Military Service: Duty, Privilege, Opportunity

National civilian service is no substitute for military service. It is not better than nothing.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on July 10, 2012.)

Are those who obediently perform their compulsory military service, now demonstrating in the encampment of the “suckers,” really suckers who are being taken for a ride by those who do not serve in the IDF? They will probably be the first to admit that they are not suckers at all, but Israeli citizens who dutifully perform the compulsory military service they owe their country, and who see in military service not only a duty, but also a privilege, and frequently an opportunity to improve themselves.

In a country beset by enemies, fighting for its independence and existence, military service is the most important duty of its young men and women. It is the ultimate obligation of its citizens. That, and nothing else, is the justification for it being compulsory. And so it has been throughout the ages in countries at war.

Israel could not have defended itself successfully had there not been compulsory military service for young men and women since its establishment. It is a duty that should be shared by all − Jews, Druze, Muslims and Christians. There are no excuses for evading this service, while letting others carry the burden. Neither years devoted to Torah study, nor the fact that some of Israel’s enemies are Arabs.

Unfortunately, arrangements made decades ago created a situation in which neither Muslim and Christian Arabs nor ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens have been called up for military service for many years. The time has come to do away with this anomaly. It is recognized that this can only be done gradually, and our politicians are faced with determining the method for accomplishing this task. It is not mission impossible. Not for the ultra-Orthodox Jews, nor for the Muslim and Christian Arabs.

A good beginning has already been made with an ultra-Orthodox infantry battalion and with the Bedouin infantry battalion. Both these pilot schemes need to be expanded. More ultra-Orthodox young men will follow those already doing military service, and all Bedouin, and eventually all Muslim and Christian Arab young men will follow in the steps of the Bedouin battalion.

To Jewish young men − secular, Orthodox, or ultra-Orthodox − military service is not only a duty, it is a privilege, one that was denied to Jews in the Diaspora for centuries. There Jews were either defenseless or else had to fight under foreign flags. They could only dream of fighting under their own flag. The State of Israel has changed all that. For all Israelis, Jews and Arabs, service in the Israel Defense Forces is also an opportunity. The IDF is the premier educational institution in Israel and possibly one of the best in the world. Parents whose children serve in the IDF can attest to that. Service in the IDF builds character, motivation, and leadership, and often provides technical education that is useful later in civilian life. Not serving in the IDF is an opportunity missed.

But it’s more, much more, than that. The IDF is part of the Israeli ethos, part of the Israeli culture and lifestyle. It has brought together young people from all walks of life: Jews and Druze, Circassians and Bedouin, and formed a brotherhood of arms, a nation. The IDF may be able to get along without this or that community that does not want to serve, but the State of Israel cannot get along without all segments of its society participating in the defense of the country. Those ultra-Orthodox rabbis and Arab politicians who object to compulsory military service for their young people are actually pursuing the very same aim: keeping their young people from integrating into Israeli society. They know that service in the IDF will accomplish that aim.

By virtue of compulsory military service, the IDF has become one of the best armies in the world, making all of us − Jews and Arabs − safer and more secure. This is recognized by almost all observers abroad; it is only some of the cynics at home who refuse to recognize this.

National civilian service is no substitute for military service. It is not better than nothing. Equating military service, with all that it entails, with a civilian substitute occupation it is worse than nothing. If applied on a large scale it will inevitably lead to a drift away from military service to civilian substitutes. Worse than that is the idea recently broached that we should do away with compulsory military service altogether and establish instead a professional military service. That course of action would not only bring about a drastic deterioration of Israel’s military capability, it would do inestimable harm to the country as a whole.

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