Is civilian national service a good thing?

by Maskil on 23 Aug 2007

According to a breaking news alert on the JTA website:

Israel set up a government administration for non-military national service.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office announced this week that it had formed an administration to accommodate Israelis who, upon reaching draft age, prefer a civilian version of national service to the standard military conscription.

The administration, which begins operations next year, will mostly cater to Israeli Arabs, fervently Orthodox Jews and draft-age youths who cite personal or political reasons for not wanting to wear a uniform. It is expected to offer them options such as community service or medical posts, with similar commitment periods and benefits as conscripted soldiers.

Israelis who do national service enjoy later perks such as tax breaks and student stipends. The civilian service route will also allow those Israelis who avoid the military to also avoid being branded as shirkers.

So, is this a good thing? My answer would be a cautious yes, provided that it has the effect of allowing fewer to slip through the net of conscription, which places an unfair burden on those who do perform service in the IDF. If it simply entrenches and institutionalises draft-dodging by entire sectors of the population (such as the Haredim), then I would be opposed.

As a condition for the formal introduction of non-military national service, all current discriminatory legislation and regulations allowing for blanket deferments and exemptions from military service should be repealed. With these options in place, a “zero-tolerance” approach towards evading the draft needs to take hold, with the choices being conscription, civilian national service, or jail.

Where will these non-military national servicemen and women be deployed? I would suggest that the greatest benefit for both Israeli society and the youths themselves would result from service in the following areas:

  • The civilian Police (in addition to the existing Border Police option)
  • The Magen David Adom (MDA)
  • The Israel Fire-fighters and related emergency/rescue services such as ZAKA
  • The Ministry of the Environment’s Green Police
  • The Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA)
  • The JNF, in roles such as forest guards
  • Working with youth groups and other social/welfare roles
  • Some form of merchant navy cadet scheme

In all cases, it is essential that a rigorous selection, training and work-based learning process be put in place, to ensure that both the state and the conscripts receive value from their service. From an equity perspective, the term of service should be a full 2-3 years, the same as those who in many cases are risking their lives in the course of service in the IDF.

It is also important that those performing alternative forms of national service do so as groups rather than as individuals (although their eventual postings might be on an individual basis) and that an ethos or spirit is a part of what is imparted.

Olmert promotes civilian national service

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