Mandatory service

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Years ago one of my daughters thought she wanted to become a politician. When asked what would prepare her, she confidently answered that she’d need to enlist in the military. If I’m going to approve funding for wars, she said, I should know what it’s like to fight in one.

Perhaps she was influenced by her father who served in the IDF, where there is mandatory service of three years for men and two years for women. There is something quite reassuring when you look around and know that everyone served in the military, just like you. Perhaps she was young and idealistic, wanting to serve her country.

Unlike the voluntary American military service and its two-tiered system of enlistment, the IDF enlists everyone at the private level and promotes through the ranks according to merit. Even the chief of staff began as a private.

There is something to say about this egalitarian system in which everyone gives according to his/her ability (my brother-in-law had a leg problem and worked in the computer center) and in return has his/her security needs met.

But what if you are a conscientious objector or pacifist? You can opt out and join one of the many civil-service agencies. Contributing to the whole binds the population together in ways that foster a sense of citizenship and a stake in one’s country, unless you are an ultra-orthodox Jew.

For some reason — concern for the ability to fully practice religion? — orthodox Jews were exempted from military service since the founding of the state in 1948. Year after year, a brokered deal was in place with weak coalition governments (in which minority religious parties traditionally hold the balance of power for parliamentary control) that prolonged this exemption.

Now its extension has expired (Aug. 1) by order of the Supreme Court as a discriminatory practice that violates a more basic law, about human rights and equality (except Arab Israelis, whose rights and duties differ from those of their Jewish counterparts — but this is another issue altogether).

As long as religious leaders were able to cut their own deals behind closed doors and prop up prime ministers whose majority rule was so slim that their support was crucial for surviving a no-confidence vote, there was little public outrage. But as the centrist party, Kadima (Forward), made it a condition of its continued participation in the current coalition government.

With 14 political parties making up the 120-member Knesset (parliament), one can imagine the ongoing mayhem of bringing together competing ideological stances and delivering on promises to constituents. This doesn’t even include the 21 parties represented in municipalities but not in the Knesset. It’s a mess, lively and active, personal and contentious.

Kadima left the ruling coalition, bringing a comfortable super-majority government of 94 down to 66. The Supreme Court’s decision went into effect, and the Knesset is on summer recess till mid-October. The defense department, headed by a member of the ruling coalition, has already suggested it’s not ready to deal with such a large influx of soldiers all at once, so a wait-and-see policy is in effect by default.

Do principles matter? Or does political reality necessitate pandering to those who wield disproportionate power to form coalition governments? Between principles and practice, the gap is so wide that nothing will be accomplished soon. But this doesn’t mean that these principles are irrelevant or should be compromised. It’s almost as bad as claiming that “all men are created equal” and overlooking slavery or women’s rights. It took us almost two centuries to get it right; let’s see how quickly the Israelis catch up.

Israel is a young nation that needs guidance. Stubborn and self-righteous as it is, it does have serious national security issues unlike those we have faced in America, primarily because of the proximity of enemy states. Its legitimacy as a state is continuously questioned, and some neighbors want to annihilate it when the opportunity arises. Numbers do matter when it relates to land-mass and population size.

With this in mind, it’s puzzling to see a large minority of self-proclaimed religionists enjoy the fruits of the state — claiming educational and welfare rights and funding — while refusing to share in the burdens and duties facing every citizen. If it were only unfair and hypocritical, it would be lamentable; but it’s dangerous as well, and that is unforgivable.

Equality among people is a religious principle, after all, since we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord, right? Why not extend this to duties as well?

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS who served in the IDF. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com