The officials shall…address the troops and say: "Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his."
– Deuteronomy 20:8
In the encounters we facilitate between Arab teens and visitors from North America and the UK, there are certain topics that come up in almost every conversation. One of these is army service. And if there are Israeli Jews participating with the visiting groups (as there often are), this question often takes on a more emotional tone. The topic of "sharing the burden" is a very hot one in Israeli society, especially today, since it was an issue in the last election (not regarding the Arabs, but regarding the Ultra-Orthodox). Since the country is still young, and was born in war, and has experienced traumatic wars every decade or so, and since it adopted a policy of universal conscription both out of need and out of a belief in an egalitarian, citizens' army as a civic value, army service has taken on a kind of sacramental character. It is part of coming of age, part of forming an Israeli identity, part of creating a lifetime network of friends and comrades; it is a great leveler, a moratorium on the way to adulthood. It is a stepping stone to political and economic power. It is the answer to the Holocaust, to the image of the exilic Jew. It is a key element in our central mythology of heroism, of the "purity of arms," of the few against the many.
Therefore, those who opt out are seen as traitors, whether they opt out because they are pacifists, or to pursue a career in show business, or to protect themselves from secular culture (and us from destruction) by studying full-time in a yeshivah, or because they are unwilling to participate in a war against "their own people." Discussions of the topic rarely remain civil, as it touches a raw nerve in the population of those who serve or who send their children to serve.
When Ben Gurion agreed to give an exemption for yeshivah study, he assumed it would be for an elite few hundred, and after a few years even they would disappear. No one imagined that the numbers would grow to thousands. The story of the Arabs is more complicated, as it is two-edged. In 1954 the army issued a general callup notice to army-age Arab men. 20,000 showed up to register. The army immediately changed its mind, and adopted a policy of not drafting Arabs, except for the Druze minority (non-Muslim Arabs) with whose leaders an agreement was signed in 1957 to draft all their men, and the Circassians (non-Arab Muslims) as of 1958. So apparently the Arabs were, at that early date, interested in serving - it was the army that had doubts. Over the years this reality was satisfactory to both sides, and the Arabs even developed an ideology that opposed service. When the Jews say, "How can you demand equal rights if you are unwilling to assume equal responsibilities?" They answer, "Rights are absolute and inalienable. Why should I serve a country that doesn't see me as a full citizen, and doesn't grant me the rights that are my due? Look at the Druze, who serve with distinction - and are still treated no better than Muslim or Christian Arabs." And so on, round and round. What's annoying is that the whole argument is false, for if the Arabs all volunteered tomorrow, the army would certainly turn them away again. And after all the recent hoopla about drafting the Ultra-Orthodox, I wonder how the army will cope with them when their conscription takes effect.
And whether because of peace treaties or advanced technology, the day is coming when universal conscription will probably be an unnecessary burden, and we'll have to revise our mythology about the centrality of army service in Israeli identity. Then the whole discussion will have to change. Let it be.
Meanwhile, it's interesting that the Israelis, Jews and Arabs, never think to ask the American Jewish teenagers how they feel about not sharing the burden of Iraq or Afghanistan.