Are the Israeli army's technology units elitist?

IDF Intelligence Unit credit: IDF Spokesperson
IDF Intelligence Unit credit: IDF Spokesperson

"Globes" examines the figures and finds that while there are clear cultural and socioeconomic biases, change is underway.

Refusal to serve by Israeli pilots or unit 8200 intelligence staff is nothing new. It has happened in the past on issues of conscience when soldiers and officers refused to participate in operations that they claimed resulted in killing innocent civilians. But the latest wave of refusal following legislative plans is unprecedented and is at the center of large public protests. This time it was dozens of pilots and hundreds of soldiers and officers from units such as the 8200 as well as special operations units who announced that they would not volunteer for reserve service and miss maneuvers that was supposed to prepare them for operational activities.

The strength of this wave of refusal and its influence on the suspension of legislation for the government's judicial overhaul has also brought a backlash. Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli (Likud) told Channel 12 News, the days after Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant was fired, "As well as reforming the judicial system we need to reform academia, unit 8200 and the pilots' course."

Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen tweeted, "These are exactly the people who refused to accept young men from the periphery to their units but brought their own children there because they were afraid that someone else would get the cream. It's good for them to die for our country in Golani, Givati, Border Police and Kfir units - but not good enough to taste the cream of the privileged."

In fact, the process of social diversification of the various army units began years ago, and continues even more strongly these days. According to data published by the IDF at the end of 2022, in recent years there has been an increase in socio-economic diversity in units, among other things due to changes in the identification, recruitment and placement processes designed to reduce social gaps in the IDF.

Top units are still insufficiently diverse

Yet, the process is still far from perfect. Despite the many programs to find candidates from the periphery and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, the tech units in the IDF Intelligence Division and IT Division recruit graduates from upper socioeconomic backgrounds at a much higher rate than their share in the population. At the end of 2022, 37% of all soldiers in tech units came from the second highest socioeconomic background, even though their share of the population is 22%. 10% of soldiers in tech units belong to the top decile, even though their share of the population is only 4%.

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, only 3% of soldiers in these units come from the fourth lowest socioeconomic cluster, even though their share of the population is 10% and only 1% of soldiers come from the third lowest cluster, even though their share of the population is 6%.

Israel National Cyber Directorate director general Gaby Portnoy is closely familiar with the IDF's elite tech units. Until recently he served in such senior positions as Commander of the 9900 Geospatial Agency, Head of Planning and Commander of the IDF Operational Division. Portnoy told "Globes" that social gaps remained at the end of last year but are closing fast. "The idea that cyber recruits come mainly from the area between Gedera and Hadera (central Israel) is no longer relevant today. A decade ago, 3% of recruits who came to the 'cyber pool' (the pool of manpower recruited for cyber duties in the army as a whole, and later sorted into the elite units) - came from the geographic and social periphery but today their proportion reaches 40%."

The program that began the largest pool of cyber recruits

It hasn't happened overnight. In recent years a series of programs have been opened that have become the main training arena operated by the Intelligence Division for candidates for service from the periphery. The Magshimim program, for example, locates high school students with high potential for tech units and provides them with extra classes. 65% of the program's graduates are recruited by cyber and tech units and 85% of them go on to take academic degrees or work in the tech industry after completing their army service. The army's dependence on such programs is so great, in fact, that harming them could lead to a decrease in the number of recruits for cyber units.

The IDF's Magshimim program is partially funded (20%) by the Rashi Foundation, chaired by former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. The program was founded when Nadav Zafrir served as commander of the 8200 unit between 2009 and 2013, based on the assumption that the IDF knows how to identify young people that have been very successful in computer science and math but misses many with the potential to excel in these disciplines. Zafrir estimated, and in hindsight was right, that high school students from the periphery would be prepared to stay behind after school hours in order to learn computer studies given by volunteer soldiers. Last year 1,700 students completed the program and 35% were accepted by the IDF's tech units.

After a decade of activities and attempts to open the program to more potential candidates, the Bridges program hs also been founded and operates in 35 towns including Tirat Carmel, Beit Shean, Nahariya, Yarka and Sderot. In the army, which funds 50% of the program's budget (the other half comes from the Rashi Foundation), they see Bridges as the largest manpower reserve for tech units in the coming years. The IDF predicts that the large numbers in the Bridges program iwill bring change to the periphery. This year 24,000 students will complete the program and by 2025, 50,000 graduates are expected from 50 locations.

On top of this is the Atidim program, founded by former Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. This program aimed at residents of the periphery allows talented high school students to take an academic degree in a range of subjects as part of their army service. 28% of IDF soldiers on degree programs are in Atidim and this number that is expected to jump to 35% next year.

Portnoy expects that all these training programs, as well as other programs promoted by the IDF, will have 100,000 graduates annually within two to three years. So that if in 2022, only 18% of tech unit soldiers were from the geographical or social periphery, military sources estimate that by the end of 2023, this figure would have risen to 20%-25% and by the end of 2024, maybe even to 30%. These are figures that come much closer to the percentage of residents living in Israel's periphery, almost representative to their proportion of the population.

"8200 and the other tech units are not the problem, but the solution - one that the whole world is studying," says Zafrir, nowthe founding partner of the Team8 venture group. "This is probably the only program in the world to which you are accepted based on learning potential and not based on previous training, in particular in programs such as Magshimim and Bridges that deal with increasing this potential in the periphery. In the unit, potential is identified in young people from all over the country, they are trained and placed in a position where they engage in the most advanced technology for the benefit of the most worthy aim, until they are discharged and become entrepreneurs and tech professionals leading Israeli high-tech."

Discrimination began mainly because of ignorance

One of the dramatic changes that the IDF had to make in order to recruit more candidates from the periphery for technological units was an extensive change in the method of finding candidates. First and foremost this change involved abolishing the 'quality group' mark, which included a widespread bias towards stronger population groups.

Dr. Zeev Lerer, a former senior member of the IDF's Behavioral Sciences Department and currently head of the Sociology Program at the Peres Academic Center, believes that the 'quality group' mark was used as a tool to build an elitist cultural identity in the army and that the way in which the candidates were chosen until then created discrimination on the basis of community. "Selection tools worldwide are built on social identities in armies - today they understand that they need to be culturally fair and adapt to the characteristics and identities that differentiate them in order to be valid," he says.

At the same time, Lerer says that as early as the 1980s, the 'quality group' method lost its ability to separate Mizrahim from Ashkenazim in the land combat army. "At that time, there was an accelerated process of immigration from Mizrahi ethnic groups, and a large influx of them into the army after the Yom Kippur War," he says. "The army felt that it had been stuck with a 1948 obsolete, outdated and mostly incorrect screening tool for its time. There was an understanding that the tool did not measure military success but reflected cultural characteristics - it caused many mediocre candidates to become officers and prevented others who could have made excellent officers from becoming officers." Yet, according to Lerer, the elitist structure remains: the Ashkenazi dominance shifted from the special units and the officers' courses to the tech units.

"It was not intentional discrimination and it did not stem from racism," insists Lerer, who summarized his research in the field in his book "The Ethnic Code." "It was mainly bureaucratic ignorance by the manpower officials did not really seriously think about their definitions, the language and the practices that were customary."

The army claims that selection processes have been completely changed

Today, senior army sources claim selection processes have been completely changed from the situation described by Lerer in his book: the 'quality group' mark has been abolished, other tests have been refined and their weight in the final grade has been reduced.

Geographical accessibility has also improved. If in the past candidates for tech units were required to come to Tel Aviv, today they can be seen in Beersheva, Tiberias, Jerusalem and Haifa, and in two thirds of cases tests can be conducted remotely from home computers. It is possible to prepare for exams and selection days through subsidized military studies and courses, and even to request a second opportunity.

Despite the mistakes made by the IDF in the past in the selection of candidates, Lerer believes that politicians should not interfere in these processes. "The process should be carried out within the army by the army - after all, the situation is complex. It's easiest to say that the Ashkenazim screwed the Mizrahim, and that there are elites, but the reality is more complex, and it's important to understand how institutional - not psychological - racism developed here. The processes were decided by officials in Tel Hashomer (IDF induction center) and the Kirya (IDF headquarters) and they did not see social identities being abused. Today we have to understand that the inequality created in the tech units - to the extent that it is created - is much greater, because the advantages for 8200 graduates in subsequent civilian life are much greater than anything a soldier ever had previously."

Zafrir also does not believe that there is any room for government intervention in the matter: "I am convinced that the Minister of Defense knows the data on programs such as Bridges or Magshimim, so if he already wants to intervene, he will only have to strengthen those programs. In order to continue to see results, you also need patience. It is impossible to take students who have not been exposed and trained, or those who are not suitable and place them in the units, but over time there is an opportunity for dramatic change here. I would be happy to see the Minister of Defense sit down with the Minister of Education, and both together present a plan for greater investment to bring the existing training courses to younger students and smaller classes."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on April 13, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

IDF Intelligence Unit credit: IDF Spokesperson
IDF Intelligence Unit credit: IDF Spokesperson
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