Military and Civilian Service

The desire to have ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and Arab young men enter the work force must not be confused with the principle of having the burden of defending the country shared by all. Entering the work force is beneficial for those who do so and for the country as a whole, but it is not a substitute for military service.

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By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on June 24, 2013)

Civilian national service is not the same as military service. Not only does civilian service not expose those called up to the same dangers and the same discipline as military service, but it is questionable whether in a modern democracy the government has the right to compel young people to perform civilian tasks which are performed by others for pay.

Compelling young people to devote years of their lives to their country is justifiable only in case of the most urgent need, namely when this is required for the defense of the country. Any other needs the state may have are in a democracy normally met by its citizens voluntarily and in return for financial compensation. Therefore, applying military service to those at present exempt from such service is the only way to begin to equalize the burden of citizenship, which is at present only borne by some of Israel’s young citizens.

It may very well be that doing civilian service rather than military service is preferable for some presently exempt from military service, but those who, despite the objection raised above, are considering giving some of Israel’s young citizens the option of choosing between military service and civilian service seem to ignore that such an option, in all fairness, if granted to some must be granted to all. If offered to the ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens, all of Israel’s citizens, including those presently performing obligatory military service − secular and religious Jews, Druze and Circassians − must be given the right to choose between the two when called up for service.

The desire to have ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and Arab young men enter the work force must not be confused with the principle of having the burden of defending the country shared by all.

Entering the work force is beneficial for those who do so and for the country as a whole, but it is not a substitute for military service. A side benefit of military service may be that it will also promote entering the work force after military service has been completed.

Gradually extending compulsory military service to all of Israel’s young citizens is the only fair and realistic way to bring about equality of obligations for all. Considering the fact that Israel’s Arab Muslim and Christian citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens have been exempt from compulsory military service for the past 65 years, this can be achieved only at a gradual, but steady, pace.

In the past few years a good beginning has been made in this direction by enabling young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and Moslem and Christian Arab young men to volunteer for service in the IDF. Thousands are now performing such service in the special units that have been set up in the IDF for this purpose. Some have even chosen to serve in regular IDF units.

A number of initial steps can be taken to begin the extension of military service to all of Israel’s young citizens:

1. Increasing the size of IDF units in which ultra-Orthodox young men serve at the present time.

2. Recruit young men in ultra-Orthodox towns like Modi’in Ilit, Betar Ilit and El’ad into military units which will be charged with responsibility for security in the surrounding area.

3. Increase the size of the Bedouin volunteer infantry unit now serving in the Negev.

4. After consultations with the heads of local municipal councils of the Bedouin villages in the Galilee, introduce compulsory military service to Bedouin young men in the Galilee.

5. Introduce compulsory military service for young Arab men in mixed cities like Lod and Ramle.

6. Introduce compulsory military service for young men belonging to some of the Arab Christian denominations.

Such steps will establish a widening circle of enlistment in the IDF, which can be expected in time to spread to all. Then the burden of defending the country will be borne by all of its citizens, for the benefit of all.

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