To Share the Burden, Share the Wealth

Offering Israel's poorest groups incentives to serve in the army is the best way to bring them into the economy and society.

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The new buzz word in Israeli politics these days is "equality," as in equality, or lack thereof, in "sharing the burden" of army service. Equality isn't just a local issue; it also comes up in public discourse about the increase in global inequality and its explosive potential.

The revolutions of the Arab Spring against authoritarian regimes show that there is a limit to how much exploited and oppressed people are willing to suffer and that an economy of cronies can't be maintained indefinitely at the expense of the majority of the people who are excluded from the benefits of their country's resources. The steps being taken by the Chinese government prove that even dictatorial regimes are worried about rising unrest. The growth spurt in the Chinese economy over the last two decades greatly increased the wealth gap between urban and rural China. To counterbalance this trend, the government has introduced some reforms, including increases in the minimum wage and corporate taxes.

In Israel, the discourse about inequality follows two parallel, but closely related lines. One line is the burden of military or national service, since there are two groups that do not serve: ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs.  The other is social gaps and inequality, with the same two groups making up a large proportion of Israel's poor.

There are a disproportionate number of poor Arab and ultra-Orthodox citizens, with low numbers of working ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women. Any novice statistician will identify the correlation between non-participation in national or military service and non-participation in other walks of life, particularly the labor market. Those who don’t serve are left at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. The obvious conclusion is that increased participation in military or national service will close socioeconomic gaps.

For many years, the Israeli mainstream chose to deal with the unequal sharing of military service by doling out perks to army veterans. This rewarded service and punished those who did not share the burden. But somehow this failed to send a stampede of ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens to the military induction center. Political and cultural barriers turned out to be more powerful than the financial incentives given to veterans. In the case of the ultra-Orthodox, the politicians who represent them managed to compensate their base with alternative, more lucrative benefits. These included tuition fees, subsidized housing and, of course, child allowances. In comparison to such benefits, veteran benefits seemed paltry and unattractive.

Two courses of action are possible to remedy the inequality in military service. One is to increase the incentives to serve and the other is to reduce the barriers that prevent Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox from enlisting. The road to reducing impediments is never-ending dialog, which the leaders of the two sectors will block before any solutions can be reached. This also brings about, from time to time, calls for racist laws that exacerbate the existing polarization instead of fostering equality.

The second option is to increase incentives for those doing national or military service, making it more attractive and imbuing it with moral and financial value. One such proposal was presented by MK Avishai Braverman (Labor), who – after consulting with Arab and ultra-Orthodox leaders – suggested paying soldiers and national servicemen a salary. The idea is to start paying people a minimum-wage salary from their second year of service. Most of this salary (75 percent) will be placed in a fund, to be used for future higher learning or professional training.

This proposal differentiates between several groups of servicemen or women. Combat troops will receive the current minimum wage salary of NIS 4,300 per month, while soldiers in support roles will get 90 percent of this amount. Those doing national service will receive 80 percent of this amount, thus placing a premium on military service. A soldier in support services currently receives NIS 305 a month, while combat troops receive NIS 702. Braverman’s proposal increases this amount six-to-ten-fold. This constiutes a significant incentive but, more importantly, it is designed to encourage higher learning or training towards a profession, putting recipients on a course that will allow them to integrate into the labor market.

The only problem is the cost, estimated at NIS 2 billion (net), or NIS 4 billion (gross). The disparity in these figures lies in the fact that there are already funds for assisting demobilized soldiers, amounting to NIS 2 billion. Implementing the proposal will entail adding NIS 2 billion to the budget. The treasury previously opposed the plan, but the new government might look upon it more favorably. This will help reduce the inequality in sharing the burden and reduce socioeconomic gaps.

It's worth noting that equality in sharing the burden is not only designed to increase the number of guards in military barracks. The army can manage quite well without more ultra-Orthodox and Arab conscripts. Nevertheless, the Israel Defense Forces has made great efforts to incorporate ultra-Orthodox soldiers into its ranks, letting them serve in special programs suited to their needs. One of these is Shachar (Hebrew acronym for "ultra-Orthodox incorporation"), which includes 2,000 soldiers. This program, launched in 2007, allows 22-to-26-year-old men with families to serve in the army while maintaining their traditional lifestyle. This includes daily Torah lessons, stricter kashrut levels and taking orders only from male commanders. Their service costs 5 to 6 times more than that of ordinary soldiers, but the benefits to society are huge, since a vast majority of them later go out and work.

Equalizing the burden is about values. It's about giving Israel's heterogeneous society a common base that will reduce its polarization and strengthen its fabric. This will also reduce racism and discrimination in the workforce. National and military service brings diverse sectors of society closer together, increases integration, provides professional training and gives those who complete it a sense of worth.

Rabbis and sectorial leaders are blocking progresss toward equalizing the burden, but Braverman’s proposal may bypass them, directly reaching the hearts of young ultra-Orthodox and Arab men. This will allow them to take their fate into their own hands, rather than leaving it up to the politicians who presume to represent them.

An ultra-Orthodox soldier praying during a training exercise.Credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office

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