William Galston: Will Israel’s Debate Over National Service Tear the Country Apart?
The long-running Israeli debate over who should be required to perform military or civilian service is coming to a head once again, heightening just about every fault-line in the country—religious versus secular, Jews versus Arabs, left versus right. How this debate is resolved will influence not only the composition and duration of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition, but also the future development of Israeli society.
The reason is this: Mandatory service is not just a policy decision; it goes to the heart of Israel’s identity. Israel is at least as much a civic republic as it is a liberal democracy. Full citizenship in Israel is a matter of reciprocity—obligations begetting entitlements (as opposed to America’s conception of citizenship as an the endowment of rights.)
Let’s begin, then, at the beginning. Arab citizens of Israel are permitted, but have never been required, to perform either military or civilian service. For very different reasons, the same is true for the most religious Israelis. When the state was founded in 1948, its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to exempt students involved in full-time study of the Torah from military service. The Nazis had destroyed the great eastern European centers of Jewish learning, and only a remnant remained in Israel. The exemption covered only 400 students, and Ben-Gurion reportedly believed that Orthodox Judaism would fade away.