Amid the fiery debate surrounding the Plesner Committee, there is one alternative we've lost sight of that deserves to be seriously considered. Instead of drafting ultra-Orthodox men at age 23, at a massive cost to the army and, essentially, to the state, and instead of running a massive army with a mandatory draft, one that includes whole battalions of secretaries preparing coffee as well as various non-combat functionaries, perhaps it is time to talk about transitioning to a professional army.
It's true that this proposal is laced with danger. It is possible the IDF would have to make do with lower quality personnel. Israel's security situation is precarious, certainly more so than that of the U.S. or Britain, and we need a high-quality army that can truly maintain our security.
But despite the fact that it's complicated, it would be wrong to completely dismiss the idea of a professional army. Such an army would certainly pay its soldiers a handsome salary, starting at age 18. The state would also have to provide real benefits to those who choose to serve, perhaps an apartment for every soldier who serves for, say, five years. Or perhaps free university tuition through to a master's degree. But even without special benefits, I believe that at the end of the day, the army would learn how to draft precisely the personnel it needs to address Israel's complex security requirements.
This is indeed a far-reaching idea. To a certain extent, it stands in precise opposition to fundamental beliefs that have taken root in our society. But it is an idea that carries many benefits as well. It would make it easier to integrate haredim into the workforce, not to mention certain portions of the secular public. This is a critical economic issue for the future of the state as well. The country would gain working hands and, over time, the burden of defense spending would diminish. The army would be more efficient because it would have to fund the real cost of every soldier it takes into its ranks. We need to point out that in the beginning this process would be very expensive, so it's important to manage it well.
But let's be frank. Beyond those secular Israelis who dodge the draft, even within the army there are more and less meaningful ways to serve. Unfortunately, I served in one of the less meaningful ways. Although I did complete my service with a rank of staff sergeant, I can't say I don't regret the three years I spent as a quartermaster in a non-combat unit. If I could do it over, I would try very hard to obtain a more meaningful position.
But this is only a theoretical discussion, and everyone who serves in the army knows there are many people who serve as "jobnikim" (non-combat soldiers), who patrol bases at night and whose greatest fear is that the pizza delivery guy won't be able to jump the fence. In addition, there is the notorious malingering of newly recruited 18 year-old soldiers, who fake various ailments so as not to be drafted into combat units. Suddenly young men who had no trouble chasing girls on the beach complain about severe backaches and newly discovered allergies and their medical files fill up with a chilling list of symptoms.
It makes sense for the public to "reboot" its attitude toward the mandatory draft. Obviously, society would pay a high price in terms of encouraging social service and working toward the public good. But that is precisely the issue: A forced draft for everyone is not necessarily the most effective step. Most young people can be channeled to meaningful volunteer work that is no less important for the community. True unpaid volunteer work that is not bound by time requirements.
In any case, the benefits of transitioning to a professional army, like that of the U.S., are great. The time has come to seriously consider this alternative, which never even came up during this heated debate. In a country with a professional army, civilians can always volunteer to serve the community in other ways. Perhaps that is what will happen if we do get a professional army. The state will promote pure volunteerism, without incentives, subsidies and other budgetary measures.
Encouraging the public to volunteer in hospitals, the police, firefighting services, the education system and the like will lead to young people volunteering out of their own good will. Activities performed purely on a volunteer basis would be a great contribution to the community.