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Army or Nothing: Israel Should Ax Its 'National Service'

Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler
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A ceremony for outstanding graduates of Israel's national service program.
A ceremony for outstanding graduates of Israel's national service program. Credit: Mark Neiman / GPO
Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler

The politicians love it. It sounds great. It solves the problem of universal conscription and lets a large apparatus be set up with lots of jobs, generous funding and central control – which the politicians love most. But national service, the alternative to military service, is a harmful idea. It’s exactly the opposite of universal conscription.

Last week the prime minister submitted a proposal to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to expand national service. Naftali Bennett thinks that if young ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis spend a year or two in various organizations it will seal the rifts in society. He believes that service in places like hospitals, government companies, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, Yad Vashem, the police and the fire service is tantamount to military service.

This idea was born in 2006 when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to extend the discriminating “Tal Law” by five years. The decision came under fire because the law allowed ultra-Orthodox men to keep on dodging the draft. Hence came the idea of “national service” that would silence the criticism.

This is ridiculous and irksome as well. National service merely ramps up the discrimination. Among Jewish men, only a young ultra-Orthodox man has the clear option to do national service instead of military service. Nobody asks the young secular man before he gets sent to the Golani infantry brigade.

And how can you compare three years in the army to voluntary service of a year or two, six hours a day, in summer-camp conditions, without any risk of getting wounded or killed but with similar wages to those of conscripted soldiers and with the benefits of discharged soldiers?

Also, most ultra-Orthodox young men do their national service at all kinds of ultra-Orthodox nongovernmental organizations, which send them to hospitals, but not to change sheets but to go from bed to bed to persuade patients to put on tefillin. Other ultra-Orthodox men serve as “tutors” at yeshivas or for bar mitzvah boys. They even share their wages, which the state pays, with their yeshiva, so that it doesn’t keep a close watch on whether they show up to their “volunteer” work.

Recently it turned out that as part of their national service, dozens of young ultra-Orthodox men were sent to Chabad centers all over the world, from Thailand to Argentina. Yeah, that’s just like service in the Golani. One NGO director said: “No ultra-Orthodox man does national service because of ideology. It’s all because it’s worth their while.”

One of the “volunteers” said: “It’s the easiest money I’ve ever made.” His colleague added: “I heard from a friend that if you’re married it’s very lucrative, so I went for it.” In other words, national service is just a total waste of public funds that pass from the state budget to the ultra-Orthodox community.

By the way, all the places where one can volunteer don’t need amateurs getting in their way. They employ skilled professionals who see their work as a long-term career. The “volunteers” cause inefficiencies and bloat the apparatus at best, leading to reduced wages and the laying off of regular workers at worst. So this is a harsh blow to low-income earners.

So it’s better to completely exempt every young ultra-Orthodox or Arab man who doesn’t join the army. If it isn’t military service, let him do whatever he wants. If he wants to learn a profession, all the better. If he wants to work, that’s good too. And if he wants to volunteer, let him do it on his own time, without the state’s intervention and without a bloated budget. After all, volunteer options abound in both the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.

Instead of submitting a proposal to expand national service, Bennett should submit one to shut it down.

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