A group made up of former political, military and current social leaders launched a new policy proposal this week that would replace Israel’s current system of post-high school national service, making it required for all Israeli citizens, unlike the current model.
The organization Pnima, literally translated as “inward,” seeks to resolve a longstanding source of discord in Israeli society: the inequality in national service requirements between different communities, which lead to social and economic disparities down the line.
Currently, national service — either in the form of army service or volunteering within communities — is only required of non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Druze and Circassian Israelis, who make up the majority of the population, but not for Haredi and Arab Israelis, who make up approximately 10 percent and 17 percent of the population, respectively.
“This is a never-ending argument. Governments have fallen because of it,” Amir Eshel, the former head of the Israeli Air Force and one of the leaders of the Pnima initiative, told The Times of Israel Tuesday.
This year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition after the April elections over the issue led to the repeat elections scheduled for September. Resolving the matter will likely be one of the first challenges facing the next coalition due to standing court orders requiring the government to regulate the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox men in law.
However, even the most far-reaching proposals that have been seriously considered by the country’s governments over the years have not called for full conscription of all ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, as Pnima’s plan does.
“More than 50 percent of eligible 18-year-olds don’t enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. That’s a fact. Most of them are ultra-Orthodox and Arabs — not all, but most. It’s been that way for a few years, and I expect that will get worse,” said Eshel, who led the air force from 2012 to 2017.
The IDF isn’t really a people’s army. It’s a half-of-the-people’s army
The majority of religious Jewish women also do not serve in the IDF — though their numbers have been rising — and instead perform non-military national service, often by working in schools or other welfare-related services.
This casts doubt on the IDF’s self-declared status as a “people’s army,” whose heterogeneous and varied ranks are meant to represent all sectors and socioeconomic levels of Israeli society.
“The IDF isn’t really a people’s army. It’s a half-of-the-people’s army,” Eshel said.
The relatively low-profile Pnima Movement was created in 2015 by former education minister Shai Piron, aimed at addressing Israel’s socioeconomic problems. He was joined a year later by former IDF chiefs of staff Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, who are now numbers one and four on the Blue and White Party’s slate of candidates. Piron also previously served as a member of the Yesh Atid party, which is part of Blue and White, and other officials previously associated with Pnima, including former Yeruham mayor Michael Biton, now appear on the Blue and White ticket.
Ashkenazi first led the team that developed Pnima’s universal conscription proposal.
Yet despite the connections to the political party, Eshel maintains that the group — which also includes high-tech entrepreneur Shlomo Dovrat and several mayors — is apolitical. The retired general said he does not expect Pnima’s proposal to appear on any political party’s platform for the upcoming election.
Pnima unveiled its plan on a Hebrew-language website on Sunday, detailing the need for the policy change, the proposal itself and its expected outcomes.
The group’s new proposal would require all Israeli citizens — with exceedingly few exceptions — to perform some form of service.
A “national induction center” would assess where a given recruit would best be able to serve the country, with the military being given top priority and right of first refusal. People would also be able to perform their national service in the police, fire department, ambulance service, education or welfare services. There would also be a special track for “outstanding people”: athletes, artists, religious scholars, scientists.
Offering this variety of options would allow people to match their national service to their needs, while also helping the state.
For instance, Eshel said, an ultra-Orthodox man can “learn in a yeshiva 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and just be on-call for Zaka or United Hatzalah,” referring to two Haredi-led emergency services.
Pnima believes this will help bring together the country socially and culturally, would benefit chronically disadvantaged communities and would have a positive economic effect on poorer segments of the population.
“We lack a unified Israeli ‘story.’ This [plan] would help connect the different sectors, the different tribes, as the president calls them,” Eshel said, referring to an oft-cited speech by President Reuven Rivlin in 2015 warning of the dangers posed by having the country divided starkly into four tribes — secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab — that don’t interact with one another.
“When everyone serves, it means the country belongs to all of us,” the former air force chief said.
Eshel stressed that while this plan aims to bring together various sectors of Israeli society, it does not seek to erase their cultural differences.
“This is of the utmost importance to many communities,” he said, noting that this especially applies to female members of these groups.
“Haredim can remain Haredim. Arabs can remain Arabs. There is no intention to blur their identities and make everyone the same,” Eshel said.
‘They never threw us out’
Today within the Haredi population, military and national service is described as a threat to their way of life, as it puts young men and women into an inherently secular framework, even if the volunteering work itself is within their own communities.
In Arab Israeli society, the issue of national service remains highly contentious in light of the community’s deeply fraught relationship with the government. This has started to change slightly in recent years, with more Arab women performing some form of national service, but remains exceedingly rare among Arab men.
According to Eshel, while there was pushback from some lawmakers and leaders, ordinary citizens expressed interest in the idea. He credited some of the negative reactions by politicians to the proximity of the elections, which Eshel said made everyone more sensitive.
But even where the Pnima team faced criticism, Eshel said, “they never threw us out, down the stairs.”
The country’s ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations are generally poorer and suffer more social problems than the rest of the population. Some of these issues could be addressed by universal conscription, according to Pnima.
“There are a lot of problems in the Arab community. Here’s a way to solve them, to improve things,” Eshel said.
In addition to the immediate benefit of having large numbers of people helping in schools, working as medics, and performing other forms of national service within the Arab Israeli community, there would be another boost further down the line as those volunteers would be able to take the skills they learned for free from the government and enter the private market.
“The proposal was reviewed by the Interdisciplinary Center’s Aharon Institute, led by Prof. Zvi Eckstein, and it was found to significantly contribute economically to the market, in terms of productivity and in terms of improved social services,” Pnima said on its website.
According to Eshel, the decision to launch this proposal now was made both despite and because of the upcoming elections in September.
“It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a risk,” he said.
The proximity to the elections means that Arab and Haredi politicians are likely to reject Pnima’s plan out of hand, but it also provides an opportunity for Israeli society to reconsider the core issues addressed by the proposal.
“We thought it was the right time to say: friends, here’s something new,” said Eshel, who has acted as a spokesman for the plan.
“It’s not happening tomorrow morning. We’re trying to pass a law. It won’t happen in a day. Maybe it’ll take five years,” he said.
“But it will succeed, it has to succeed.”