative — we can call it, “the service paradox.” This refers to the expansion and diversification of comfortable and risk-free compulsory civilian service, with no attached sanctions or means for its enforcement. In the long term, this is liable to weaken the motivation to serve in life-threatening positions in the IDF.
Such a costly and complicated mechanism that requires oversight, budgets, supervision, and training does not make economic sense or justify the huge effort that would have to be invested in drawing up what is an unequitable inefficient service model, even if at the same time efforts were made to strengthen the principle and value of military service and upgrade soldiers’ material and financial conditions. And so, any proposal on ultra-Orthodox service must define its clear goals and targets, taking into account the long-term social and demographic implications for both the IDF and for the relationship between the military and society in Israel,