Willing and Able to Serve but Waiting for an Invitation

Allowing at-risk youth and youth with disabilities to participate in national civil service would benefit them and the state. It is time to let them in.

At a time of tense social debate over the mandatory military and civil service of Haredim and Arabs, the government is neglecting an entire population of youth who want to participate in national service but are not allowed to do so. The government talks about the duty to serve, but forgets to grant the right to serve.

Israel allocates about 15,000 national service placements every year for Haredim, Arabs and young women from the national-religious sector. Of these, only 400 are set aside for at-risk youth and young people with disabilities. Every year, the army rejects thousands of these young people for various reasons, some of whom come from dysfunctional backgrounds. Instead of giving them an opportunity to integrate into society, the state turns its back on them.

For at-risk youth and those with disabilities, national service is perhaps the last barrier to a downward slide into crime and poverty. National service gives these young people a stronger feeling of belonging to society. Later on, they will enter the work force, gain life experience and develop new abilities that will enable them to create change in their own lives and in society.

Along with the ethical component, welcoming weaker populations into national service offers a clear economic benefit for society: an untapped productive workforce.

But instead of looking at the long-term gains, the state and the Finance Ministry look at the short-term down side. A survey by the National Civil Service Forum found that from an annual investment of about NIS 43,000 per volunteer (which includes the cost of the position, benefits for volunteers after completion of service and budget supplements of social-service organizations), the state will get in return up to NIS 500,000 over the volunteer’s lifetime.

The state’s position has not benefited the country all that much, and thousands of young people who are willing and able to contribute to society and dedicated to becoming better citizens continue to be rejected for national service.

But not to worry – there is some hope. Recently, the National Civil Service Administration issued a tender for positions to be filled by volunteers. For the first time, these young populations are being taken more seriously. Agencies that will provide them with professional support throughout their term of service are being recognized, and the state is providing additional budgets.

Youth centers scattered throughout the country run national service groups for at-risk youth. They also stay with the youth when their service is over, assisting in their integration into society, academia and the work force. The government, which is now drafting a replacement for the Tal Law, is about to force entire sectors of the population to serve against their will. It would be better to allow those who are willing and able to serve to do so first.

The author is the director of community involvement at the JDC-Israel Youth Centers and a member of the National Civil Service Forum.