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Leslie J. Sacks / March 20, 2012

Israel’s Quiet Revolution

Most claim it has not started, others say Israel will not survive without it: democracy, equality, fraternity – all demand it!

This revolution is indeed quite simple – it invites all of Israel’s youth to contribute to society, be a part of the countries’ evolution and to equally share the burden of “Tikkun Olam”, the giving back to one’s people, one’s country, and one’s world.

Currently only about 50% of Israel’s youth gets conscripted into the army, a tough 36 months for the men, and 24 months for the women. And the divide is growing between those who willingly accept their role in Israel’s defense forces, the essential security structure that has enabled Israel to survive multiple wars, decades of terrorism and a threatening neighborhood, and those who opt out, who deny their communal responsibilities, who get a free ride. But it’s not as free as many jobs go rather to army graduates, who learn skills and even professions in the army that are not easy to acquire elsewhere.

The society resents these “opt-outs”, who range from conscientious objectors, the selfish, the cowardly and the confused to those in the orthodox religious community (Haredis) who refuse army conscription and use the lawful escape hatch of remaining in their “Yeshivahs”, the ubiquitous and intense bible study groups that operate at the expense and the invitation of a captive government. Captive because those select religious groups demand and get, in return for coalition voting support in the ruling government, financial subsistence for continuing their endless religious studies that replace any need for joining the workforce or the army.

This is a personal choice for students and charitable people alike – it is not the purview of government to tax the working class and subsidize these scholars for life.

In contrast, a good portion of the religious youth does indeed form an essential and strong part of the army, a contribution of unrivalled quality. Also, some Jewish women from the religious Zionist sector already join an existing alternative national service for 12 or 24 months, helping in special education, disadvantaged communities and wherever needed. America’s peace corps offers some interesting examples of goodwill ambassadors. Israel needs a bottom-up revolution, a community service to match and parallel the army service. No longer should anyone be exempt from Israel’s national service without volunteering for a national community service, whether it be in education or otherwise. Many communities in and outside of Israel desperately need educators, social workers, doctors, nurses, agriculturalists — the list is endless.

Israel’s youth should not be divided into those who graduate the army with privileges, respect, camaraderie and focus, and those that are beyond the pale, perhaps alienated, perhaps bitter. Israel’s Arabs are exempt from service in order to avoid a conflict between allegiance to their country and to their Arab brethren in surrounding countries. They should not be and those that are conscientious objectors need to contribute in other ways. The Bedouin do it – so do the Druze. And if Arabs in Israel can be and are Supreme Court judges, members of parliament, doctors and lawyers, they can certainly be infantrymen, generals, educators, translators and community workers.

No more should an ever dwindling pool of Israel’s youth carry the burden, the casualties of war, alone. The society is fracturing with this growing gap and only a conscripted community service for those justifiably exempt from military service can help re-tie those strands that strengthen society, that connect all its disparate groups. How else can Israel integrate the enormous variety of cultures, religions and races that make up the most diverse country in the Middle East.

The religious extreme (the ultra-orthodox) have a stranglehold on coalition politics and hence preclude any changes to their military exemptions. Once the primary centrist parties resolve to join forces in a moderate coalition (Israel generally never has a single dominating party, only a proliferation of smaller parties: Arab, Communist, labor, left and right wings amongst others) they need to pass the “community service act”, effectively the next revolution.

The advantages would be game-changing. Out of a population of 7.6 million, 1.5 million are exempt Israeli Arabs, and a similar amount are extreme religious orthodox families whose youth do not participate in Israel’s service. Yet the latter possess some of the finest and most analytical minds in Israel, interpreting, as they do in a never ending daily ritual, the five books of Moses (Old Testament) via an intense daily discourse of commentaries, arguments, subtle meanings and ambiguities.

They are perfect soil for the complex needs of the military’s non-combat, intelligence units, information gatherers and computer analysts.

The Arab youth likewise, even if never in combat units, yet because of their Arabic language skills and cultural familiarity with Israel’s antagonistic neighbors, could provide, where amenable, likewise enormous information processing and translation, and could further teach Arabic to soldiers.

All the community service participants could as well teach in disadvantaged communities, could provide outreach programs, and support every style and type of volunteering to strengthen most of society’s ills and weaknesses and act as Israel’s ambassadors worldwide, especially where disasters and wars around the world deserve response.

This program is eminently sensible and practical ensuring all youth participate in giving back to society, in bridging gaps between all social classes and groups, building both commitment and appreciation on all sides. They can choose their preferred path based on their ability and their ethical constraints.

The program can be initiated with the support of the majority of Israel, without pandering to the special interests, to the extremes or the minorities – it can start with a 12 month period, growing in length over time to perhaps 24 months for women and 36 months for men.

Every disadvantaged sector in Israel’s society can receive monumental support from these programs. Alienated and anti-Zionist youth can be moderated through giving, sharing and potentially reintegrating them into a society from which they feel increasingly disconnected. And it’s that connecting that will enhance the fabric of society, the strength of the country and the building blocks of a more common identity, offsetting as well many radical influences permeating their societies via the internet and from around the world.

In the end, we love and respect what we give to, what we sacrifice for, as any mother knows – hopefully this quiet revolution will appear sooner rather that later.

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