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This article appeared in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, S33(4) in December 2004

Israel is a multiicultural, polyethnic society that has undergone fundamental changes since the founding of the state in 1948. From an enlisted, collectivist society that strove for homogeneity, Israeli society has become more individualistic and heterogeneous. From a pioneering society in which the primary rite of passage into full membership was military service and the Israeli Defense Force was the major institution of socialization, Israel now enjoys a developed civil society that values a variety of civilian pathways to membership. Nonetheless, there is a sense of anomie and a growing sense of a need fornewsocial institutions that will provide acommoncivic denominator for an increasingly multicultural, if not fragmented, society. This anomie is one of the drives for the ongoing public debate about the need to expand the national youth service into an overall youth service appealing to all segments of societies.

Many different types of civic service exist in Israel, such as service learning, elder service, national youth service, and international service. The prevalent one is the national youth service (NYS; Sherut Leumi in Hebrew). Unlike military service that is compulsory for men and women at age 18, the NYS is voluntary only for citizens who are exempted from the army. Contrary to the most common form of civic service around the world—the international service (McBride, Benítez,&Sherraden, 2003)—Israel’s one form of international service, Amitim, is almost negligible in the amount of participants. Most of the civic service programs are partially or fully supported by the state. Service learning programs are supported by the Ministry of Education as well as by the Council for Higher Education, and the NYS program is financed mainly by the Ministry of Welfare, the Ministry of Education, and various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Similar to the majority of the civic service programs around the globe (McBride et al., 2003), the NYS in Israel is administered by nongovernmental organizations. These organizations recruit their candidates according to their own beliefs and guidelines, as will be discussed in Part 4.

This article is an attempt to summarize the different forms that civic service takes in Israel. Part 1 is a review of the history of the NYS, the prevalent formof civic service in Israel. Other forms of civic service, such as service learning, elder service, pre-army service, and international service, are described in Part 2. Part 3 describes the controversies around the participation of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the NYS. Finally, Part 4 highlights the main conceptual issues to be addressed when devising prospects and policy directions. It also raises the concern whether the NYS in Israel is a segregating experience or rather an experience that provides a common civic denominator to all parts of society.


The comprehensive draft system to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) has been in operation since Israel’s independence in 1948. The IDF was intended to be both a military system for the defense of the country and, no less important, a socialization instrument for the coalescence of a cohesive civilian society made up of immigrants from 82 countries around the world. The view of the IDF as a “people’s army” flowed from the perception of a homogeneous Jewish society undergoing national renaissance and of a people under the siege of Jewish history and of a threatening contemporary Middle East. National service, and primarily national military service, was seen as a privilege of the Jewish majority and as a rite of passage into full membership in the dominant elite.

Although conscription is theoretically universal, in fact, it is selective. It exempts Muslim and Christian Arab Israelis from service on the grounds that they should not be forced to fight their brothers in neighboring states (but drafts Druze and Circassians and allows Bedouin young men to volunteer for service). Similarly, sensitive to the Nazi decimation of traditional European Jewish culture and religious study, Ben-Gurion’s government bowed to pressure of ultra-orthodox Jewish political parties and provided a limited number of long-term deferments for male ultra-orthodox yeshiva students and exemptions for all ultra-orthodox women (Ben-Gurion, 1970). Likewise, the IDF exempts from service religiously observant modern orthodox young women who are forbidden by the Chief Rabbinate to serve in the military.

In 1953, Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, enacted a Law of National Service that made 2-year national service compulsory for religiously observant modern orthodox young women. Authority for implementation of such alternative civilian service was given to the Minister of SocialWelfare, but in fact, the legislation was not implemented. Almost two decades later, in 1970, the ministry licensed a nongovernmental organization associated with the modern orthodox National Religious Party as the operating agency, this time for a voluntary national service program. The provision of a nonmilitary service track for religiously observant Jewish young womenthus created the mechanism to include both Jewish men and Jewish women—with the continued exception of the ultra-orthodox—in the national collective, as equal citizens, while continuing to exclude Palestinian citizens of Israel. Army service or national service became the “symbol of belonging, the dividing marker between Jews and Arabs” (Herzog, 1995).

A key turning point occurred during the early 1990s, when a large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and a natural increase in the size of the cohorts reaching the age of conscription combined to swell the ranks of the regular army. At the same time, there were growing pressures to cut the military budget. Changes in military technology and strategy created a need for a more professional army and led then-Chief of Staff Ehud Barak to declare that his goal was to create a small, highly professional military force in which “what doesn’t shoot gets the boot.” Ben-Gurion’s vision of the IDF mission “oriented towards constructive ends such as education and the unifying of Israeli youth through common training and experiences” was being supplanted by the vision of a small, selective professional military force. To achieve this, a solution for the surplus manpower had to be found, which gave rise to the still ongoing debate of instituting an overall civic service for all citizens of Israel.

Until 1993, there were mainly four national operating NGOs, all of them sectarian (Jewish) religious organizations that recruited volunteers from the modern orthodox Jewish population identified with the National Religious Party.At this writing, an additional NGO received a license to operate the NYS in Israel. Unlike other national operating organizations, Shlomit is a secular, nonsectarian NGO that views service as an opportunity to strengthen volunteers from disadvantaged backgrounds who have been exempted from military service or rejected by the IDF for various reasons. The potential target population of volunteers for thisNGOis constantly increasing and the growth of the organization has been swift. The organization has grown from fewer than 100 volunteers placed in 1994 to more than 1,700 volunteers in 2002-2003.

All citizens can volunteer and receive the benefits but, in fact, few Palestinian citizens have volunteered so far and the overwhelming majority of volunteers are secular and religiously observant Jewish women.

Although men who had been exempted frommilitary service were allowed to volunteer for the NYS, under the 1970 law of National Service they were not eligible for the benefits given to women volunteers. In May 2001, the government decided to institute a “pilot project” of the NYS for 250 young men. Marketed primarily to young men in the ultra-orthodox Jewish and Palestinian Israeli communities, the project has failed to attract its target population.



As indicated above, the NYS in Israel is operated by NGOs established for that purpose. These NGOs recruit, train, place, and oversee the service of participating volunteers and maintain ongoing relations with the volunteers’ supervisors in their place of work.Volunteer placements may be in either public institutions or in nongovernmental not-for-profit organizations. Placements are for 1 year and maybe renewed for a 2nd year. Approximately half of the 9,000 volunteers in the NYS today serve in governmental institutions in positions funded by government ministries (education, welfare, health, the judiciary system, the police force, and immigrant absorption). The remainder serve in NGOs in positions funded by the beneficiary agency: Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross), HMOs, hospitals, residential schools for children and youth at risk, special needs education, community welfare organizations, and so on.

The cost of an NYS volunteer is estimated at about $9,000 per year, including insurance, housing, food, transportation, pocket money, training and enrichment activities during the year, placement, supervision, and liaison costs. Upon completion of service, NYS volunteers receive benefits at a level equivalent to those of women soldiers in noncombatant units: $1,500 grant after 12 months of service or $3,000 after 24 months of service. Approximately 30% of NYS volunteers serve for a 2nd year (Nathenson, Gal, & Bar-Tura, 2001).



The Pre-Army Service Year is a 1-year voluntary service program for high school graduates prior to their service in the IDF. Volunteers receive a 1-year service deferment from the IDF. The number of deferments is limited by the IDF to approximately 1,200 per year and acceptance into the Pre-Army Service Year is competitive and selective. Unlike volunteers in the NYS, the volunteers in the Pre-Army Service Year do not receive postservice benefits. The Council of Israeli Youth Movements and the Kibbutz Movement operate the Pre-Army Service Year. Beneficiary agencies such as youth villages, residential schools, and youth movements recruit volunteers during their senior year in high school.

Due to the deferment policy of the IDF, approximately two thirds of the volunteers are women.Volunteers serve full-time in various formal and informal education frameworks, including residential schools for youth at risk, public schools, field schools of the Society for the Preservation of Nature, and as counselors in informal education programs and youth movement activities in disadvantaged neighborhoods and development towns. The beneficiary agencies provide room, board, and a small sum of monthly pocket money.


Shalem (the Hebrew acronym for “National Service for Adults”) was founded in 2000 to offer service opportunities to active retirees. It is an NGO created by the Ministry of Education and the Association of Community Centers and fields more than 1,800 volunteers in 50 communities around the country.

Shalem’s activities include workshops to prepare people for retirement, preservice and in-service training for volunteers, service placement, and social activities for the volunteers.

Shalem recruits volunteers through outreach activities in cooperation with human resource departments in large companies and businesses, labor unions, and community centers. The organization strives to place the volunteers in positions that will make use of their professional skills and experience.

Volunteers usually serve 2 to 3 days a week over the course of a year in not-forprofit organizations in a range of activities: health, welfare, tutoring and special education, environment, immigrant absorption, and assistance to populations with special needs. If the service is performed outside of the volunteer’s home community, reimbursement is made for travel expenses. Volunteers receive no other material benefits.


Amitim (peers) is a sectarian voluntary service program that places volunteers aged 21 to 27 in small Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.

During their 8 months of service, the Amitim volunteers work in community development and educational projects. The volunteers undergo 1 month of preservice training in Israel. The program pays all travel and living expenses and the volunteers receive a small postservice grant.




This service-learning program in Israel was created in 1981 and today includes more than 70,000 10th-grade pupils annually. The program aims to prepare the participants to become active citizens of Israeli democracy. The students are required to perform 2 hours of community service weekly during the course of the entire school year, for a total of 60 hours of service. Approximately 30% of the participants continue volunteering for a 2nd year. During the period of service, the homeroom teacher conducts regular discussions to enable the pupils to reflect on their experiences and share problems and challenges encountered. The pupil’s performance and project summary is graded and carries academic credit included in the high school diploma. It is not clear yet whether it will be recognized as university credit in some faculties.



Close to 30,000 university students mentor more than 50,000 children and youth annually in the framework of Perach. The project began in 1974 with 10 students. Today, approximately 20% of the student body in Israel’s institutions of higher education participate in the project.A significant percentage of the volunteer mentors are university students fromminority groups. Perach is particularly active in the periphery and in Arab and Druze communities because the children of these regions are in greater need of such services, and students from these areas are more likely to require financial aid to cover tuition fees.

Volunteers serve 4 hours a week over the course of the academic year, receiving partial scholarships or academic credits in return for their service.

Regional coordinators oversee the work of the volunteers. Seminars are held for coordinators; study days and workshops are provided for mentors. Counselors, social workers, and psychologists are available for consultation and give professional guidance when necessary.

The program is financed by the Council for Higher Education, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labor and Welfare, universities, colleges, and municipalities. Private and corporate foundations as well as individual donors provide supplemental funding. Contrary to other forms of civic service, this program conducts periodic evaluations of the effect on beneficiaries. The results of questionnaires distributed in 2001 to schools where Perach is active indicate that the program has a high effect on the beneficiaries in four areas: improved educational achievements (51%), increased motivation to study (60%), self-esteem (82%), and social status (76%) (Perach, 2002).



Israel is a multicultural, multinational, democratic society. However, because Israel is defined as a Jewish state, it makes selective arrangements and exemptions for ethnic, national, and religious minorities within its midst. Unlike other Western democracies, Israel approaches citizenship through a prism of collective identity of subgroups within the population. Integration between national groups is not a goal of current Israeli policy. Although both Hebrew and Arabic are recognized as official languages, most official documents, street signs, and so on appear only in Hebrew. National education policy has supported the creation of separate school systems for Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking populations. Government housing and land allocation policy has led to the establishment of separate communities and local councils for Jews and Arabs (Gavison, 1999; Halabi, 1993). Exceptions to this rule are the cities of Acre, Haifa, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ramla, Lod, and Jerusalem, all of which have significant minority Arab populations dating from the prestate period. However, most of the population in these mixed cities lives in homogeneous neighborhoods.

Historical processes, including the renewed contact between Arabs in Israel and Arabs in the territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War, the first and second Intifada, have heightened a sense of national identity among Arab Israelis, many of whom today refer to themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel (Rouhana, 1997). They feel trapped in a situation in which their country is at war with their people, and less and less a part of Israeli society.

Ongoing and institutionalized inequality and discrimination in allocation of public resources to Arab municipalities, schools, and public institutions in Israel (Sikkuy, 2004) add to a sense of alienation and exclusion among Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The current intellectual and political leadership of the Palestinian community in Israel categorically rejects the idea of the NYS, whether voluntary or compulsory, for Palestinian Israeli youth, claiming that equality in civil rights must precede responsibilities. When the Israeli government, under then- Prime Minister Ehud Barak, tried to launch a pilot program of community based civic youth service, heavy pressure was brought to bear on Arab mayors to reject participation in such a government-funded program. Fear was expressed that such a program would lay the foundations for linking rights and responsibilities and was a way to introduce military service through the back door. Moreover, it was pointed out that even military service has not granted equal opportunity to non-Jews. Despite the high rates of military service in the IDF among Druze, government allocations to education, housing, and infrastructures in Druze villages remain well below that of similarly sized Jewish towns. Demobilized Druze soldiers often find that the equal burden of their military service does not give them equal opportunity in the job market, and the rate of unemployment in the Druze sector is far higher than in the Jewish sector. The situation in the Bedouin community is even worse (Lissak, 1998).

Nonetheless, two municipalities responded positively to the Barak initiative and in 2000, before the outbreak of the second Intifada, the number of Arab young women and men serving in the NYS reached a high of 60. Approximately half of them served in their home communities, in the framework of the government pilot project, and half volunteered on an individual basis and served outside of theirhomecommunity, working with diverse groups of people.

As we write these lines, only a handful of Palestinian citizens of Israel are volunteering in the NYS. Should there ever be peace between Israel and its neighbors, it is the authors’ belief that Palestinian citizens of Israel will join into the different forms of civic youth service. Moreover, should peace treaties be signed in the region, Gal (1998) proposes the creation of a regional youth service, where youth, coming fromformerly adversarial nations, will engage in a civic rather than a military service. Aprogram such as a Middle-Eastern, interstate youth civic service will enable both the coming together as well as the building together of youth from all neighboring countries in the Middle East. Perhaps better than any other channel—political, economic, or diplomatic—it is through the involvement of the youth of the respective nations that this newborn and fragile peace could flourish. However, at the present, the idea of a regional civic youth service in the Middle East is pure fantasy. The seemingly deadlocked situation in the Middle East has led the countries to many adverse psychological transformations, including negative mutual national images, distrust, and a “zero-sum” orientation. Nevertheless, we have experienced similar situations in the past that have rapidly changed, as with the dramatic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt (1979), followed by the peace treaty with Jordan (1994). The present spiral of violence, following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the collapse of the Oslo Agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1993, has stressed once more the importance of a process of adaptation of the people, the institutions, and the civil society to a new era.

One of the lessons learned from the collapse of the Oslo Agreements is that parallel to, we hope, future peace agreements between the leaders of nations in the Middle East, the rapid changes from conflict to peace must be accompanied by the establishment of social institutions that will facilitate the expression of civic responsibility and allow the development of common shared denominators. Such an institution could be embodied in a regional interstate civic youth service that will, as

William James (1910) wrote, “inflame civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.”


Service—military or national—has been, over the years, the collective route that provided meaning and a sense of identity and belonging to the individual in Israeli society. These were created to meet the challenges of a reality that no longer exists. After years of intense ethnic and religious conflict, massive immigrations, and changing economies, their lack of adaptation has created a void that neither the community of cyberspace nor the consumer culture of the suburban mall is able to fill.

The contemporary impetus to create a civic servicein Israel comes, thus, from two main motives: (a) to promote equality between citizens, both of burden and of opportunity, and (b) to provide arenas for shared experience and dialogue between increasingly separate societies within Israel.

The National Security Council (INSC) was assigned by the prime minister with the task of developing policy guidelines for future implementation of civic youth service. The guidelines presented by the INSC to the Israeli parliament in 2002 included the following:

1. Civic youth service should be voluntary, rather than compulsory, service of at least 1 year.

2. The IDF should have primacy in conscripting young people to fill its ranks.

3. Civic youth service should be operated by nongovernmental organizations that have no connection whatsoever with the Ministry of Defense or the IDF. Governmental involvement in the program should be minimal.

4. Placements should be primarily in the volunteer’s home community.

5. Civic youth service volunteers should receive postservice benefits at a lower level than those received by demobilized soldiers.

6. Implementation of the program should be gradual.

7. There should be no reserve duty obligations for civic youth service volunteers.

Professor Moshe Lissak of Hebrew University has argued that under ideal conditions, civic service can be a mechanism for more effective integration of the Palestinian citizens of Israel into a democratic, liberal society committed to the realization of equal rights for all sectors of the population. Lissak’s policy recommendations for developing a civic youth service in the Palestinian Israeli sector are similar to those of the INSC, but he adds thinking points specific to this target population:

1. Before implementing the program, a survey should be made to map the needs within the Arab sector. Representatives of the Arab community should have a significant, if not a decisive, voice in the operation and management of the program.

2. The majority of Palestinian Israeli young men and women join the work force after finishing their secondary education and represent an important source of the family’s income. Therefore, to be attractive to potential participants, civic youth service must provide compensation at the minimum wage level, benefits, and entitlements such as mortgage rights and so on given to demobilized soldiers. Special efforts must be made to prevent displacement of salaried workers by civic service participants.

Although these policy recommendations were formulated in 1998, Lissak (1998) warned that specific and localized solutions can no more than delay for a while the need to deal with the fundamental dilemma of the existence of a large Palestinian minority in Israel.We cannot ignore the possibility that partial and localized solutions will not prevent a deep crisis in relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel in the future. (p. 5)

Two years later, in October 2000, masses of Palestinian Israelis took to the streets to demonstrate against discrimination at home and to show their support of the Palestinian Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza. Continuing violence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and recent arrests of some Islamic party leaders within Israel have exacerbated relations between the government and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Support among Palestinian Israelis for government-initiated service programs seems farther away than ever before.

The events of October 2000 highlighted the linkage between Israel’s domestic challenges and her foreign policy and security issues. The prospects for service as a policy that may promote integration and equality between diverse national and ethnic groups are heavily contingent on developments in the region.Without some sort of normalization of relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there can be no normalization of the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Thus, the process of building peace between Israel and her neighbors is the key to participation of the Palestinian citizens of

Israel in a program of civic service and to their fuller integration into Israeli society. Renewal of the violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians after the optimistic years of the Oslo peace process has also affected the Israeli public discourse concerning the legitimacy of alternative civic service for Jews.

When it appeared that swords would soon be turned into plowshares, there was growing acceptance by politicians, opinion shapers, and the general public of civic service as a legitimate and desirable alternative to military service.

However, as the conflict continues in an ever-widening spiral of violence and terror, many Israelis feel their existence, both individual and collective, increasingly threatened. Once again, military service, security, and defense become the dominant concepts in the discourse of citizenship, and Hanna

Herzog’s description of military service as “the primary rite of passage that initiates one into full membership in the Zionist civil religion” takes on renewed force. Although the present geopolitical situation and its military and economic ramifications have put a damper on the move toward implementing voluntary civic youth service for all Israeli young menand womenwhodo not serve in the IDF, much can be done now to prepare for future opportunities. The gap between political leadership and the grassroots in two critical sectors of Israeli society—ultra-orthodox Jews and Palestinian Israelis—on the desirability of implementing national civic youth service may indicate directions for action.

Grassroots advocacy work may help to give greater voice to the positions of young people on issues that affect their lives and may force political leaders to become more responsive to their constituencies. This advocacy work must be nurtured by research and dissemination of information: Research and costbenefit data concerning civic youth service in other countries will help to inform the policy debate in Israel and allay some of the fears about the potential budgetary burdens of such a program.

First steps in this direction have been undertaken by the Carmel Institute:A study on volunteers’ motivation for service, social attitudes, and satisfaction from service was completed in 2002 (Gal, Amit, Fleischer, & Strichman, 2003) as well as a cost-benefit analysis in cooperation with the Israeli Institute for Economic and Social Research (Nathenson et al., 2001). It is not surprising that this study concluded that the direct benefits of a program of voluntary NYS in Israel would balance or slightly outweigh the costs. This study broke new ground in its development of an economic model that integrates theories of volunteerism in establishing opportunity costs. Although this research has made a significant contribution to framing the policy debate, there is a need for a more comprehensive investigation assessing the effect in wider circles.

Moreover, production and distribution of television shows, documentary films, photography exhibits, and so on that describe the civic service experience and its contribution to democracy, tolerance, and active citizenship in countries around the world would encourage interest and enthusiasm about developing new programs and strengthening existing ones.

Two distinct perspectives could be presented about the effect of civic service on Israeli society. According to one perspective, nationwide forms of civic service that include all Israeli citizens could significantly diminish the existing polarization between the diverse ethnic and religious sectors that coexist in continuous tension within Israel’s society.Adifferent perspective (Fleischer& Gal, 2003) indicates that these benefits could be jeopardized by means of the current model of implementation of the prevalent form of civic service, namely the NYS. Most of the NYS operating organizations draft volunteers according to their beliefs and guidelines. Consequently, volunteers in each organization come from specific sectors of society (e.g., religious, secular).

Seen from this perspective, rather than contributing to social cohesion by developing “bridging” social capital (Putnam, 2000), the NYS in Israel might contribute to further segregating society by developing “bonding” rather than bridging or linking social capital. The only way of clarifying these uncertainties and of bridging between these differing points of view is by developing more specific knowledge about the effects of civic service in Israel, by further experimenting and testing forms of implementation of the NYS, and by following these experimentations with systematic research and evaluation.


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