Israel’s Pre-army Programs Get Tens of Millions From State but Little Supervision

Last week’s tragedy, which left 10 young people dead, has raised concerns over the management of the mechina programs after they have doubled in size in the past decade

Youth rescue from Tzafit Stream, Thursday, 26 April, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The deaths of 10 teenagers in one of Israel’s pre-army programs (mechinot) last week has aroused concern about the lack of supervision over the programs, which get a combined budget of tens of millions of shekels a year from the government.

In response, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said on Sunday that his office would conduct an examination of the entire mechina system. The investigation will be conducted by members of his staff that monitor the education and defense ministries — the two bodies that fund the programs.

On Sunday, police raided the offices of the Tel Aviv-based Bnei Zion mechina, whose students were killed last week at the Tsafit stream in the south after a flash flood hit the streambed. The police confiscated documents and computers. The head of the mechina and two counselors have been arrested on suspicion of negligent homicide.

Israel’s approximately 50 mechinot provide programming to students finishing high school for one or two years before they enter the army, offering them leadership skills, educational programs, volunteer experiences and a rigorous program of hiking and camping.

Launched in 1988, the number of participants in the programs is now 4,000, two-and-a-half times initial numbers, and funding, which is provided by the education and defense ministries, has also grown since a law was passed a decade ago governing their activities.

Preparation A
Budget of pre-army programs, millions NIS

Last year, the government provided 80 million shekels ($22.3 million) in funding for the mechinot, up from 35.2 million in 2009. That is about half their total budgets, with the rest coming from donations and fees the participants themselves pay. In the case of Bnei Zion, funding comes from the Avi Chai Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Joint Distribution Committee among others.

Despite the size of the mechina network at this point, supervision by the Education Ministry mostly involves confirming the number of people enrolled in each program. Since 2013, program directors have been advised, but not required, to consult with the ministry about weather and security issues before going out on hikes like the kind that ended in last week’s tragedy.

This week the ministry said it was convening a panel to examine guidelines for activities taking place outside the programs’ own facilities.

FILE PHOTO: Mechina Tzur Shalem building shelter as an activity during their pre-army program, 2015.
Ofer Vaknin

Unlike other institutions supervised by the ministry, there is no inspector or other official responsible for the mechinot. The ministry said this week that this is because they are private organizations set up as nonprofits and not as educational institutions.

The ministry gets monthly and annual reports from the mechinot and mechina directors meet from time to time with Education Ministry officials. The ministry is also entitled to inspect programs it thinks may not be meeting conditions, but there is no thorough system of reporting, so it is unlikely the ministry would be aware of problems.

Another difference between the mechinot and other Education Ministry-funded programs is that the ministry has no say in the programs’ curriculums. The only requirement for a mechina to be entitled to funding is that it enroll at least 25 participants, that it follow the rules for nonprofit organizations and ensure that at least 90% of its participants will be serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

The defense and education ministries have never divided up their areas of responsibility for the mechinot, and since last week’s tragedy, the two have bickered over who should take the blame.

Most participants are 18 years old and many have yet to complete their matriculation (bagrut) exams. As a result, the Defense Ministry asserted in a statement this week that they should be considered students under the Education Ministry’s purview. Beyond that, it declined to discuss the matter further. “The Defense Ministry does not intend to conduct the dialogue with the Education Ministry through the media,” it said in a statement.

The Education Ministry claims that, since the program participants have already received their initial draft notices prior to their participation in a mechina programs, they are the responsibility of the Defense Ministry.