Last week, on the last day of the Knesset’s winter session, the National Service bill passed its second and third reading and became law. The law, the merging of a government-sponsored bill and a private member bill put forward by Members of Knesset Amir Ohana and David Bitan, stipulates, among other things, that only organizations involved in “providing services or care directly to populations in Israel, including Israeli residents in the area” will be eligible to take in national service volunteers. What this language means is that Jewish populations on either side of the Green Line are in while Palestinians are out. The law also stipulates that “an organization which gets most of its funding from a foreign state entity” would require approval from the minister in charge of national service. These stipulations were designed to single out a minute number of the hundreds of organizations currently engaging some 17,000 national service volunteers. Gisha is one of them.
As a result of the law, E., who is currently finishing her national service at Gisha, will be the last volunteer to work with us in this framework. She is a cherished and talented part of our team and has done meaningful work during her time with us. From our vantage point, it’s hard to see why a law that regulates national service for the first time would also need to prevent young people like E. from dedicating a year or two of their lives to working with human rights organizations.
The choice made by young Israelis to volunteer with human rights organizations reflects their worldview, a worldview that includes a willingness to examine government decisions openly and critically, and out of a concern for and commitment to the future of the place we all call home. Through this program, we have come to know three impressive young people who chose to volunteer with Gisha, even though they could have chosen other, ostensibly easier places to spend their time.
We emphasize, again, that the issue is not about national service spots, but about the effort to delegitimize work and thought that does not fall in line with the consensus, and to mark and target civil society organizations. The issue, in other words, is political persecution. A message is being sent to young people in Israel that critical thinking and questioning government actions are unwanted behavior, and could see them personally marked.
Gisha will continue its work, with or without a national service volunteer. We will continue to point to the moral failure and ineffectiveness of the closure on the Gaza Strip, and shed light on the ongoing violation of the fundamental rights of two million men, women and children there.
A law that takes away one volunteer position in our organization will not seriously harm our work. The attempt at thought control and the undermining of our capacity as a society to discuss and debate critical life and death issues that affect the future of us all – in short, the undermining of the very democratic foundations of society itself is the real danger here.