A League of Their Own

The blackboard in the room of Major Barak Ben Eliezer bears a motto: "The sky is the limit and the way to get there is by decent behavior."

The blackboard in the room of Major Barak Ben Eliezer bears a motto: "The sky is the limit and the way to get there is by decent behavior."

The small room is lit with fluorescent lighting, exactly like most military offices, but it is located on the green Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ben Eliezer, 27, has been serving for the past two years as the officer in charge of the prestigious Talpiot technological-military project.

It is part of the Israeli parallel to the American Ivy League - those educational institutions that pave the way for their students.

Talpiot is a typical Israeli example of what in other countries is a course of study that is a symbol of tranquillity, stability and prestige. But whereas in the U.S., the Ivy League refers to the old, established, prestigious universities, with the best professors, in Israel, the concept of prestigious study usually refers to service in the best military units, which guarantee those who serve in them a better future career.

In addition, the student should preferably have studied previously in the best high schools. Veteran schools such as the Reali School in Haifa, aware of the heavy responsibility they bear, and in order to maintain a high level, even demand extra tuition. Shifra Gordon, assistant director of pedagogy in the Reali School, points out that this is a process of a society recreating itself to achieve an exact copy.

Prof. Ehud Sprinzak, dean of the Lauder School of Government in the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC), sees this as the criterion of a mature society: "There is no problem with the role filled by certain Israel Defense Forces (IDF) units. It's hard to argue with the experience they provide."

This crowded Israeli "network" bases itself on the technological front. Of the 240 graduates of the Hebrew University High School, only 20 took the three-point matriculation exam in mathematics [the lowest level]. The firm message transmitted to the students is that technology is the basis. One can study theater or literature as well, of course, but there is no substitute for the sciences.

Barak Ben Eliezer says: "I have an ambivalent attitude toward Talpiot's elitist message. It's good that the unit has a good name, but I tell the soldiers, `You are completing three years here, before you go on to five years of service in the standing army, after which you can erase them and start from the beginning. Nobody has to feel that he is the CEO of the world.'"

Nevertheless, Talpiot places its graduates at the technological front of the IDF, and in civilian life these graduates continue - directly, and in a way typical of Israeli society - to the technological front, which is very highly paid.

The graduates of Talpiot can be found in every large high-tech firm that has succeeded in surviving the present crisis, and Ben Eliezer says that every month he gets a phone call from graduates suggesting that he join a start-up company they have established.

Every year, about 5,000 teenagers who have studied math and science in high schools take the initial tests for Talpiot. When they are drafted, they begin a program that will last for eight-and-a-half years: three years for the bachelor's degree, when they study mathematics, physics and computers, combined with the study of IDF technologies; when they complete the course, they are placed in the various units, and usually organize research projects in the field of technology.

"I am actually the head of the department in the university, but in uniform - like all the students here," says Ben Eliezer. The transition from IDF technology to the world of possibilities outside is very familiar to him. "When you are a 22-year-old officer, you are responsible for projects worth millions of dollars. Until the age of 30, the army gives you jobs that are much more significant than those you could get as a civilian. Later it turns out that we are technological soldiers, and will not easily achieve the rank of major general. Many understand this and leave the army for senior positions in high-tech." And he adds: "I am in favor of letting the good people leave. After all, we aspire to be a country whose strength is in its citizens, rather than a country living only by the sword." However, despite his words, the significant training courses are still done in the army.

The number of women in Talpiot is very small. On the average, two girls are accepted each year, and Ben Eliezer says "I gave instructions to accept at least seven this year. I really want girls to come to this project, too, but maybe the long service puts them off."

Ben Eliezer has a brother who graduated Talpiot, and his younger sister is now taking the qualifying tests. "If she is accepted, it will be the first family with three Talpiot students," he says with undisguised pride.

When asked about the importance of the humanities in Talpiot, he tells of a decision he made when he started the job: "I require every student, starting from the third year, to study at least six academic hours of a humanities subject. There is only one condition: Two people are not allowed to take the same course, so they won't take any `shortcuts'."

Is there a feeling of brotherhood between those who complete the Talpiot course?

"This is a relatively new project, and most of the graduates are now at the most important stage of their career. But we have gatherings, and I want to set up an association. People from the civilian market often contact me, both graduates and others, and ask me `How is so-and-so?" And I refuse to answer, because I am not a manpower agency. That, for example, will be the job of the association now being established.'

The best to high-tech

"I tell my students that I want them all to finish. This is not a pilots' course [where many drop out before the end]," says Barak with determination. In Israeli society, doors are opened to graduates of Talpiot only slightly more than to pilots, who also benefit from a halo that in the eyes of the public prepares them for almost any job, from mayor to president of the country.

Neri Yarkoni is a graduate of a Israel Air Force pilots' training course, a lawyer and a former head of the Civil Aviation Administration. At present he is a partner in a start-up company for aviation consultation together with Joel Feldschuh, former director general of El Al.

He is 44 years old, a fighter pilot who still flies twice a week in a military context. As the graduate of a pilots' course, who has already become integrated into various systems in Israeli society, he affirms that the course opens doors, and from experience, can point to the system of contacts available to its graduates and has only one reservation: "Pilots have to work hard to get rid of their image of arrogance.

"There are places, in high-tech for example, where they need people with character traits acquired in a pilots' course: one has to decide quickly and correctly, and to withstand pressure. The domination of the field of high-tech by graduates of the pilots' course is not coincidental," claims Yarkoni, speaking of the current situation in the market. "For me, for example, it is easier to do business with pilots. We don't have to talk a lot in order to know whether or not we get along. But as a graduate of a pilots' course I know what I'm looking for. The rest of the public, in my opinion, doesn't know. I can't explain why the halo exists nevertheless. Maybe because it's a course that's hard to get into." And he sums up: "People who have gone through such a course in the army have several identifiable traits, and I'm not sure that the general public knows what they are, when they open the doors to these pilots."

Aryeh Ehrlich, head of the Binat College for computer studies in Tel Aviv, admits that the title he has given to computer courses is somewhat pretentious. Nevertheless, during the past two months he has started to market what he calls a "preparatory course for unit 8200, for high school students" [8200 is a special computer division within the Military Intelligence corps]. The college, which has been operating for several months, is already in great demand in schools in Rishon Letzion, Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan.

And this is not the only college. In Tel Aviv Ironi [Municipal] Dalet High School there is a college called Ultra Net, meant for students who want to pave the way for themselves to technological studies, in order to serve in the "right" unit in the army. The directors of these colleges define themselves as unofficially "connected" to the computer division in Military Intelligence, and gives them lists of students.

In the Reali School in Haifa, the students receive much more comprehensive preparation, beginning in first grade. The Reali School, in addition to other high schools, is one of the Israeli institutions that is consciously developing its status as an elitist school, funded by extra tuition paid by the parents.

This is a school that is classified by the Education Ministry as "recognized but unofficial": It teaches according to the ministry curriculum and expands it, but it does not accept all the pupils living in the area - there is a selection process.

At present, the school has 3,240 students, from first to 12th grades, and among its graduates are former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak, media figures David Witztum and Razi Barkai, judges Dalia Dorner and Shoshana Netanyahu, songwriter Ehud Manor, and many others. And as though to add another layer to the connection between the school and the IDF, its principal until recently, Ron Katri, today serves as the IDF spokesman, and will soon return to head the school.

In order to be accepted to the Reali in Haifa - as a station along the way to joining a popular IDF unit and the network of graduates that meets at festive reunions and maintains a system of contacts - all you have to do is to demonstrate "readiness for first grade," according to Shifra Gordon, assistant director of pedagogy in the school.

But that is only the first stage.

If there is a great deal of demand (there always is), "only the most outstanding are accepted." The tuition fee can also be an obstacle: The sum, paid by the parents, ranges from NIS 7,000 to NIS 10,000 per year. "The demand has only been growing in recent years," says Gordon. "The school provides small classes, a varied curriculum, and parent involvement." The dropout rate is virtually zero," she says. She repeats the favorite sentence of principals of elitist schools: "It's hard to get in, but it's hard to get out, too. When a student enters, we do everything possible to support him, so that he'll remain. We have almost no dropouts, and that is a great achievement, because it is hard to know how a child entering first grade will turn out."

Almost all the students in the Reali School take high-level matriculation exams in the sciences. "There is a high correlation between the school and what is happening in the economy. Once economics was a strong subject, whereas nowadays the strong subjects are physics and biology. Communications is replacing sociology and political science. Every year, about 400 graduates finish, and units like Talpiot and 8200 ask us for names," says Gordon.

Hanna Levita, principal of the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem, admits that there are parents who are put off by the high tuition, NIS 3,500 a year. "We are losing students, and that's a problematic situation," she says. This year the school will be 65 years old, and Levita, herself a graduate of the Reali School, describes it as "an institution that sees as its goal the nurturing of excellence, alongside the creation of a suitable climate."

She says that the school doesn't concentrate on the military side. "Our students can be found in all fields later on. They study literature and theater, as well as art and Arabic, on a high level, and a large majority choose the intensified track in mathematics." The school has 1,100 students from seventh to 12th grades. "We are not interested in growing any more," says Levita, "although demand increases every year."

The list of graduates of the school is impressive relative to its size. Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, Justices Mishael Cheshin, Gavriel Bach and Tova Strasberg- Cohen, writers David Grossman and Meir Shalev, Gil Schweid, Yael Sternhell, Amira Hass, Gail Hareven, Larry Abramson, and "most of the department heads at Hadassah University Hospital," says Levita.

"We use our graduates a great deal. They are invited to give lectures at the school, and respond willingly, we have a good relationship with them." Levita feels it is important to point out that in spite of the school's elitist image, the students are educated toward humanistic values and a high degree of social involvement. "Our philosophy is to support the weak," she says, counting on one hand the students who have left the school during the past year.

It is hard not to notice her expression of distaste when she hears about the preparatory courses for military units. "Our graduates are in demand in these units, because they have specialized in a subject that is in demand. We have a very strong Middle East studies track, and Military Intelligence once invited me to the graduation ceremony of `Linda's class.'" Levita says that Linda "is our Arabic teacher in the Middle East studies track. Unit 2800 took most of the students in her class one year, and that's what they were called for short."

Naomi Tisona, principal of Tel Aviv's Ironi Dalet High School, says that the school she heads also receives many requests from military units. "But that's easy to understand, the best young people study here."

The school offers a six-year program, from seventh to 12th grades. Tuition is about NIS 1,200 a year. Of 220 12th-graders, 160 took a 5-point [high level] mathematics matriculation exam, and 90 added expanded studies in physics. In addition, the school has a class for gifted students (graduates of the Graetz Elementary School for gifted students in Tel Aviv), and two classes of outstanding athletes. In seventh grade, the school accepts students who "are interested in studying there, mainly according to district choice," says Tisona. In 10th grade, the school gets applications from students from the Tel Aviv school for the arts, the school for sciences, and the A.D. Gordon School. "These are the best elementary schools, and most of the students want to study here. At this stage, we already have a selection process."

Creating contacts

In the School of Government at the IDC in Herzliya, the dean, Prof. Ehud Sprinzak, wants to present an alternative to the accepted system of contacts in Israeli society, via the army and the elitist schools. The school is two years old, and one of its goals is the creation of an efficient network of contacts, which the student will use at a relatively late stage: the stage of university studies.

"We have students who are not familiar with the power networks in the State of Israel, and we try to have them meet with directors of manpower, heads of companies, and leading figures in society, in economics, in security. We have discovered that a large number of the positions and jobs that become available every year are not publicized anywhere - a friend brings a friend - so we will be the big friend who finds these niches." Is this experiment succeeding? Sprinzak says: "It's too early to tell, but we are making an effort, and I believe that these contacts will prove themselves. We tell the students, people who have contacts don't need `protektsia' [the old Israeli term for contacts]."

As part of the curriculum in the School of Government, the students gain experience in running public projects as exercises every semester. "We introduce them to successful heads of local councils and try to create a network from which the new leadership will grow. We believe in those in local government as future leaders."

And what about the central role of the IDF in forming this elite? Isn't the School of Government fighting a losing battle against the forces of the IDF and the "recognized but unofficial" schools? Sprinzak says that "the central role of the IDF is unavoidable. But if a student comes to me, even one who hasn't served in the army, and I am impressed by him, he will be accepted, and thus the borderlines become erased."