In Israel these days it’s pretty easy to feel down. The peace talks — which, with Netanyahu as prime minister, never seemed very likely to get anywhere anyway — have indeed collapsed. Social gaps continue to grow. The government is so hopeless and divided it has taken more than six months to decide who should chair the most important committee in the Knesset, the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. So what gives one hope for something better? What gives me hope is the young people.
Thousands of Israeli youth do a year’s national service after they finish high school. This is not the army but in addition to it! They get a minimal stipend from the government, room and board, and live
|My daughter with other 18 year-olds last year, in national service with underprivileged youth.|
in some of the most difficult neighborhoods in the country, where they teach, tutor, and help troubled teenagers in every possible way. A growing number of Arab Israelis, and even several hundred Ultra-Orthodox men, also volunteer for this kind of service. It’s a kind of domestic peace corps, a VISTA Corps, that attracts more volunteers than can be accepted; young people compete for selection and learn both about problems in Israeli society and how to solve them.
Most Israelis are drafted into the army after high school. Although a significant percentage of 18-year-olds — largely Ultra-Orthodox men and women — do not serve, nor do almost any Arab Israelis (who, except for members of the Druse religious community, are not drafted), most Israeli young people give two, three or more years of their life to the army.
It should be emphasized that both men and women serve — a rarity — which gives an important boost to equality between the sexes. It was only recently that the first woman was appointed to the rank of major general, but there are fewer and fewer posts in which women do not serve. Recently I had the honor of seeing my daughter march in formation shoulder to shoulder with young men as she finished basic training — something one rarely saw when I served, a couple of decades ago.
In addition, it is important to note that army service is not just combat service: huge numbers of soldiers also teach, help underprivileged soldiers fill in gaps in their education, and perform countless other tasks that serve the civilian population, in peace as much as in war. In no other country today are citizens called upon to devote so much of their lives to national service, and while I am indeed sorry they must be called upon to do so, I am proud of the way they take it in stride and are so deeply instilled with group responsibility.
Furthermore, in recent years there has been a flowering of awareness of social issues and problems. Almost a half a million Israelis, mostly young people, took to the streets to call for social justice in the summer of 2010. Since then, countless organizations have been formed to promote social issues and address the socio-economic gaps that are ruining the country. Today I attended a conference for members of cooperatives, and was inspired to learn how many have been formed in Jerusalem, and to see how many young people are involved in them (I think the average age was under 30). Representatives of the international cooperative union who organized the gathering explained how rapidly the movement was growing in Israel.
Israel is now saddled with numerous problems: settling its borders and other issues with its neighbors, rebuilding its collapsed education system, confronting the growing problem of domestic violence and family tensions, and much more. However, knowing and working with the young people of this country makes me think that they just might be able to pull us out of the mire. Here’s hoping.