Israel’s ‘GI Bill’ expands to include newly released combat soldiers

IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot’s plan to pay veterans’ tuition fees kicks off with start of higher education’s school year

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Students in an IDF programming course. (Courtesy)
Illustrative: Students in an IDF programming course. (Courtesy)

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s plan to pay for the majority of tuition costs for veterans has been expanded to include the male soldiers from so-called “special populations” and the combat soldiers of both genders who were released from the army this summer, a military spokesperson said.

It will officially kick off on Thursday, as Israeli students return to their universities following the Jewish High Holidays, the army said.

The program is dubbed Mimadim Lelimudim, literally “From Uniforms to Studies,” though in English the army prefers the catchier “From Uniforms to University” or “U to U,” according to Maj. Meirav Stolar, a spokesperson for the army’s Manpower Directorate.

The Israel Defense Forces announced the intention to pay for soldiers’ university and professional degrees in August, but the decision was subject to approval by the defense minister and some further clarifications before it could be implemented.

For now, the only people eligible for “U to U” are combat soldiers and soldiers from “special populations,” which refers to new immigrants who moved to Israel without their parents, soldiers who are no longer in contact with their families, and soldiers who receive financial assistance from the army, Stolar said.

However, the ultimate plan is to open up the program to all soldiers, combat and non-combat alike, sometime in the future, she said.

When the plan was announced in August, it was to be available only to soldiers who joined the army after July 1, 2014, meaning that for this academic year it would apply to female soldiers, who typically serve for two years, and to male soldiers who served less than the standard three years — mostly new immigrants whose service length depends upon the age at which they moved to Israel.

However, in the two and a half months since the plan was announced, the army has expanded it to include any soldier who joined the army after July 1, 2013, meaning it would also apply to combat soldiers — both male and female — and non-combat male soldiers who served for three years, who were released from the army this summer.

In a message sent to IDF soldiers on Tuesday, Eisenkot described the program as both a way to turn veterans into the “designers of the Israeli society” and an effort to encourage Israeli teenagers to enlist in combat units.

“Commanders and soldiers, I hope that you will be wise enough to take advantage of the tremendous opportunity in your grasp, and that it will help you build your future, the future of Israel — our future,” he wrote.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 26, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 26, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Since the program was announced in August, not much has changed in its design, save for the notable exception of who is eligible for it.

That change came both from an ideological desire for egalitarianism, as well as the more practical realization that the army could afford to fund the male and female soldiers who were getting out of the army this summer, Stolar said.

“We thought it was right for male and female soldiers, who served shoulder to shoulder, to receive the same perk,” Stolar said.

Some pushback by soldiers on social media may also be responsible for the change, according to the Ynet news site.

This academic year, approximately 10,000 new veterans are expected to make use of the new program to help fund their studies, and it is expected to cost some NIS 20 million ($5.23 million), the spokesperson said.

The money for the program comes from donations made to the Israeli Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, or its American counterpart Friends of the IDF, the army said.

Soldiers of the Caracal Battalion rest before a hike as part of their training on September 3, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Soldiers of the Caracal Battalion rest before a hike as part of their training on September 3, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Though the program is now open to soldiers released from the army beginning this summer, many of them will likely not make use of it until next year. (Soldiers have three years to make use of the funds.)

Following their release from the army, many veterans opt to travel abroad in an attempt to “clear their heads” after an intense three years of service, spending time in India, Thailand or South America, before they return to Israel and begin their bachelor’s degrees.

As more veterans sign up for the program in years to come, the cost is expected to increase to hundreds of millions of shekels, and once it opens up to all soldiers it is estimated that the program will cost NIS 500 million ($130 million) each year, the IDF said in August.

The details of when the program will be expanded to include all IDF soldiers and how the army will fund it is still being worked out, Stolar said Tuesday.

The program is not meant to cover the entire cost of an academic or vocational degree, but provides at least two-thirds of the funding for one. Veterans will have to chip in the rest from the money they receive upon their release from the army.

A soldier who completes army service receives two sums of money. One, known as the ma’anak shihrur, or release grant, is given as a check and can be used for anything. The second, known as a pikadon, or deposit, is kept in a special account that can only be accessed to pay for school tuition, buy a house, open a business, or get married. After five years, though, it can be used for any purpose.

The amount of money is dependent upon how long the soldier served in the army and what position they held. For instance, a combat fighter serving for three years receives NIS 29,596.32 as a pikadon, while a non-combat soldier serving for two years gets NIS 13,153.92.

In order to receive the scholarship, the released soldier must use one-third of their pikadon money for tuition, meaning some soldiers would use nearly NIS 10,000, while others who were granted a smaller pikadon would pay just over NIS 4,000.

As a three-year bachelor’s degree in Israel costs a little over NIS 30,000 ($8,000), depending on the subject, that means veterans will effectively receive a scholarship of at least NIS 20,000 upon their release.

Since Eisenkot unveiled his plan in August, it has garnered praise from politicians and academics alike.

“It’s a revolution. This is a very ethical and important move that the chief of staff has undertaken. It improves the prospects for soldiers from Israel’s periphery” — cities and towns far from the center of the country, which have historically suffered from socioeconomic disadvantage — “where the cost of tuition is significant,” Prof. Gad Yair of the Hebrew University’s Department of Education told The Times of Israel in August.

“This continues the heritage of the IDF as a people’s army,” he said.

‘This is a win-win. Everyone benefits from this. In short, it’s a genius move’

Though the almost half-a-billion-shekel price tag may sound expensive, the program will ultimately be a boon for everyone involved, Yair said.

“This is a win-win. Everyone benefits from this. The population will be better educated, the population’s income level will rise, the amount of tax revenue in Israeli society will go up so that the Finance Ministry will have more money for social welfare,” he said. “In short, it’s a genius move.”

Illustrative photo of Israeli students seen at the at the Hebrew University on the first day of the new academic year, October 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)
Illustrative photo of Israeli students seen at the at the Hebrew University on the first day of the new academic year, October 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich also praised the effort for its equalizing impact, giving Israelis from all walks of life the ability to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“This is a worthy goal, which creates — in no small amount — equality of opportunity at the critical point in one’s life: their university studies,” Yachimovich said in August.

Eisenkot’s initiative will be run through the existing Defense Ministry’s Veteran’s Guidance Fund, which helps discharged soldiers find jobs and scholarships.

In order to register for the program, recently released veterans must call 1111, the number for the army’s call center, and speak with a representative, Stolar said.

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