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Join the Israeli Army or Lose the Right to Vote

Israelis are abuzz over a proposed law which would equalize its military conscription, provide the option of national service (Sherut Leumi), and punish those who refuse to serve. Labor Minister Eitan Cabel, with the backing of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, … Read More

By / January 16, 2008

Israelis are abuzz over a proposed law which would equalize its military conscription, provide the option of national service (Sherut Leumi), and punish those who refuse to serve. Labor Minister Eitan Cabel, with the backing of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, recently proposed the law in an effort to shrink the growing rift in Israel between those who serve and those who do not. It is estimated that 25% of all Israelis do not serve in the army—a percentage which includes Arab-Israelis, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, conscientious objectors, married and religious women, and individuals with physical and psychological disorders. This phenomenon has created a serious problem. In a society where militarily service and citizenship are interlinked, those who sacrifice their time and talents to serve end up resenting and socially marginalizing those who are exempts. A popular bumper sticker in Israel actually reads "Army dodgers are not Israelis."  To solve this problem, Cabel’s law would require any Israeli who won’t serve in the army to devote equal time to Sherut Leumi work in hospitals, special education, disadvantaged communities, immigrant assistance, environmentalism, etc. Cabel also proposed that those who refuse to join the army or national service will be punished. Examples of potential punishment include losing the right to vote, study and practice one’s chosen profession (e.g. medicine or psychology), and drive a car. The proposed law has many supporters, despite the fact that it is illegal in Israel to discriminate against people who do not serve in the army.  I think the law is well-intentioned but misguided. Giving people multiple ways to actively participate in the welfare of the state is indeed a step in the right direction – a trajectory leading to a society in which sizable minorities (like Arabs and Orthodox Jews) are not disconnected and alienated from the whole. But this cannot be done with a sword hanging over people's heads. Part of the problem in Israel is that we suffer from an excess of army logic: Stick before carrot. Perhaps this law is a reflection of a society in flux—one that recognizes that the army is not for everyone but still uses draconian measures to carry that insight forward.
People behind this law explain that the punishment is simply a preventative means. Yet it seems to me that what we have here is an old style herem (excommunication), aimed at appealing to the large segment of Israeli society that resents and wants to punish those who do not go to the army. It is the labor party's way of saying: "We are just as tough, pro-army, and patriotic as Likkud." If you are going to disregard people's fundamental rights, why stop at taking away their right to vote, choose a profession, or drive a car? Let’s go for the gold – why not chemically castrate or make infertile those who refuse to play nice with the state? That way they won’t produce any rebellious children. It is clear that this law, in its suggested form, is a half-baked and dangerous. I am not calling for a society in which there are only rights without obligations. Nor am I calling for laws to be enacted without some type of enforcement mechanism. But to punish folks in such a disproportionate fashion for refusing to serve the state in such a manner is harsh and cruel. Lets open up the options of national service (which I am for) without the threat of this stupid herem. This is our duty to our country as well. Inspire people to serve their country; reward them with incentives; don't threaten them into being patriotic.

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