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Reuven Gal is determined not to give the leaders of the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors any reason to boycott the civilian service. For over 20 years, Gal, 64, has been spreading the vision of civilian service, and now that he has been appointed to set up the civilian service authority, the project actually seems like it's in reach. That's why he plans "to take into consideration everyone's sensitivities," and not give anyone a reason to wage a fight. His organization currently has positions for only three employees, but in the coming days he plans to use one half-time position to hire an Arab and another one to hire an ultra-Orthodox employee.

Gal is also looking for two Arab members to join the Ivri Committee, which will oversee the national service program, and to that end he makes some very friendly offers: "Arab leaders say 'we want to do national service for ourselves. We want it to be done within our community. We will define what the needs are and oversee the program.' I say great. I really and truly believe that it's an idea worth promoting, together with them, and to conduct a joint review of the needs. A large part of the program has to be in their hands, and I'm looking into the possibility of setting up an Arab national service organization, like the Bat Ami and Shlomit [frameworks for religious girls]. When an administration or authority to oversee national service is set up, it will have Arab employees. That's not even a question."

Despite these optimistic statements, the reality Gal will have to deal with is very complicated. In 2001, the Carmel Institute, which he headed, surveyed around 150 Arab youths. Ostensibly, the results were encouraging: Fifty-nine percent expressed support for national service and 34 percent expressed a willingness to serve in it themselves. If it is taken into account that the survey was conducted in the shadow of the civil disturbances of October 2000, then it would be reasonable to assume that today there is even greater willingness. However, a survey taken in 2004 among Arab parents indicated substantial opposition on their part to their children doing some sort of civilian national service.

In 2002, a furor arose in the Arab sector after it became known that Arab women were volunteering for national service programs in schools and kindergartens in the villages of Dir Hanna and Ilut, and the project was canceled. Even the government's decision to appoint Gal two months ago caused a stir. The general secretary of the Hadash party, Aiman Odeh, announced that civilian national service is another form of military service and opposed any attempt to link the granting of rights to the Arab sector to doing national service.

If there is so much opposition among the Arabs, why force national service on them? Says Gal: "I can confidently say that there is a large gap between the intense opposition of Arab leaders to civilian service and the willingness of the young people themselves, which is a lot greater."

Gal notes that there are already 273 Arab youths volunteering in the existing national service program, of whom some 230 are women. He is convinced that everyone - the state, Arab society and the volunteers themselves - can only benefit from the integration of Arab youth into a national civilian service program.

"The Arab communities are crying out for assistance and aid in areas such as welfare, education, health and the environment, and the volunteers can provide this," he says. "National service graduates will receive financial aid for tuition, mortgage assistance and aid in setting up a business. They will be exposed to the possibilities of professional training. It provides leverage for integrating into the job market."

Home-front forces

Gal, 64, set up the Israel Defense Forces' behavioral sciences unit and headed it. In 1982, he retired from the army and set up the Carmel Institute for Social Studies, where he examined the relationship between the society and the army in Israel. As part of his work at the institute, he found out about the international organization for national service programs. He began attending the organization's conferences regularly and was even elected vice president.

National civilian service in Israel has focused primarily on the small sector of religious women, but Gal is convinced that it has a great future ahead of it: "If last July, during the second Lebanon war, there had been a national service administration and it could have mobilized all 10,400 girls doing national service and sent them to shelters and to assist the elderly, the situation in the North would have been completely different. This is one of the areas where I see the importance of the national service administration. It becomes a government arm for providing aid in times of crisis."

Among the sectors thought to have potential for doing civilian national service, the Arab community is the largest. There would be 9,000 Arab men, age 18, each year and 9,000 women. Among the ultra-Orthodox there is a potential pool of 4,000 yeshiva students annually. The secular and national religious would contribute another 4,000 young men per year who receive draft exemptions for various reasons or drop out of their military service.

Despite this large potential pool of 26,000 people annually, in its first year, the civilian service will have only several hundred slots to fill. The existing national service, which has more than 10,000 volunteers, primarily young women from the national religious sector, will be integrated as a separate department of the new authority.

Without the pressure to extend the Tal Law (which provides exemptions from army service) in the coming months and to prove to the High Court of Justice that the law is being implemented and a civilian-service program being set up, the administration would not have been established to this day.

Gal: "I really and truly believe that even if there were no Tal Law, the time is ripe to set up a framework for civilian service. The Finance Ministry torpedoed a civilian service administration until now by not approving the budgets. Why wouldn't it do so in the future as well?

"There is a government decision approving the addition of 200-300 positions annually, and the treasury will have to fulfill the government's decision. Even ministry officials understand that the civilian service will provide ultra-Orthodox and Arab youths a stepping-stone into the job market. National service for young women has already passed the milestone of 10,000 volunteers, compared with 10 years ago, when there were only 5,000. I believe that a similar process will take place as well with civilian service."

Not fair, perhaps, but wise

The ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who are completing the "decision year" provided by the Tal Law, which allows them to try out the labor market without having to worry about being drafted, will be asked to do one year of civilian service.

"There are several things that very much appeal to them and speak to them," says Gal, "primarily, joining a framework such as ZAKA [the ultra-Orthodox organization that retrieves victims' body parts after terror attacks and provides other rescue services] or the fire department."

The administration is now looking into letting some of the young men spread their civilian service over two years, during which they will do four hours a day. That way they will be able to continue studying in yeshiva, or work and support their families. The Tal Commission recommended that ultra-Orthodox graduates of civilian service also do civilian reserve duty, but this matter is still under review.

"The Tal Law," says Reuven Gal, "illustrates in the best possible way the principle that sometimes it's better not to be completely fair, but to be smart. The Tal Law is a smart law. It has principles that can provide leverage for lifting the ultra-Orthodox sector out of the [economic] mire it's trapped in."

So why hasn't that happened over the last five years?

"Because the IDF did not organize itself the way it was supposed to. The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor also did not get organized as it should have. The minister of defense did not sign the regulations as he was supposed to. There were government officials who did not do their part in implementing the law."

Why should the ultra-Orthodox do civilian service instead of military service, and an abbreviated service at that?

"I don't believe that the Tal Law is egalitarian. But given the present reality, either they do an abbreviated service or they remain in the yeshiva - or they don't do either, and work illegally."

So at least they should do compulsory civilian service.

"What will you do if a young man or woman from Mea Shearim doesn't show up for compulsory civilian service: Will you send the police or the military police and arrest them? Will you send a Druze woman from Jatt who didn't show up to jail? It's simply not practical. Beyond that, activities such as helping the elderly or injured children have to be done willingly and in the spirit of volunteering."

The IDF is less determined

Gal is also appealing to secular and national-religious young men who are not serving in the army, either because their health does not permit it or because they managed to convince the IDF that their health does not permit it, or because the IDF was not interested in them.

Why not give a draftee the right to choose between military service and civilian service, as in Germany?

"We are not in a place where we can leave the choice up to the youths. The IDF must have priority in drafting into its ranks the most suitable people."

But in effect, there is a group of youths that delegates to itself the right to choose, and finds ways not to serve.

"I would say that it comes from both sides. The IDF is also a lot less intent on keeping people in its ranks. I think that this is the right policy. It is possible to forcibly keep a soldier who is incapable of adapting and who lacks motivation, but it's not clear if it's worthwhile.

"When you ask a person on the street today, 'where did you serve' or 'where is your child serving,' it's clear that you're talking about the army, as if the word 'service' is a synonym for army," says Gal. "I want the concept of serving to also be used in the context of serving communities in distress, of serving in frameworks of welfare, education and the environment. I see in civilian service a process for changing the subconscious of Israeli society. There are many ways to serve the society and community, and military service is just one of them."