As start-up nation snaps up IDF tech alumni, combat vets say they are left behind

In a changing Israel where those hailing from tech units get the red carpet treatment for high-wage jobs, a debate is growing on what constitutes significant IDF service

Itamar Sharon is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Left: IDF combat soldiers take part in a drill in December 2021; Right: An IDF soldier from the C4I Corps types on a computer. (Israel Defense Forces)
Left: IDF combat soldiers take part in a drill in December 2021; Right: An IDF soldier from the C4I Corps types on a computer. (Israel Defense Forces)

Two shady individuals in hoodies lurk in a vehicle near a soldier hitchhiking spot, scoping out the troops there as they prepare to ambush one of them. “We need to be calm. He mustn’t suspect us,” the driver mutters to his co-conspirator. “The most important thing is to get him into the car. Once he’s inside, he’s ours.”

Are the pair planning to kidnap and do harm to one of the young men, an ever-present concern for soldiers catching rides? “Take off your Apple Watch,” the second miscreant tells her partner reprovingly. “Put the radio on pop music. If it’s a podcast he’ll see right through us.”

It’s not an abduction after all: The car is a Tesla, the two rogues are snobbish yuppies, and their plot consists of offering the soldier, who serves in an intel-gathering unit, a cushy job at their tech firm.

So goes the skit that recently aired on popular comedy show “Eretz Nehederet,” lampooning the rising prestige of service in the military’s tech departments at the expense of combat units. The segment was one of a series of skits by the satirical show taking aim at the tech industry.

At the hitchhiking spot, the operation’s nebbish target is offered a ride, but catches wind of the conspirators’ true intent when he notices one of them is wearing hipster SpongeBob socks. “I’ve already signed with [rival firm] CyberGod!” he cries in alarm as he runs off.

A well-built paratrooper then leans down by the car door and asks if he can get a ride to the next intersection. “Close window!” the driver hurriedly tells his virtual assistant, and the disappointed schemers drive off to fish for another mark, leaving the combat soldier behind.

Tech recruiters try to nab a soldier from IDF Intelligence in a skit on ‘Eretz Nehederet.’ (Screenshot)

Since the establishment of the country over seven decades ago, generations of youths (and particularly men) have grown up on the ethos of the rugged warrior, the fearless fighter, as the ultimate Israeli. The ideal has permeated the national culture and mythology. Combat service in the Israel Defense Forces was, for many, the peak ambition upon enlistment. It was a key test of character, the significance of which went far beyond the three years of mandatory service: The traits nurtured in combat soldiers — resourcefulness, daring, sacrifice, perseverance — were seen as offering a promise of one’s success in life in general.

Is that era now coming to an end?

The new Israeli ideal

As Israel increasingly asserts itself as the “Start-Up Nation” and a tech mecca, as the country founded on the socialist ideals of agriculture and the kibbutz transforms into one of high-rises and consumerism culture, the Israeli dream has morphed as well. Comfortable jobs in high-tech are the new ideal for many — and the basis for such lucrative lives is often rooted, once more, in military service.

A view of high-rise buildings near Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, on December 9, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Beyond the television skit, the issue was also recently highlighted by the IDF chief of staff, who bristled at a billboard ad for a tech company declaring that “The best — to cyber,” a play on the old Israel Air Force motto, “The best — to flight.”

The comedy bit and the ad have sparked a spirited debate in the Israeli press and on social media on the merits of service in IDF combat roles versus the technological corps, such as in the intelligence-gathering division Unit 8200.

Numerous alumni of the elite tech unit have gone on to lead successful companies specializing in cyber matters, and service in 8200 is seen as giving one a clear leg-up over others when applying for work in the often highly lucrative tech sector. This has led to frustration among combat soldiers, who risk their lives to protect the country, only to find they are at a disadvantage when entering the job market.

Troops from the IDF’s Shayetet 13 naval commando force training in 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

In a Facebook post that went viral, former combat soldier and present-day tech worker Amit Maoz said the “Eretz Nehederet” skit had felt like “a punch to the gut,” capturing his difficult feelings on the matter. “This is what we look like?” he wrote. “It’s so sad. Let’s change it.”

Maoz noted that when combat soldiers are released from service, they have no profession that can serve them in civilian life. If they want to get into the tech sector, they need to work menial jobs for years while studying and building up enough experience to even be considered for low-level jobs in high-tech.

He said tech firms and the country in general were missing out on many highly capable people who “are driven away from the field without justification but have so much to give.”

Distorted values?

This week, IDF chief Aviv Kohavi hit back at the notion that Israel’s elites should join the military’s cyber units, saying that “the best” continue to be those who are willing to sacrifice and join combat units.

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi speaks during a ceremony for graduates of the Israeli Air Force’s pilot course, at the Hatzerim airbase in southern Israel, on December 22, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

“That’s a mistake,” Kohavi said of the billboard ads, while speaking at a graduation ceremony for new Air Force pilots. “The message inherent in the sign is deeper than it appears. It represents a loss of way and distorted values among parts of the population. The best are first of all the fighters.”

“Who marches in a silent column and captures the killers in the heart of a Palestinian village? The fighters. Who deploys along the borders and foils infiltrations? The fighters. Who crosses our borders week after week and flies to attack enemy weapons? The fighters,” Kohavi said.

“Cyber has great potential, and it apparently brings in a lot of money. The people who go there are talented. But the best? They are first and foremost measured by their willingness to give to the country,” he said.

The IDF has in recent years dealt with a drop in motivation to serve in combat units, fueled in part by the difficult conditions experienced compared to those who serve in office surroundings.

Illustrative image of IDF soldiers in a computer programming course. (Courtesy)

Former Golani soldier Asaf Kazula, who was at the ceremony at which Kohavi spoke, told the Ynet news site he was glad to hear the IDF chief’s words. “There is certainly respect for the cyber people,” he said. “They do a great job. I don’t expect the IDF to diminish their status or importance, but to improve conditions for us combat troops.

“I had a serious disadvantage when I was released from service,” he recalled. “Combat soldiers get lots of offers for security guard work and that saddens me. They should get better, more rewarding offers.”

A former combat engineer identified only as Itai told Ynet: “If we truly were the best, we’d be treated as such. Appreciation is shown in actions, in benefits. Meanwhile, people who served in certain units get excellent offers while combat soldiers need to work for minimum wages at gas stations or in waitering.”

Everyone is ‘the best’

In his post, Maoz, noting that ex-combat troops were likely to have personality traits desired by any employer (“dedicated, mission-oriented, team players, capable of working under pressure”), suggested that it would be beneficial to all sides for combat unit alumni “to undergo shortened qualification for specific jobs in high-tech.”

“Wouldn’t it be better for high-tech companies to get two more years of work from a talented person, who after one year at the job will be able to start studies from a place of job security?… Isn’t it better for the country to get two more years of taxes instead of chasing bartenders for their tip money?”

Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)

Maoz said the issue had troubled him even before it started making headlines, and that he was working with several others on an initiative to provide training for former combat soldiers.

A former military company commander and current tech worker, Liran Mor, told Channel 12 that he “felt that I was seeing myself” in the “Eretz Nehederet” sketch, “sitting at the [hitchhiking] station and having the window closed on me.”

Mor said that when he finished his service, he found it extremely difficult to get into the tech world. “At age 27, I had to start learning everything from scratch.”

He said he hoped he could now help people experiencing those same challenges.

“The government will need to come in and see what tools it can give combat troops during their service, or at the end of their service,” Mor said.

A high-tech development center in Herzliya, on October 30, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Eyal Waldman, former CEO of Mellanox Technologies and a former trooper in the Golani Brigade, told Channel 12 he had also been moved by Maoz’s post.

He said he too was working on solutions to help combat soldiers integrate into the tech market.

“The gaps from those who go into intelligence, who get so much training during their military service — these can be made up for through preparatory schools,” Waldman said.

An alumnus of Unit 8200 identified as Yonatan was unhappy with Kohavi seemingly diminishing soldiers such as himself to praise combat troops.

“Everyone is ‘the best,’ he told Ynet. “The combat soldiers coupled with the technological units are what give us superiority over our enemies.”

He added that there were downsides to service in units like his.

“I think 8200 alumni grow up too fast,” he said. “They don’t have a period of self-searching. It creates a condition where 22-year-olds who never worked in temporary jobs, who never searched or asked themselves what they like, immediately go to study or work in high-tech, and it’s demanding [work].

“It’s a double-edged sword. Everyone misses out on something.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former soldier in the elite Sayeret Matkal combat unit as well as the former CEO of a cybersecurity company, also waded into the issue on Thursday, though he did not address combat soldiers specifically.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

“Today I had a brainstorming session with over 100 of the country’s best minds, the CEOs of Israeli high-tech companies (an issue you know is dear to my heart),” the premier wrote.

“I shared with them my vision — bringing [society’s] periphery into the tech world, bringing in Haredim, Arabs, people who are seen less in the field today.

“Together we can make a huge change here.”

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