One of the more consistent ideas that hovers around American public policy is the idea of ‘federal service’ of some type being strongly encouraged or even required for all citizens of the United States. Especially in this time of long term recession the idea of two year program like the WPA, or Americore or Job Corps that would put young Americans to work, teach them skills and give people a sense of investment in their own country sounds not only reasonable but downright necessary in the face of mass unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. Of course in order to keep those programs vibrant, you often have to make them compulsory. “What’s wrong with that?” Many people would ask, if this country is so great why shouldn’t you be willing to give a few years back to it? The reason it’s a bad idea is because it violates the basic tenets of freedom this country was founded on, and you get situations like what happened to Yana Gorelik in Israel.
All Israeli citizens who have lived in the country until the age of 15, once they turn 18 are required to do some compulsory government service usually in some wing of the Israeli Defense Force. Men must serve three years and women must serve two. While there are many exceptions for advanced degrees, orthodox religion or other areas, the vast majority of citizens of Israel serve their government in some compulsory capacity, whether on the front lines of the West Bank or bureaucratic service, between 18-21 years of age. Refusal to do so will result in prison time. That’s what Gorelik discovered much to her chagrin.
Yana Gorelik lived in Israel until she was 17 years old when her family moved to Canada. Over the years she visited Israel from time to time, on short trips to see friends or family, but for all practical purposes was a Canadian and had dual citizenship. So you can imagine her surprise in early September when she came to Israel to attend a friend’s wedding and was jailed at Ben Gurion airport as a ‘deserter’?
Israeli officials argued that since Yana had lived in Israel for 17 years even though she moved with her family as a minor, that she was still required to provided her two years of mandatory service to the IDF and consequently had deserted her country. How’s that for building patriotism? Initially the Gorelik’s argued that since Yana left as a minor in the care of her parents it couldn’t be considered ‘desertion’, not to mention the fact that she acquired Canadian citizenship while living abroad. Further, the Goreliks argued, that since Yana visited Israel so infrequently (she is now 30 years old) that they were told at the Canadian embassy that she was exempt from IDF service. In fact, in previous trips to the country over the last several years she had never had any problems entering or leaving the country. Unmoved, the national courts ruled that the 30 year old Canadian woman had to serve 3 months in prison (her stay in jail throughout September would count towards her sentence). Needless to say Yana Gorelik is disgusted and pledges to never come to Israel again once she has served her time and wants to annul her citizenship.
I do not presume to understand all of the nuances of Israeli culture or law, nor to I presume to know is the Gorelik case is an example of weird bureaucratic incompetence or a family trying to outsmart the law. What I do know is this: Regardless of the patriotic or noble intentions, mandatory government service always carries with it and element of suppression. It suppresses an individual’s ability to move, live and travel where they like. It prevents them from expressing themselves in ways that might allow them to reach their greatest potential. And sometimes it is a horrible mess that screws up someone’s life because of an anachronistic law that requires a service be provided to a nation that no longer needs it. Either way the story is telling, the next time a political leader begins to tout the benefits of national service think about the Yana Gorelik story. All of that compulsory service sounds great on paper, but in reality you often end up creating nightmares for citizens that you never intended.