When Michael moved here in 2006, the last thing he thought he would do in the army was drive a tractor.
A 24-year-old British national with a master's degree in international relations from a prestigious university, he was highly motivated as he boarded the plane; he was sure that his qualifications and skills would be in high demand in the IDF.
Michael's plans did not work out as he had expected, however. Fluent in Arabic, English and Hebrew and having gained some experience working in the British Parliament, Michael contacted the IDF's Strategic Planning Division before immigrating and was told that was where he could make a genuine contribution to national security.
Due to his age, Michael was drafted into Shlav Bet, a service program designed for new immigrants 22 to 25. The six-month program includes basic training and an optional ulpan. After the course, the soldiers spend three months being trained for a variety of positions - tractor drivers, tank mechanics, artillerymen and truck drivers.
A year after arriving, Michael was finally enlisted into the IDF. But instead of using his language skills and diplomatic experience for the state's benefit, he spent most of his service collecting garbage at the Northern Command base in Safed.
Frustrated with the IDF's failure to properly utilize its resources, Michael and a group of 30 other Shlav Bet soldiers decided to take matters into their own hands and last month sent a proposal including a number of key recommendations on how to improve the program to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
They claimed that the type of soldier in Shlav Bet has changed. During the years of mass aliya from the former Soviet Union, Shlav Bet drafts reached 1,500 soldiers. Today, only 200 immigrants - mostly from countries like the US, France and Britain - join the program annually. But while the numbers have dropped, senior officers from the army's Human Resources Department told The Jerusalem Post that the number of complaints regarding the type of service has significantly increased.
As a result, the IDF has decided to revamp the program. Instead of throwing soldiers into jobs while ignoring their degrees and work experience, the army - which is also afraid that failure to satisfy Shlav Bet soldiers will deter others from making aliya - is now in the final stages of starting a new process which will find personally-tailored jobs for the recruits. Michael enlisted just a bit too early.
The changes to Shlav Bet are just the beginning of a long list of quiet revolutions currently in the works in the IDF and the Defense Ministry - all being done with the clear goal of overhauling and upgrading the army's relationship with the Diaspora. The IDF has also decided to open its prestigious hi-tech Talpiot course to Jews abroad, to open the Mahal volunteer unit to Israelis who live abroad and to increase funding for Garin Tzabar, a program for the children of expatriate Israelis.
The IDF says that these changes are not connected to the drop in draft numbers, but are part of a sincere attempt to connect the Diaspora with the State of Israel.
"The army is the threshold people need to cross to join Israeli society," says Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Avigdor Kahalani, head of the Defense Ministry Military-Social Bureau, which is in charge of crafting and maintaining service tracks for IDF volunteers and new immigrants. "There is great potential abroad and our goal is to bring as many Jews as we can to the State of Israel."
According to Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri, the changes will assist the government in attracting Jews from around the world to come here. "It is important for us that youth will come to Israel and get to know the country and then move here," he says. "Army service is the rite of passage into Israeli society and by coming here, doing military service, they fall in love with the country and hopefully stay forever."
Available service tracks for new immigrants and Jews in the Diaspora, and the recent changes that have been made to them are:
Since taking up his post half a year ago, Ashkenazi has been working to put a stop to the loss of quality manpower that annually leaves the service for better salaries and work conditions in the private sector.
What he may not know, however, is that each year 200 to 300 new immigrants come from Western countries and are enlisted into the IDF. Most of them have university degrees and a few years of work experience. But instead of utilizing their skills and talents, the IDF has been using them to collect garbage on bases and is training them as tractor drivers and tank mechanics.
In his proposal, Michael and his friends recommend that the IDF create a mechanism to allow immigrants to begin their military draft process before they arrive.
"Today the army fights for every soldier against the private sector," they point out. "When it receives highly skilled and highly motivated resources, it should not waste them through bureaucratic inefficiency."
John is an American immigrant who says he was wasted in the IDF. With a bachelor's degree from NYU and after directing a Jewish Agency department in the US, John, 25, was sure that his PR and media skills would be a hot commodity. Instead of Shlav Bet's six months, he offered to volunteer for close to two years and to serve either in the IDF Spokesman's Office or in the Foreign Liaison Unit. Instead, he spent three months collecting trash on a military base and another five weeks studying how to operate an outdated artillery system.
Under the direction of Col. Ziki Sela, head of Human Resources Planning, the IDF now plans to tailor jobs for new immigrants from Western countries with academic degrees and work experience. The program is a joint effort with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which plans to advertise the program on its Web site and in target communities.
"The integration of olim in the IDF has a decisive influence on how they are absorbed in the country," says former immigrant absorption minister Ze'ev Boim, who initiated the changes.
"The makeup of new olim today has changed," adds a senior officer in the Human Resources Department. "We are aware of this and are working to make the necessary changes so we can better utilize the soldiers and their skills."
The problem until now, he explained, has been that the IDF looked at Shlav Bet soldiers as a resource for the reserves and did not think of how they could be utilized during their compulsory service.
"These are people who come for just a few months and we needed to find what to with them so they can continue to contribute during their reserve duty," he explains. "The best way to view them is as a resource that can learn a basic skill and then apply it during their next two decades of reserve duty."
One success story is Maj. Maurice Hirsch, a career officer who recently wrapped up a stint as deputy military prosecutor in Judea and Samaria.
Hirsch arrived from England in 1997, at 23, and was drafted for one year of service. Two days after making aliya, he went to the induction center in Jerusalem and began arranging his draft. One year quickly turned into 10, and Hirsch is currently awaiting promotion to lieutenant-colonel before taking up a new post with the Judge Advocate-General's Office.
"I decided to stay in the army since I realized I had the ability to contribute to national security," he says.
Hirsch congratulates the IDF for making the changes to Shlav Bet and says that "when you have a vast amount of manpower coming to Israel out of Zionistic motives, including some with a lot of experience and knowledge, it is important to find service tracks for those soldiers. Otherwise you will lose a lot of experienced manpower."
The IDF plans to begin implementing the changes ahead of the next Shlav Bet draft scheduled for December and will interview all of the new recruits prior to enlistment to find them jobs that suit their qualifications. The army has already started testing the new system and last month signed up a new immigrant with an engineering degree from MIT to three years in the air force.
The IDF does not promise, of course, to be able to do that for all Shlav Bet soldiers. In addition, if a Shlav Bet soldier would like to serve in a more serious job according to his qualifications, he will need to sign on for at least one to two years.
"It will be according to the degrees and qualifications the recruits come with," an officer explains. "We are looking for people with degrees in exact science, engineering and international relations. If someone comes with a degree in fitness or sports, we may not have anything to do with that."
They write algorithms, develop advanced weapons systems and fight from behind a computer console. After their military service, most of them go on to become hi-tech leaders around the world.
They are members of Talpiot, the army's most secret and prestigious hi-tech course, which according to a new plan led by OC Human Resources Department Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, will soon open its doors to Jewish teenagers in the Diaspora. If you are computer savvy, like math and physics and are interested in serving in the army, this program might just be for you.
Talpiot is the longest course in the IDF and its participants are chosen from a pool of highly-motivated youth who specialize in exact sciences. The soldiers, who all become officers, undergo more than three years of training during which they receive a joint degree in physics and mathematics, and then integrate into the Defense Ministry's Research and Development Directorate or highly classified air force units.
Following training, members of Talpiot are obligated to sign on for an additional six years of service, five of which are with high salaries. Stern hopes to have the program up and running for the Diaspora within the next six months.
Those accepted will need to become citizens and take a Hebrew course until they are fluent. They will also need to undergo a security check.
It is very difficult to get accepted into Talpiot. The first class, established in 1979 due in part to the lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War in 1973, consisted of 25 cadets. It later increased to some 50. Thousands apply to the program and are rigorously tested.
The IDF plans to use the Jewish Agency's and Foreign Ministry's resources abroad to locate potential candidates. It plans to begin advertising the new program, based at the Hebrew University, on its Web site in English.
A high-ranking officer says that the decision to create the Diaspora program was made to enhance the IDF's technological capabilities. "We are very happy with the number and quality of the soldiers that we are currently getting," he says. "But we want more."
In 1948, approximately 3,500 overseas volunteers came from 43 countries to defend Israel during its struggle for survival. They were known as Mahal - Mitnadvei Hutz La'aretz, or Volunteers from Abroad. Most were World War II veterans whose military experience and skills were of decisive importance in helping shape and secure the newborn state.
Close to 60 years later, the Mahal program is going strong and in recent years has seen a steady increase in its numbers.
As part of a number of changes the IDF is making in an effort to recruit expatriates, the Defense Ministry has decided to open Mahal to Israeli citizens. In addition, the IDF plans to begin allowing citizens who live abroad to study in universities here without fear of being drafted. Until now, an Israeli - even the child of an Israeli parent - who was born abroad was only allowed to reside here for up to 18 months, following which he/she was forced to enlist in the IDF or return abroad.
The IDF is working together with the Immigration and Absorption Ministry to ensure that the new track will not detract from their immigration rights.
"We would prefer that Israelis come study in university here as opposed to colleges in the US," explains a high-ranking officer in the Human Resources Department. "The assumption is that once the Israeli is here, we have a better chance of getting him/her to enlist in the army."
In 2005, 118 Jews from abroad joined Mahal, a 14-and-a-half-month service track, in 2006 164 and by the end of this year the expectation is that the number will surpass 200.
The changes to Mahal have been led by Kahalani and Stern. The expatriate community is estimated at 700,000, mostly in the US.
"The idea is to connect whoever we can with the State of Israel," says Kahalani. "These teenagers don't necessarily want to serve thee years, but they want a taste of Israel and this program can be suitable for them."
Another change to Mahal is that the volunteers do not need to be Jewish; it is enough that they are eligible to receive citizenship through the Law of Return which grants citizenship to children born to Jewish fathers even if they are not considered Jewish according to Halacha.
In addition, starting next Mahal draft, the IDF will offer volunteers a three-month Hebrew course which will extend the service track from 14.5 months to 18 months.
The Nahal Brigade's Battalion 50 is no different from most infantry units. The soldiers fought with the rest of the Nahal Brigade during last summer's Second Lebanon War and lost one soldier on July 12, the first day of the war.
But the battalion is slightly different. When walking among the soldiers one hears not only Hebrew but also English and sometimes other languages. Battalion 50 has one of the highest concentrations of lone soldiers who came here from abroad to serve in the IDF - more than 70 - mostly from the US but also from the Netherlands and other European countries.
Many of them come from families which left Israel years ago but have decided to return as part of Garin Tzabar, a project launched by the Israel Scouts and the Jewish Agency in 1991 that is responsible for bringing hundreds of Israeli children back from the Diaspora to serve in the military.
The new recruits spend their first three months together on a kibbutz where they study Hebrew and get to know one another. They then have the opportunity to serve in all of the IDF's units, although many enlist in Battalion 50, which has become synonymous with Garin Tzabar.
Last Thursday, Edri, Kahalani and a number of officers welcomed this year's 150 Garin Tzabar recruits - the most ever - during a ceremony at Beit Hahayal in Tel Aviv. This year's draft also marked the first time that Garin Tzabar included a core group of 25 religious Jews who joined the program.
At the height of last summer's war, 120 Garin Tzabar members flew here to enlist in the IDF.
"We were sure they weren't going to come," says Udi Dror, an official with the Defense Ministry's Military-Social Bureau. "Garin Tzabar, however, proved that it is a quality and reliable program that can be counted on no matter what is happening in Israel."
According to Dror, 70 percent of Garin Tzabar graduates remain here following their military service. The Defense Ministry and the Jewish Agency plan to continue investing in the program which has tripled its members since 2004, when only 47 enrolled.
"Military service is the best way to get people to come and stay in Israel," Dror concludes. "Once we get them in the door, they are mostly here to stay."
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