Combat Geeks plan is good but risks covering bigger problems - opinion

Qualified candidates for Kohavi's new plan will serve as combat soldiers, then extend their service by serving in intelligence units like 8200.

 COL. GOLAN VACH, commander of the IDF National Rescue unit, stands near the partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, Florida, during search and rescue operations last year.  (photo credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS)
COL. GOLAN VACH, commander of the IDF National Rescue unit, stands near the partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, Florida, during search and rescue operations last year.
(photo credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS)

To welcome more of Israel’s top students to combat units, Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi has proposed a clever program with a random name, Ma’agalim (Circles). Qualified candidates will serve as combat soldiers, then extend their service by serving in intelligence units like 8200. It looks like a Zionist win-win. With these new Jews balancing brain and brawn, the army gets its men and women in combat, soldiers can train for well-paid, challenging jobs, and high-tech companies can get toughened geeks with tech-smarts and life skills.

Kohavi’s Combat Geeks offer a creative solution to a growing problem. It’s a soldier’s pragmatic improvisation, reflecting the out-of-the-box thinking that easily transfers from the battlefield to the workstation. Call these cyber-warriors Bennies, honoring Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. He served honorably in Sayeret Matkal (the prime Special Forces unit of the IDF) and as a Sayeret Maglan (an IDF reconnaissance unit) commander. He continued serving in the reserves, while building his entrepreneurial career, even during his extended super-lucrative New York period.

But beware this obvious quick, kooky, fix-it; it risks camouflaging a deeper problem. Clearly, we honor our high-tech heroes in their late-twenties and older for building Israel and often improving the world with their skills and swagger. As well, we hail our intelligence heroes for fighting on the front lines of twenty-first-century warfare, protecting hearth, homeland, and everyone reading this column online from devastating cyberattacks. However, we must cultivate a next generation ready to fight on actual battlefields, not just virtual ones. Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah and Iran make it clear daily that our lives and limbs remain on the line, not just our online access.

As Kohavi boosts recruitment, the rest of us must tackle the underlying educational and ideological challenges. Serving your country should never be considered a dead-end for friers (harsh Hebrew slang for suckers). While celebrating yesterday’s and today’s heroes, we need a rejuvenated conversation with tomorrow’s soldiers, many of whom have different motivations than their parents.

THERE’S GOOD news buried in this bad news. The desperate ein breira (we-have-no-choice, survivalist) mentality that motivated Israelis for decades keeps shrinking as the conflict shrinks as a result of breakthroughs, such as the Abraham Accords. Nevertheless, enemies remain. Israel needs a functional people’s army, a democratic army uniting the Zionist population in their common cause.

Lt.-Col. G will serve as Deputy Commander of Unit 8200 and be promoted to rank of Colonel (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)Lt.-Col. G will serve as Deputy Commander of Unit 8200 and be promoted to rank of Colonel (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

That Z-word, Zionism, remains the key. Soldiers must understand that defending their homes and the Jewish homeland advances the Zionist ideals of patriotism and peoplehood. Unless this mission of perfecting the state and the world, while defending Israel and the West, is inculcated from birth, the crisis will cascade far beyond the IDF recruiters’ offices. Our homes and schools must welcome the next generation into our ongoing conversation about who we are, why we are here and how we are blessed to serve.

Two sectors stand out in serving the country and prove this best works as a cradle-to-grave-organic process. Surveys estimate that 20% of the graduates of officer training schools observe the Sabbath, making most religious Zionists, and 5% to 6% are secular kibbutznikim. Considering that only 10% of Israelis are religious Zionists and only 2% are kibbutznikim, both statistics are impressive.

Both groups are counter-cultural, celebrating idealism over materialism, the “us” not just the “I.” Rooted in tradition, both are motivated by a strong sense of purpose, linked to today’s privilege of living in Altneuland, our old-new homeland.

Other communities produce idealists as well, but while tolerating different Zionist expressions, these religious Zionists and socialist Zionists keep Zionism as their launching pad. They see Jews as a people, not just a community of faith, forever-bonded to one particular homeland, with the right to establish a state on that homeland, and with the challenge now to perfect it.

Once steeped in that broad Zionist commitment and focused love of the country, young recruits should recognize essentially Four IDF’s – Tzahal in Hebrew.

Most important is Tzahal Tzahal, the military machine defending Israel 24/7 and deployed globally to help those suffering from earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and even collapsed buildings, as we discovered in Surfside, Florida.

Next, is Camp Tzahal, the army that feels like a Zionist summer camp: Cultivating values, nurturing morale, observing Jewish customs, building groups, maintaining military traditions and shaping character.

Third, is Tzahal Inc., a tough, competitive, hierarchical corporation: Recruiting young people, assigning them tasks and supervising their army careers, while feeding, clothing, vaccinating, healing, motivating, managing, assessing and ultimately, deploying them to serve the nation.

Finally, is Tzahal U. – the army as a training center, a hands-on university educating mechanics and managers, cyber-warriors and social workers, commandos and commanders.

Here, then, is the true genius of Kohavi’s program: empowering the best and the brightest to learn from Tzahal U, it will inspire them to excel in Tzahal Inc., to embrace Camp Tzahal and, ultimately, advance Tzahal Tzahal, fulfilling the IDF’s main mission, which is keeping Israelis safe and sound.

This holistic approach fulfills David Ben-Gurion’s Zionist vision. “The IDF,” he proclaimed, “must serve, not only as a military training apparatus, but also as a state school that imbues the youth entering its ranks with knowledge of the language, the country, Jewish history, the fundamentals of general education, neatness and order, and, most importantly, love of the homeland.”

From Israel’s first prime minister to today’s chief of staff, the message persists: For the Israel Defense Forces to work, the Zionist agenda must be alive, growing, and relevant to us and our heroes-of-tomorrow.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.