“Israel’s Edge: Talpiot The IDF’s Most Elite Unit” by Jason Gewirtz. Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing, 2016. 230 pages, $18.
A long time ago, I was a reporter for an English-language, Tel Aviv-based news weekly called Newsview. One evening, Mabat L’Hadashoat, the Israeli nightly news program — there was only one Israeli TV channel back then — carried a report about an Israeli soldier who had modified a missile in the field, overcoming some deficiency in the weapon. The details are lost in the foggy recesses of my mind.
When I arrived at the office the next morning, I’m sure my Zionist pride in that soldier’s achievement was palpable. Fortunately, my editor, Hesh Kestin, was not subject to pride-fueled journalistic blindness. It only took a short time and a little digging to learn that the claim was hogwash.
Reading this book about the Talpiot program reminded me of that incident. I am sure Jason Gewirtz is — as I was and still am — an ardent Zionist. But when one writes a book about an Israeli program, and wants it to be taken seriously, he or she needs to be at least somewhat dispassionate.
And the author’s Zionist pride — similar to my feelings 35 years ago — is too evident.
“[Major Amir] Schlachet is a very humble man, as are most Talpiot graduates.”
General [Yitzhak] Ben-Israel “has the intellect of a rocket scientist, the brawn of a special-forces commander and the confidence of a true military leader.”
One Talpiot member headed an anti-tank missile unit after graduation. He “has been instrumental in inspiring more Talpiot graduates to move into the ground force, and the IDF hopes that still more will follow in his large, capable and dedicated footsteps.”
You get the idea. A little too much cheerleading.
Nonetheless, “Israel’s Edge” is well-researched — he interviewed many Talpiot graduates and others.
And Talpiot (“sturdy strongholds”), an Israel Defense Forces program for inductees with a bent for science, seems to be the kind of innovative plan that is so vital to Israel — always fighting wars with fewer soldiers and weapons than its enemies. As the book’s title indicates, the Jewish state needs an edge, and that’s what Talpiot is about.
It owes its existence to the shock of the Yom Kippur War in which Soviet anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons in the hands of Arab soldiers took a frightful toll on IDF aircraft and armor.
The program, which permits cadets to earn a bachelor of science degree in physics, mathematics or computer science, began 36 years ago and accepts 50 cadets a year.
After they graduate — in three, not four, years — they are assigned to do research to, in the words of the Hebrew University professors who created the program, “develop new and efficient weapons, where new is defined as a weapon that is not in use in other armies, even in the armies of the superpowers.”
Talpiot soldiers’ total active service in the IDF is 10 years.
The program has been a roaring success, according to the author. Talpiot members have contributed to Israel’s space program and were instrumental in developing the impressive, life-saving Iron Dome anti-missile system. They worked on “The Trophy,” an anti-missile projectile that disables incoming anti-tank missiles and is mounted on Merkava tanks.
Talpiot graduates are said to have played a large role in 8200, the computer unit in the IDF, which is credited with developing Stuxnet, the computer virus that infected Iranian computers in that country’s nuclear enrichment program.
After they leave the program, Talpiot graduates have been even more successful in developing Israel’s legendary hi-tech start-ups.
Maybe the program, its members and leaders are as perfect as portrayed in “Israel’s Edge.” Maybe not.
The problem is that it’s almost impossible to know. The author’s over-the-top enthusiasm is one problem, but a relatively minor one.
More serious is the disinformation about Talpiot that might have been planted to mislead Israel’s enemies. And, of course, many people that the author interviewed surely were interested in promoting certain ideas, either for self-aggrandizement or to gain advantage for their programs.
Most researchers run into similar roadblocks, but the subject matter of this book and the secrecy still surrounding certain weapons makes getting to the truth in this case that much harder.
Therefore, stories of Talpiot’s accomplishments portrayed in this book — as with reports of ordinary soldiers improving sophisticated weapons in the field — are best taken with a healthy dose of salty skepticism.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.