Unlike members of their peer generation in most other countries, Israelis are two, three and even more years behind in enrolling for university studies.
Compulsory army service, and the year spent after the army in trekking through India, South America or parts elsewhere get in the way of Israelis obtaining their first degrees at age 20 or 21.
Religious soldiers who wanted to pursue their yeshiva studies while in the army, have since 1953 been able to participate in the Hesder program which combines army service with Talmudic studies, but until recently any soldier doing compulsory army service had a long wait between completing high school and entering university.
For 50 combat soldiers representing all branches of the armed forces, there is no longer any need to wait.
They are part of a pilot program initiated by President Shimon Peres whereby soldiers can combine academic studies towards a Bachelor's Degree in engineering, physics or computer sciences with army service.
The program which is a joint endeavor of the Defense Ministry, the IDF, Beit Hanassi, the Education Ministry, the Open University, the Libi Fund for the Strengthening of Israel's Defense, the Rashi Foundation and other bodies, was officially launched at Beit Hanassi on Sunday, even though the fifty students who are part of the pilot program have already been studying for some months.
Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi disclosed that approximately a year ago, in the course of a meeting with Peres, the latter had said to him "We already have Tzva Hagana le-Israel (Israel Defense Force), how about Tzva Haskala le-Israel (Israel Education Force)?"
Ashkenazi knew that Peres was not merely probing, but had already made up his mind to push the idea as far as it could go.
In an Israeli spin of necessity being the mother of invention, Peres has said many times that Israel's impressive scientific and technological achievements were born out of security needs. Peres often makes the point that modern warfare depends more on science and technology than on military might, and reiterated this at the launch of what is known as 'the academic commando".
Noting that there had been some 3,000 applicants for enrolment in the pilot project, Ashkenazi regretted that it has been limited to fifty soldiers in its initial stages. "But the tens will become hundreds and the hundreds will become thousands," he said. "This is an important ambition with a significant investment."
Peres congratulated Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Ashkenazi for having the courage to introduce a new concept to the IDF. "What looks like a small step today," he predicted, "will be one of the great achievements of the State of Israel. It is an important phase in continuing to strengthen the foundations of the IDF."
Whereas Zionism was once expressed in working the land, said Peres, it is now science that influences everything we do.
Addressing himself to the soldier-students Peres said: "You are the best, which is why you are the first to embark on this program. The world is changing rapidly spurred by ongoing scientific developments. In ten years’ time, the world will be completely different to what it is today, and it will be different because of science. You will be part of that revolutionary change."
Looking back to the recently celebrated Israel Independence Day when 120 outstanding soldiers were honored, and more recently to the day on which the contributions of reservists to national security were publicly recognized, Barak credited them for their part in making Israel a strong and secure state, and declared that Israel's amazing achievements in the relatively short span of 62 years were attributable to talented visionaries.
Israel's scientific accomplishments are beneficial not only to Israel, but to the entire world, he said as he told the soldier-students: "You will continue to carry the torch of that development, and you will continue to be the backbone of Israel's scientific progress and security. Whoever stands still will remain behind. Today, we are taking a significant step towards the future."
Before concluding, Barak offered a piece of advice. "Don't take anything
for granted. Examine everything and don't ever abandon your curiosity
or your enthusiasm."
Education Minister Gideon Saar told Peres that he had always been a man
of vision and initiative whose far sightedness had led to many
breakthroughs of which the academic commando was yet another example.
"This is a first step in integrating army service with academic
studies," said Saar, emphasizing that for many people the time gap
between school and university was much too long.
One of the benefits of the new project, he said, was that people would
be able to join the work force sooner than in the past.
He welcomed the program as an opportunity for reciprocity, to give
Israel's young men and women who were contributing to national security
the opportunity to learn while serving.
Saar was pleased that the project had been given the green light by
Israel's Council for Higher Education and said that ways were being
worked out to provide greater incentives and more budget for study.
The Open University which has the highest enrolment in Israel has been
growing steadily since its first semester in October 1976.
Saar said that it was a good platform not only for this project, but
also for a similar project that would enable haredim to acquire academic
qualifications without having to compromise their own values.
Saar now wants to involve Israel's high-tech companies in the program,
so that they will have an ongoing connection with the best and the
brightest whom they will be able to absorb in their operations, thereby
contributing not only to security and to scientific advancement but also
to the economy.
Open University President Hagit Messer-Yaron said that she was proud to
be associated with one of the most important flagships of the IDF and
the Education system. "We were recruited to help fulfill the vision of
the President," she said, and praised Open University faculty staff for
devising a curriculum that will result in a "social, educational and