By GREER FAY CASHMAN
Between their army service and post-army treks to exotic places, most Israeli youngsters have a long wait between completing high school and entering university.Since 1953, religious soldiers who wanted to pursue their yeshiva studies while in the army, have been able to participate in the hesder program which combines army service with Talmudic studies, but for secular soldiers, no such option has been available until now.Fifty combat soldiers representing all branches of the armed forces are part of a pilot program called the Academic Patrol, initiated by President Shimon Peres, whereby soldiers can combine academic studies towards a bachelor’s degree in engineering, physics or computer sciences with their 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 50 students who are part of the pilot program have already been studying for several months.Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi recalled at the launch that approximately a year ago, in the course of a meeting with Peres, the president brought up the subject.“We already have Tzva Hagana Leyisrael (the Israel DefenseForce), how about Tzva Haskala Leyisrael (the Israel Education Force)?”Ashkenazi remembered Peres saying.Ashkenaziknew that Peres was not merely probing, but had already made up hismind to push the idea as far as it could go.Peres has said many times that Israel’s impressive scientific andtechnological achievements were born out of security needs. And at thelaunch of the Academic Patrol, Peres reiterated the point that modernwarfare depends more on science and technology than on militarymight.AdvertisementNoting that there had been some 3,000applicants for the pilot project, Ashkenazi regretted that it had beenlimited to 50 soldiers.“But the tens willbecome hundreds and the hundreds will become thousands,” he said. “Thisis an important ambition with a significant investment.”Peres congratulated Defense Minister Ehud Barak andAshkenazi for having the courage to introduce a new concept to the IDF.“What looks like a small step today, will beone of the great achievements of the State of Israel,” he predicted.“It is an important phase in continuing to strengthen the foundationsof the IDF.”Whereas Zionism was once expressedin working the land, said Peres, it is now science that influenceseverything we do.Addressing thesoldier-students, Peres added, “You are the best, which is why you arethe first to embark on this program.The world is changing rapidly,spurred by ongoing scientific developments. In 10 years’ time, theworld will be completely different from what it is today, and it willbe different because of science. You will be part of that revolutionarychange.”Barak credited the soldiers for theirpart in making Israel a strong and secure state, and declared thatIsrael’s amazing achievements in the relatively short span of 62 yearscould be attributed to talented visionaries.Israel’s scientific accomplishments are beneficial not only toIsrael, but to the entire world, the defense minister added.“You will continue to carry the torch of thatdevelopment, and you will continue to be the backbone of Israel’sscientific progress and security. Whoever stands still will remainbehind. Today, we are taking a significant step towards the future,” hesaid.Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar praisedPeres as a man of vision and initiative, whose farsightedness had ledto many breakthroughs, of which the Academic Patrol was yet anotherexample.“This is a first step in integratingarmy service with academic studies,” said Saar, emphasizing that thetime gap between school and university was much too long.One of the benefits of the new project he said, wasthat people would be able to join the work force sooner than in thepast. He welcomed the program as an opportunity for reciprocity, togive Israel’s young men and women who were contributing to nationalsecurity the opportunity to learn while serving.Saar was pleased that the project had been given the green lightby Israel’s Council for Higher Education and said that ways were beingworked out to provide greater incentives and more budget forstudy.Saar said that the Open University, which hasgrown steadily since it opened in October 1976, was a good platform notonly for this project, but also for a similar project that would enableharedim to acquire academic qualifications without having to compromisetheir values.Saar now wants to involve Israel’s hi-tech companies in the program, sothat they will have an ongoing connection with the best and thebrightest, whom they will then be able to absorb in their operations,thereby contributing not only to security and to scientific advancementbut also to the economy.Open University President Hagit Messer-Yaron said that she was proud tobe associated with one of the most important flagships of the IDF andthe education system.“We were recruited to help fulfill the vision of the president,” shesaid, and praised Open University faculty staff for devising acurriculum that will result in a “social, educational and scientificrevolution.”
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