'Make Drones, Not Porn': Top Israeli Defense Firm Seeks Moral High Ground Over Tech Industry

‘Great work! Another teen got hooked on porn’ is just one of the ads in a controversial new campaign by Israel Aerospace Industries, asking engineers to swap money in startups for ‘morals’

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
When Israel's top defense firm targets the country's high-tech industry, you know something unusual is up.
When Israel's top defense firm targets the country's high-tech industry, you know something unusual is up.Credit: Beto Chagas/Shutterstock.com; SAID KHATIB, AFP; Artwork: Anastasia Shub
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

The Israel Defense Forces has long claimed to be the most moral army in the world. Now it seems Israel’s state-owned defense contractor also wants to claim the moral high ground and has set its sight on a new enemy: Startup Nation.

“Great work Tzachi! Thanks to you, another teen got hooked on porn!” is just one of a string of provocative ads that are part of a new ad campaign launched by Israel Aerospace Industries. The IAA is a state-owned military contractor that makes fighter jets, drones and missiles for the IDF, as well as selling its weaponry to other states.

“Bravo Alma! You got thousands of kids addicted to computer games,” declares another ad, plastered on billboards across Israel. “Applaud Ron! Another engineer whose hard work caused thousands to get addicted to online poker,” states another.

These ads are a clear swipe at Israel’s high-tech sector – specifically, the growing number of online gaming firms like Playtika, known more for casino-inspired apps than complex, narrative-driven video games.

The campaign, industry experts say, is part of an ongoing war over talent between two of Israel’s most famous sectors: high-tech and defense. But with salaries as much as five or six times higher than the average wage, plus unparalleled perks, options and swanky offices in central Tel Aviv or its environs, many once coveted fields have lost their luster and cannot compete with the booming tech scene.

From the army to academia, medicine to manufacturing, traditional employers are struggling to retain talent in the face of an already competitive job market that has seen tech wages continue to climb. Now, even Israel Aerospace Industries – once considered the most respectable and stable company a young Israeli engineer could work for – is struggling to attract young talent and is fighting back. (Lest you want to shed tears on its behalf, it’s worth noting that the company is expecting a boom due to the war in Ukraine, which may explain why it’s now splurging on a hiring campaign.)

An Israel Aerospace Industries ad aimed at high-tech workers, on a building in Tel Aviv last week.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The company’s campaign has set its sights on enticing engineers, but is aiming to land them not through their wallets but through their moral compass.

“Tech is considered to be ‘good’ or ethical,” explains Prof. Eran Fisher from the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at the Open University, and whose work focuses on morality and technology.

The campaign, he says, attempts to undermine the implicit assumption that high-tech is a force for good. “If you work in tech, you’re considered a ‘good guy’ in Israel. What’s interesting is that, in a sense, this campaign is not just the army saying that it is more ethical. It’s responding to the myth or ideological assumption that tech is inherently good.”

That position is humorously summed up in the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley” that ran from 2014-2019, where the main characters’ startup strives to “make the world a better place through MP3 compression.”

Israeli high-tech has faced much criticism in the past, including cyberoffense firms like spyware maker NSO, as well as others that sell their tech to governments with dubious human rights records, and even online gaming firms. Nevertheless, many Israelis were quick to note the irony of the Israel Aerospace Industries, an actual arms maker, attempting to claim the moral high ground.

“They should have just written: ‘Instead of writing code that will get thousands of people addicted to poker, come work with the IAA and write code that will kill those very same people with guided missiles, drones and smart munitions,” one person tweeted.

An IAI ad: "Bravo Alma! You got thousands of kids addicted to computer games."Credit: IAI

Starting a debate

Ethical values, or at least striving to leave a meaningful impact, is considered a factor among young Israelis working in high-tech. In an interview to the Israeli media about the campaign, an IAA representative said the company “conducted studies and found that candidates are looking for real meaning and value. We decided to do something slightly provocative, because we wanted to start a debate.

“We’re not judging tech workers,” they added, “but we do want them to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and ask themselves: Is this really what I want to do with my life?”

Dan Kotliar, an assistant professor in the University of Haifa’s sociology department, researches Israeli tech ethics. He says the ad campaign reveals the “ethical building blocks” that underpin mainstream Jewish-Israeli society.

“There’s nothing, of course, that can objectively make the defense industry more moral than high-tech. But there are ethical assumptions that, to an Israeli ear, allow them to make such a moral claim. First, the army and defense are well within the Israeli consensus, and so working in the arms industry is seen as normal and can be cast as doubly rewarding – both financially and ethically – in terms of Zionism and contributing to Israel’s security.”

Such an argument can be convincing to Israelis, Kotliar says, “because in this sense, they offer something that high-tech does not: collective meaning – unlike tech, which offers only personal gain.”

Another IAI ad "commending" Tzachi on his high-tech endeavors.Credit: IAI

Haaretz columnist Alon Idan wrote last week (in Hebrew) that the campaign was trying to place high-tech within a “hedonistic” framework, one in which Israelis must choose between “big money, a big house, a big car and swanky vacations … and ethical and moral questions.”

It is no longer enough to work in high-tech, he noted: the question now is what you do in it. He saw this as a sign of a maturation of the public conversation around the industry, which was no longer perceived as a homogenous field.

Kotliar, meanwhile, says that the “ethics of the campaign also reveal a hidden assumption about ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ and who the potential victims of technology are: While porn harms ‘our’ kids, the rockets are aimed at ‘our’ enemies.

“This is a very naive position that ignores complex political realities,”he says. “But it’s made possible because the public debate in Israel about military exports or the local military industrial complex is all but nonexistent. But it’s a position that exists in Israel and can provide the underpinnings for such a campaign and allow it to resonate.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments

SUBSCRIBERS JOIN THE CONVERSATION FASTER

Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN

ICYMI

Election ad featuring Yair Lapid in Rahat, the largest Arab city in Israel's Negev region.

This Bedouin City Could Decide Who Is Israel's Next Prime Minister

Dr. Claris Harbon in the neighborhood where she grew up in Ashdod.

A Women's Rights Lawyer Felt She Didn't Belong in Israel. So She Moved to Morocco

Mohammed 'Moha' Alshawamreh.

'It Was Real Shock to Move From a Little Muslim Village, to a Big Open World'

From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid's Journey: From Late-night Host to Israel's Prime Minister