For immigrants, too

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is proposing a compulsory one-year national service in Germany for all young people and migrants. While mandatory military service was deemed futile and was abolished in 2011, the new initiative for a service year is a response to the challenge of integrating its population of more than one million refugees.

“If refugees complete such a year, it would help to integrate them into the country and society”, CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said, adding, “It would also increase the acceptance of refugees among the population.” She is absolutely right.

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Integration of migrants is always better than their isolation. Studies have shown that the more a society is exposed to migrants, the more receptive it is to them. Integrating migrants is surely better than pushing them outside city centers to make them out-of-sight, out-of-mind subjects, as Ian Jaffe suggested in May in The Jerusalem Post.

Integration is a complicated matter and there is no direct path to it. It touches on the most sensitive aspects of the charged “What is citizenship?” debate.

Migrants may can claim rights as individuals using the liberal discourse that is enshrined in the democratic order. At the same time, to break through the gates of social acceptability, migrants and other marginalized minorities are often expected to make a contribution to their respective societies.

This is not some reactionary expectation restricted to Germany’s conservatives. It’s the same expectation that encouraged conservative voters in Montana to elect Wilmot Collins mayor of Helena last year, a Liberian refugee who has been a member of the US Navy Reserve for two decades. It’s the same sentiment that encouraged French President Emmanuel Macron to grant citizenship to a migrant from Mali who heroically saved a child dangling from a building in Paris last May. That too is a form of service to the nation.

Immigrants know that as well, which is why they often appreciate the sort of opportunity that Kramp-Karrenbauer now offers in Germany.

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In Israel, national service proved to be a strong platform for integration. The IDF was an essential tool in David Ben-Gurion’s “melting-pot” policy to aggregate the “gathering of Israel.” It is also important for integrating its non-Jewish minorities.

PRIOR TO 1948, Bedouin were recruited into Palmah units. Then, Druze youths joined to fight with the Jews in the War of Independence. Since that time, Druze, Bedouin and Circassians became part of the IDF’s top-units.

Non-Jewish migrants can also be found in Israel’s army. Since the early ‘90s, Israel has been the de facto home to at least 100,000 non-Jewish migrants. These include documented and undocumented labor migrants, tourists who have overstayed their visa, asylum-seekers and refugees. While the government resolved to deport undocumented migrants and their families, several hundred of them were legalized following successful campaigns by human rights NGOs in 2005, 2009 and 2014.

Their children are entitled to equal education and they often excel in it. Their largest school, the Bialik Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv, is ranked highly by the Education Ministry.

Its pupils proudly wear the Israeli flag when they represent their school and country in international sports and arts and science competitions. Each year, dozens of the school’s graduates join the army and other national service platforms. Whether the daughter of a Moldavian construction worker or the son of a cleaning lady from Ghana, they know that giving back to the country also presents a precious opportunity to become more fully accepted in Israeli society.

National service is clearly not a magic pill against the perils of all racial marginalization and economic discrimination. Druze citizens are still deprived of essential building rights, entire Bedouin villages are displaced, and children from Moldova or Ghana are still routinely subject to racial harassments. Similarly, Syrian refugees in Germany will certainly face difficulties after they work for a year in, for example, an old age home in Bavaria. Civil rights, human rights and refugee rights must be protected unconditionally.

Yet while individuals can claim their rights from the government, their integration requires social solidarity. The republican discourse thus doesn’t substitute the liberal one. It complements it.

National service is a tool the German government can use to encourage such solidarity by engaging all its people in fighting the country’s social ailments. By working in national service of all sorts, migrants and minorities can turn from being perpetually portrayed as victimized subjects into active agents seeking positive social change.

No country offers a direct path to integration, but national service paves a road in the right direction.

The writer is a PhD candidate in the fields of immigration and integration at the Goethe University Frankfurt.

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