Could National Service Bring America Together?
JNS.org – America might be as divided as it has been since the Civil War. According to Pew Research data, more than four in 10 Democrats and four in 10 Republicans say that the other party’s policies are so misguided that they pose a threat to the nation.
Anger and hatred have filled social-media platforms, in part due to the perverse motivation for regular media to increase their “site clicks” by highlighting highly-charged, divisive stories. Relationships among friends and families are increasingly frayed. In addition, a growing culture of entitlement and indulgence is overtaking America’s youth. Put all of this together, and it portends a bleak forecast for America.
There are, however, remedies that Americans could turn to, in order to learn perspectives from one another and contribute to the greater good.
One such remedy that helped in America’s past, and that helps in Israel today, is mandatory national service. Given America’s current trajectory, there may be no better time than now to seriously consider such a program.
My father-in-law, of blessed memory, came from a broken home in Cleveland with no father. He was on the street at 16. Somehow, he found the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program, and began to build trails and campgrounds in America’s forests and parks.
He said that the program literally saved his life. He met people from across the country. He served in World War II. He went on to have a successful career as a personnel officer. He was still doing trail maintenance on the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail in his late 80s.
My own father, of blessed memory, like most of his generation, was drafted and fought in World War II, in the Battle of the Bulge. The replacement rate in his unit was 150 percent. He was a Jewish soldier who saw firsthand the opening of the gates of Buchenwald. He understood only too well what giving and sacrifice for the sake of one’s country meant. He came home, put his head down and worked as a draftsman helping build the bridges and skyscrapers of New York City. And he raised us.
They were truly the greatest generation. Both my father-in-law and father met Americans that they never would have met, and their service to America, much of which was required, changed them.
Today in Israel, there is also mandatory service. While there are exemptions and challenges, by and large, most Israeli youth either are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces or perform national service.
The discussion among Israeli high school youth is not about college-campus ratings; it is about service, which IDF unit to aim for or what national-service program. From my son’s experience in the IDF, his basic-training unit included religious and non-religious soldiers, as well as those from other cultures from the “ingathering of the exiles” — from Ethiopians to Russians to Jews of Middle Eastern nations, and even a non-Jew — all working together to protect the people of Israel.
Part of the training is a basic civics lesson on the history of the State of Israel, including visits to historical sites. Once their service is complete, they enter college — albeit as more mature adults.
If you speak to those who have completed their service, many will remark about the lifelong friendships they formed. Many will also have common complaints about the hardships that they endured, but almost all will say that they are happy to have served.
These past months we are seeing protests in Israel, as well as in the United States. The difference is that the level of discord and hatred among protesters and the general population compared to those in America is far less aggressive. In Israel, the protests are focused on the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis and concern that the leadership’s response is inadequate. Yet overall, Israelis, regardless of their political agendas, remain largely connected to each other and supportive of the state. It can be argued that the reason for the current state of affairs in Israel is a result of their required national service during that impressionable post-high school period.
For the United States, one of the first questions might be: What productive work could be accomplished by a national-service program? Surely, there is no shortage of work for such a program in America. In the public-lands arena, for example, thousands of miles of trails in America’s national forests and parks are disappearing from weathering and erosion, and are in serious need of repair. Communities across the country threatened by wildfire are in desperate need of fuel treatment — thinning the forests around their neighborhoods. State lands are in no better condition. Cities across the country also need help with their urban and community parks.
The US military is built on a volunteer model that military planners undoubtedly prefer, as it efficiently focuses training on those who are planning longer-term careers. Nevertheless, Israel has battle-tested a mandatory participation model that, thank God, is effectively keeping its citizens safe under constantly trying situations that daily test the IDF’s resolve.
There will be many objections in the United States to any kind of national-service program, especially if it is mandatory. There will be legitimate concerns about funding, the politicization of program design, impact on universities, military programs, and budgets, etc. There may well be opposition from those who align with a libertarian perspective. Yet in light of the divisive and self-absorbed condition in which America finds itself, it may be time to consider a required post-high-school program, even if for only nine months or a year.
Overall, America is still spiritually wired as a nation of givers, as many studies have shown. A required national-service program may train America’s youth to continue in the footsteps of their grandfathers and grandmothers.
The late President John F. Kennedy’s refrain about asking “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” transcends all religious and political divides. America could plant the seeds in this time of turmoil for creating a generation “Z” whose children will be able to look back at them and see parents to emulate.
Gary Schiff is a former manager and director with the US Forest Service. He is currently a Jerusalem-based consultant and guide connecting Israeli and US natural-resource interests.