Dateline: Israel – October 1973.
Israel is under attack from the north by Syria and from the south by Egypt.
Confidence at the top rank of Israel’s government has evaporated – fear, doubt, dread and emotional paralysis take hold of Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.
Reports years later say things get so bad, preparations were made to mobilize Israel’s supposed nuclear arsenal.
Moshe Dayan reportedly tells his top generals “The Third Temple is in danger.”
In the end, of course, Israel was able to turn the tide and win the war, quite convincingly. But for a while, it was a close call and a third exile wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Two professors, Felix Dothan and Shaul Yatziv took that part of the defeat and pushed for change.
They went to government leaders and the IDF brass with an idea: tap into the minds of Israel’s best and brightest and count on them to reimagine the future in a way that could help Israel protect itself now. The government was too busy. The military leaders were disinterested, instead focusing all of their attention on rebuilding what was lost in the Yom Kippur War and trying to keep their careers alive and reputations intact. They could not.
In 1977, Israeli voters made them pay at the ballot box voting for Likud. Menachem Begin becomes Prime Minister pushing Labor into the opposition for the first time. Change in Israel’s political calculus opened up new doors. Dothan and Yatziv were called in to meet with the IDF’s top brass and they were told, go for it.
The first order of business: name the program
“The first thing the professors had to do was name the program. For years, Dothan had been thinking of an appropriate name, and he suggested Talpiot. Talpiot has a few meanings in Hebrew, but its most popular definitions are “sturdy strongholds” or “tall turrets.” In the Biblical Song of Songs, talpiot appears as a metaphor for leadership. (Though not religiously observant, many of Israel’s early leaders were aware of the historic national significance of the Jewish homeland and took pride in their new state’s connection to the Bible. To this day, Biblical references are commonplace in Israeli public venues.) The others agreed to the bold military title.” (Excerpt from Israel’s Edge: The Story of the IDF’s Most Elite Unit – Talpiot)
The actual text in Hebrew reads: כְּמִגְדַּל דָּוִיד צַוָּארֵךְ, בָּנוּי לְתַלְפִּיּוֹת; אֶלֶף הַמָּגֵן תָּלוּי עָלָיו, כֹּל שִׁלְטֵי הַגִּבֹּרִים: “Your neck is like the Tower of David, built l’talpiot; hung with a thousand shields – all the quivers of warriors.”
In the IDF unit Talpiot, soldiers are of course taught to fight, but the priority is to relearn how to think. The end goal is to turn young soldiers into research and development machines that are capable of developing the weapons and intelligence tools of the future. They are expected to put Israeli defense a generation ahead of the Jewish State’s enemies and to also stay ahead of the super-powers including the United States. The U.S., China, and Russia supply Israel’s enemies with technology and advanced weapons. If Israel doesn’t keep pace or get ahead, it is in danger.
Talpiot’s first class of 18 year olds began service in 1979 after an intense recruiting process. The goal was to find the brightest kids they could and sign them up. While an average soldier serves for three years, Talpiots must serve for ten. The army quickly teamed up with Hebrew University to give the cadets intensive lessons focusing on physics, mathematics, and computer science.
After a few years, the focus of the program changed. The end goal was the same but in recruiting, the army began looking for more well-rounded young men and women as well. They decided that building a team and finding smart people who can work together is the most important quality.
While these young soldiers are getting their degrees in physics, mathematics and computer science in just three years rather than four allotted to normal gifted students, they also train with each unit in the IDF from artillery, to special forces, to tanks, to the navy, and air force.
Many Talpiots also go into combat units after completing their degree. They’ve commanded naval fighting ships at sea, piloted F16s, and have led special ground forces combat units.
These are true modern day Jewish superheroes.
After their ten years in the army, a third stay in the IDF, a third go to teach at universities, and a third establish companies. Among their top successes are CheckPoint Software and Compugen.
No other army unit has had more of an impact on Israel.