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Israel Defense Forces: Turning conflict into commerce and innovation

IDF soldiers from the Field Intelligence Corps conducted ground exercises in the Golan Heights in January 2021. (Photo: IDF)

The only Jewish nation among 193 countries worldwide, Israel has climbed to the heights of innovation in multiple rungs of achievement including healthcare, technology, and agriculture. 

Known for producing the most cutting-edge technology startups in the world, how does so small a nation achieve such distinction?

The source of their innovations often begins during their mandatory military service, which requires that both men and women serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) upon graduating from high school.  

Mandatory military service is a necessity for Israel to protect its citizens from the near-daily threats they have faced since 1948, when the modern state was officially inaugurated. The Israelis are not warmongers. They want peace above all—yet have been forced to defend themselves from every direction for more than 75 years. I find myself asking, “What other nation could survive under such intensive daily assaults?” In addition to beefing up its military service, IDF training is also a groundbreaking entrepreneurial laboratory.

The induction process begins when teenagers receive their “first order”—tzav rishon—before their 17th birthdayDuring the interview process, these young people are evaluated on their skill in reading and writing Hebrew, personal attributes, and their scholastic reports. The second phase includes a medical examination, then an interview conducted by a soldier trained in psycho-technical proficiencies. This second interview assesses specific personality traits such as motivation and the ability to withstand stress, and it seeks to identify any anti-social patterns. 

These interviews are based on behavioral economics, a theory about decision-making developed in the 1980s by two prominent Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman was a Holocaust survivor, and later received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. The groundbreaking theory, which integrates psychology into economics, is also called the Prospect Theoryhow humans make decisions when facing risk or uncertainty, including financial risk. 

Although still in high school, young Israelis find the competition for eventual inclusion into the IDF’s elite units to be fierce. Some sign up for pre-army prep programs, inform the IDF about wanting to join an elite unit, and are invited to an army base for a testing day. After undergoing a week of more rigorous physical and mental tests, those with the highest scores are sent to the top-tier Special Operations Forces (SOF), which require 22 months of specialized training.

The SOF leaders in the IDF—and later in societal innovations—are divided into three tiers. Tier 1 includes Sayeret Matkal, which is considered the most famous unit due to its 1976 stealth operation in Entebbe, Uganda. In a daring undertaking that stunned the world, the unit rescued 100 passengers and 12 Air France crewmembers held by seven hijackers and some 100 Ugandan troops—in the process destroying 11 Soviet-built MiG fighter planes of the Ugandan air force on the ground. Tier 2 includes Duvdevan, a counterinsurgency undercover unit functioning as disguised Arabs. Tier 3 is composed of paratroopers in the Sayeret 35 brigade, infantry, and armor brigades. 

In the elite units and among all military, the 18- to 21-year-olds gain experience and leadership. Dealing with life-and-death situations and being forced to make profound decisions on the spot gives the younger adults decision-making skills that easily translate into multiple kinds of innovations later. Mixing up trainees’ cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and emphasizing multidisciplinary skills rather than a narrow focus on a specialty provides another huge advantage: it gives people a lot of experience in thinking outside the box and calling on a wide breath of knowledge to solve problems. 

Another aspect of Israeli society is its Reserves. After their preliminary service, they are in reserve duty for up to one month each year until ages 43–45. (They may volunteer after this age.) As a small nation under constant threat, Israel relies on these reservists, who are the backbone of defense against deadly attacks, active threats, or all-out war.

The first edition of the excellent book, Start Up Nation, is an illuminating primer written by Dan Senor and Saul Singer in 2009. I recommend it as an introductory resource into the world of Israel innovation in a variety of disciplines. As Senor and Singer delve into the Israeli culture, they note that Israel’s free-thinking, multidisciplinary background promotes combining military service with civilian professions. For example, they single out a concept in the IT world called “technological mashups,” which connect considerably different technologies and disciplines. Their explanations of Israel’s military culture are fascinating.

One concept is that the IDF has fewer colonels than lieutenants. Soldiers are expected to obey orders and follow the chain of command, yes, but improvisation and initiative in lower ranks are greatly valued in crisis situations. Amos Goren was a 22-year-old commando at Entebbe. In his interview with Start Up Nation he observed, “Israeli soldiers are not defined by rank; they are defined by what they are good at.”

What follows are several outstanding examples of startups that began in the military—creating innovations that benefit both Israel and the world at large. 

Uri Levine, the inventor of Waze—possibly the world’s best GPS software—was a software developer when he served in the IDF. 

Israeli military scientist Gabriel Iddan worked on missile technology for years on something called “seeker”—the “eye” of a missile that captures targets and guides the missiles to them. Iddan thought he could apply the same technology to the medical field. He eventually designed a tiny capsule about the size of a vitamin that, when swallowed, captures photos of a patient’s intestines as it makes its circuitous route. The Given Imaging PillCam was born, offering wireless, painless gastrointestinal tract exams.

Unit 8200 is a technology superstar IDF unit. In the 1950s, it was set up as a highly secretive second intelligence service. It came somewhat to light in recent years as it grew into the IDF cyberwar division yet maintains its secrecy. Unit 8200 is credited with producing thousands of tech-savvy entrepreneurs, acting as a “conveyor belt of innovation.” 

Lastly, in addition to the extraordinary startups the IDF generates—what they call the “Spirit of the IDF” is important. Their call is to protect the State of Israel: its independence, the security of its people, and its very existence. Service is based on patriotism, commitment, and devotion to the State of Israel, a democratic state that is the national home of the Jewish people and all of its citizens. The IDF, which is also obligated to preserve human dignity, believes that all have inherent value, regardless of race, faith, nationality, gender, or status. 

The IDF—an innovator of character, patriotism, life skills, responsibility, and careers—was founded due to constant war and attacks against the Jewish homeland. Nevertheless, they have engineered conflict into commerce that has benefited the innovation nation and other countries worldwide in countless ways, including IDF humanitarian aid. 

This article originally appeared here and is reposted with permission.

A speaker and consultant, Arlene Bridges Samuels authors the weekly feature column for The Christian Broadcasting Network/Israel on their Facebook and Blog since 2020. Previously she pioneered Christian outreach for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Retiring after nine years, she worked part-time for International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA as Outreach Director for their project, American Christian Leaders for Israel (ACLI) Arlene is an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel, often traveling to Israel since 1990. By invitation she attends the Israel Government Press Office (GPO) Christian Media Summits as a recognized member of Christian media worldwide. Read more of her articles at CBN Israel blog.

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