The fact that one of the most elite units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is little known and even less talked-about spurred an American journalist who covered the Second Lebanon War in 2006 to write a book about it.
It would take CNBC executive producer Jason Gewirtz the next 10 years, however, to complete Israel’s Edge: The Story of the IDF’s Most Elite Unit – Talpiot, a comprehensive look at the combination brains-and-brawn unit whose graduates are among Israel’s cream of the crop.
“No country in the world has such a unit,” Gewirtz told The Algemeiner this week, to explain the impetus behind his extensive research, which included interviewing its founder, many graduates, commanders and Israeli Defense Ministry officials. “And yet nobody had even heard of it.”
The idea to create Talpiot, which combines advanced academic study with actual combat in the battlefield, was born in the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Gewirtz said. “The horror of what happened – with a surprise attack on the Jewish state during its highest religious holiday, when a good portion of the men were in synagogue — pushed two professors to analyze what went wrong and how to rectify it.”
Gewirtz said these professors looked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, a distinguished R&D hub in California with a reputation for major contributions to information technology, for answers and inspiration. And they took their idea of taking the IDF to the next level to achieve military superiority by utilizing what are considered Israel’s main natural resources – innovation and chutzpah.
The idea was to create something similar to what Xerox had developed and adapt it to the army, via the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But the proposal needed government support, Gewirtz explained, and it was not received well by the Laborites in power – those who were blamed for having been “sleeping on the job” when the war broke out and Israel was unprepared.
“They were in trouble,” Gewirtz said, something that would subsequently be revealed in the Knesset elections of 1977. For the first time in Israel’s history, the Likud party, headed by Menachem Begin, came to power.
But it was not only the politicians who were both busy dealing with the repercussions of the war and not receptive to a new idea, Gewirtz explained. “The generals in the IDF, too, were problematic, as they were only focused on improving the army itself, from a purely military standpoint.”
So, for four years, the proposed idea was stagnant, he said. “Until Likud formed the government, and it immediately became interested. So much so that by 1979, a mere two years later, the plan was approved and ready to go.”
What emerged was a super-elite unit to which the best and the brightest of Israel’s youth approaching army age were recruited.
Israel has mandatory military service, for both men and women, which usually begins at the age of 18, at some point during the months following high school graduation. The typical service for men is three years, for women two – unless they sign on for an extension, to become career soldiers.
But in Talpiot, Gewirtz said, the demand is that recruits commit to 10 full years of service, with no time off for extended leave.
For the first three years, he described, their focus is physics, math and computer science. Then they spend time in each branch of the military, learning the combat and other skills of each. At the end of those initial years, some decide to go into combat units, and many of those become commanders. Others go on to become fighter pilots.
Gewirtz said that for several years after its establishment, Talpiot was selective in a narrow way when it came to choosing its candidates. “It was a closed process, with recruits plucked from gifted-children programs in the major cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. But then, it changed its way of looking at the process, thinking that a mistake had been made. They realized that they didn’t want only eccentric nerds, but also young people who are able both to lead a team and be part of one. As the program grew, then, testing for it changed dramatically. In fact, in the last decade, kids have been able to apply to be accepted, as opposed to only being chosen to participate.”
Still, only 40 serve at a given time; and since the unit’s inception more than 35 years ago, the grand total of recruits and graduates has reached a mere 1,000.
Gewirtz stressed that “innovation is the key” to this unit and reflects the whole Israeli philosophy about success and failure. As opposed to the situation in many other countries, he said, in Israel in general – and in Talpiot in particular – the attitude is that failure actually breeds success, because it is the best teacher.
Indeed, the “Talpiots,” as he called them, are taught not to fear failure, but to expect and embrace it, in order to achieve higher heights. “And it is this unit that keeps Israel a full generation ahead of its enemies – and even ahead of the US and other countries, who are selling technology to Israel’s enemies,” he asserted.
Gewirtz concluded by saying that all profits from the book, published by Gefen, will be donated to Beit Halochem, the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization. “I may have written it, but it is the soldiers’ story, not mine,” he said.
(c) 2016 The Algemeiner Journal