A False Facade of Service

Many national service volunteers are sent to serve in organizations with very narrow and often ideological interests.

Civilian national service is supposed to be an alternative to military service for people who, for various reasons, aren’t drafted but can nevertheless contribute to society as volunteers in the fields of welfare, health and education, instead of by serving in the security forces. In practice, national service is an alternative to the draft for women who declare themselves to be religious; these women fill a large proportion of national service slots.

Making a contribution in the civilian arena is welcome and desirable. But statistics from the Civilian National Service Administration for 2013 (as reported by Gili Cohen in Haaretz in Hebrew) reveal a different picture. According to this data, hundreds of national service volunteers perform jobs in institutions such as the Defense Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Nuclear Research Center and more – institutions that can and should employ salaried workers, not volunteers.

Moreover, the list of institutions to which the state sends national service volunteers includes organizations with a clear political or ideological character, such as El-Ad (the Ir David Foundation), the association “to disseminate knowledge about Taharat Hakodesh” (a 20th-century religious tract), the right-wing advocacy group Israel Media Watch, and more. It’s not clear how service in these organizations contributes to society as a whole rather than to the narrow goals of the organizations in question.

The data also show that no fewer than 125 young women do their national service in Jewish communities overseas, yet at the end of their service are entitled to a demobilization grant and all other benefits that demobilized soldiers are entitled to by law. This means that a national service volunteer who had the privilege of doing a year of “service” in London or Los Angeles, with the tab picked up by the local community, gets the same benefits as a soldier who spent two years training new recruits to the army, or a welfare officer at a remote base charged with helping soldiers with personal and economic problems.

This lack of equality between national service volunteers and Israel Defense Forces soldiers is also evident in their service conditions, first and foremost the length of service. The Civilian National Service Administration’s internal data show that only 35 percent of those who do national service complete a full two years, and they have the right to quit their service at any time.

The committee on equalizing the burden of service, headed by Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry, said its goal was to eliminate the inequality between different population sectors regarding their contribution to society. Its conclusions are now being discussed by the Knesset’s Shaked Committee, which is supposed to develop them into new legislation. But the Perry Committee proposed making civilian national service an alternative to the draft for ultra-Orthodox men, and it also proposed extending IDF service for women from two years to 28 months.

Given the national service administration data, this raises the suspicion that the existing distortions will only get worse. Expanding civilian national service in its present format would result not in an equal bearing of the burden, but only in a false façade of it.