Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My Daughter, the Chief of Staff, and National Service

The past few months have seen a virtual roller coaster of errors relating to the appointment of Israel’s next Chief of Staff. During the process, scandals and rumors came to light including the leaking of a forged letter discrediting the general who would ultimately be selected. Following his appointment other leading generals who were passed over for the top position resigned. Then, allegations of illegal activities in the form of expropriating state land to expand his private home emerged. This past week, following two state investigations, it was announced that the newly appointed Chief of Staff would not be elevated to this position, causing a national stir as to who would serve until a new Chief of Staff is selected. This drama took place amid barbs about the backward process in making this critical appointment, allegations of favoritism and cronyism, speculation as to who will get the nod to be the new Chief of Staff, fallout for the politicians who were party to all this, as well as charges against both the outgoing Chief of Staff and the sitting Minister of Defense who is responsible for appointing the Chief of Staff. Is your head spinning yet? I haven't even mentioned the other legal scandals surrounding Israel’s recent past president, past prime minister, sitting foreign minister, several recently ousted cabinet members, and others, based on their own political, legal and criminal wrongdoings. To the untrained eye, one would think that it’s time for Israel to reconsider how it selects its local and national civil servants and elected leaders. This week, amid the breaking news regarding the Chief of Staff, the absurdity of it all came to light in a new way. My daughter is finishing high school and is in the process of determining where she'll spend the next two years doing her mandatory national service. Army or national service is compulsory for most Israelis, though there is no shortage of people avoiding military or national service entirely, or young women disgracefully declaring that they are religious, when they are not, to avoid conscription. Generally, young women who declare and demonstrate that they are religiously observant, for whom military service would compromise Jewish standards in modesty and mixing of men and women in uncomfortable settings, can sign up for national service rather than military service, volunteering in one of hundreds of organizations that service the public in many ways. Juxtaposing the absurdity of the Chief of Staff selection process, I am shocked to see, comparatively, how grueling the selection process is for my daughter to serve in a voluntary position-- admittedly one that is among the most coveted– to work with orphans and other at risk youth who have been taken out of their parents’ homes for their own well being. These childrens’ homes are special nurturing places where the staff and volunteers, and dozens of other children of all ages, become the childrens’ family in every sense of the word. Alumni visit there when on leave from the army. They bring their prospective spouses to meet their family there. The childrens' homes even host weddings or other celebration on behalf of their children, as any parent would. Compounding an absurd internet-based lottery to determine which 16 women will even be eligible for an interview, is the process itself, which is exceptionally detailed and arduous for a 17 year old woman from a sheltered environment and a safe and loving family. My daughter was fortunate to get an internet lottery scheduled interview for two of the three positions she wanted. She had to submit an application covering everything imaginable to be accepted for an interview to a third program. Tonight at 6:00, anyone who has at least 5 fingers and a computer will be “clicking” per instructions to get her a final interview at yet another children’s home. However, before the application process began, my daughter was told that under no circumstance would she get accepted to any of these positions without requisite 'Protexia.' Protexia is an Israeli phenomenon that greases the wheels of everything. Since in Israel “three degrees of separation” is the standard, the expectation is that everyone knows someone, who can get them to someone else, who can get pretty much anything done by asking a personal favor. It’s part of the Israeli DNA. As new immigrants, the best Protexia I have is that I can call a particularly busy and popular Jerusalem bakery on a Friday morning and have a box of hot chocolate croissants waiting for me without standing on line. In the case of my daughter applying for national service, we have pulled every string imaginable, and even considered forging our own letter from Israel’s (long deceased) first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to my grandparents, immigrants from Poland in the 1930s, saying ‘what a privilege it is to write a letter of reference on behalf of their, as yet unborn, first great grandchild.’ While only 16 young women won spots for the respective interviews via the lottery “system,” Protexia was clear from the first moment on interview day, as 30 young women magically appeared for interviews despite spots officially available for only 16. This will occur two more times for a total of just ten spots. To my daughter’s credit, while we have pretty good resources intervening on her behalf, she is appalled by this process and finds it unfair. I admire how straight and honest she is to think that selection should be determined by merit. But it’s my job as her father to make sure that she’s given every 'string-pulling' opportunity possible. I suggested that rather than awkwardly dropping the requisite names that she’s supposed to drop in this process, hoping that these names mean more than the other names that the other young women will drop, she should go into the interviews saying that she was told she needed to drop so and so’s name, but is uneasy doing so because she thinks that she should be evaluated not based on who she knows, but on who she is. Maybe that would make her stand out in a positive way. Coming back to the Chief of Staff and our other leaders, one can’t help but wonder what process vets out these purported leaders on a national stage in anything remotely resembling the selection process that 17 year old women need undergo to work in a home with disadvantaged kids: undergoing formal aptitude tests, handwriting analysis, psychological evaluation, and be able to articulate what they want to do for the rest of their lives. I can’t help but feel that if half this national service process had been applied to our national leaders, we’d have nixed the candidacy of serial liars, a rapist, forger, and petty and not so petty criminals of all sorts who now receive government salaries, or pensions. Service to our country is still an esteemed virtue in Israel—one that we would like to believe the country’s leaders sincerely value. But these leaders would do well to take example from tens of thousands of young women who undergo a grueling process, just to be selected for a job that in many ways will be the hardest thing they do in their lives. Yet, as hard as my daughter and her peers will work, these will be positive, life-changing experiences that will make them better, more dedicated, empathetic adults, and future leaders in whom we can have pride. Oh…and anyone who has any contacts in any of Israel’s most outstanding children’s homes should please e-mail me off line. A father’s got to do what a father’s got to do.