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In the Middle East, Modernity Comes From the Barrel of a Gun. Or a Laptop.

A Unit 8200 networking event in Tel Aviv shows why Israel has won and the Arabs have lost

Lee Smith
June 30, 2014
The IDF’s most important intelligence-gathering installation is the Urim SIGINT Base, a part of Unit 8200. Urim is located in the Negev desert.(Google Earth)
The IDF’s most important intelligence-gathering installation is the Urim SIGINT Base, a part of Unit 8200. Urim is located in the Negev desert.(Google Earth)

“Please move away from the Mossad booth,” said the hostess of a networking event I recently attended on a balmy evening at an undisclosed location in Tel Aviv. Because I was the only nongraduate of Unit 8200 present—aside from the bartenders and security personnel at the front door—Israel’s clandestine service didn’t want me loitering around seeing whom they might recruit. But it wasn’t hard to see that the Mossad was eager to sign up graduates from Unit 8200, as was the Shin Bet and dozens of major IT firms, all hoping to attract Israel’s best and brightest.

Unit 8200 is frequently described as Israel’s equivalent of the National Security Agency. Drawn from the cream of the crop of the country’s teenagers, the unit provides Israel with her first line of defense against her enemies. They are also allegedly responsible for many of the country’s hard-charging offensive cyber operations, like disabling Syria’s air defense system before the IAF bombed the Al Kibar nuclear facilities in 2007. Anyone looking to hire grads from the “Unit,” as members refer to the outfit, is probably also familiar with its most famous export—Stuxnet, the computer worm that set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program by reportedly ruining a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.

How do Israelis become part of this group of elite warriors? “We can identify young people at a very early age,” said Israel’s former ambassador to the United States Michael Oren. “Then we fast track them into these genius units.”

The prime physical specimens in attendance, the kinds of beautiful Israelis you see in the bars and on the beaches of Tel Aviv, were the women tending bar and the security guys in blue short-sleeved jackets. By contrast, the 8200 grads mostly looked like the kind of people you’d expect to see ambushing Leonard Nimoy at a Star Trek convention.

My escort, Shimrit Meir, also a graduate of the Unit, and now director of the Israel Project’s outreach program to the Arab world, happily admitted that the Unit’s networking event assembles one of the nerdiest groups of people you will ever see—an admission that hardly causes her any shame. 8200’s tech geeks, like their Silicon Valley counterparts, are wildly successful—and eager to talk about it. It was like being in a roomful of Ivy Leaguers who can’t stop gushing about how great life is, if you’re an Ivy Leaguer—beautiful wife (or gorgeous husband), two super-talented kids, a spectacular apartment overlooking the sea, and a buy-out offer from Google. And it’s not just 8200, Oren explained. “There are other units like it, which are classified. You also have commando units competing for the same kids, and now graduates of commando units are starting companies.”

The event I attended was promoting the outfit’s effort to recruit from less well-off sectors of Israeli society. After all, the point is not just to draw from the children of the country’s elite to reproduce the next generation of elites, but to create an elite that serves Israeli society, first in the field and then in corporate boardrooms. Saul Singer and Dan Senor laid out the economic role of Unit 8200 and its classified peers very clearly in their 2011 best-selling book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle: The reason that Israel has such a successful tech industry is the army. “I saw it up close,” said Oren, who headed an Israeli high-tech company during the first high-tech bubble in the 1990s. “The Israeli army gives latitude to junior officers, which is something that most militaries don’t. Israel’s junior officers work in small teams with lots of pressure and little sleep, so you have to come up with creative answers in a limited time period. A typical problem in the field, for instance, is a broken gear shaft on a Jeep. There’s no real solution, but you have to come up with one in five minutes.”

Indeed, the booths that got the most attention from younger grads of the Unit weren’t the Mossad’s or even those belonging to big tech companies like Intel. Rather, it was the start-ups. “Our tech sector has an immense advantage over just about any other market,” Oren continued. “We have these kids for six or seven years in the military, where they get a BA and MA in computer science, then they come out and develop something like Waze”—the community-based traffic and navigation application that Google last year bought for $1 billion.

But it’s not just about how much money you can make, said 8200 grad Meir. “These are the brightest minds in the country,” he said. “They give several years of their lives to the IDF, making less than $100 a month. When they get out, they naturally want to use their knowledge and experience to make money. But Israel needs its best people to do other things besides working on the next great app. It needs good people to be involved in social issues, head NGOs, go into politics, in short to help Israel meet its many challenges.”

It is unclear whether the world actually understands the enormous gulf between Israeli society and those of its neighbors. The Arab and Iranian societies are caught in a trap. They both crave modernity—who doesn’t want the latest ringtones on the newest cellphone?—and fear it, as evidenced by the status of women. Israel on the other hand is on the leading edge of modernity in the region and is second only to Silicon Valley as a creative center of the global tech economy. In defending itself from modernity’s also-rans, its losers, Israel creates more value in areas like information technology or biotech than advanced nations 10 times its size, which live in much nicer neighborhoods. Under the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, no kid in their right mind would choose to be born under the reign of Assad, or Hassan Nasrallah, or another authoritarian Egyptian regime when they could be Israeli. The opportunities are simply not comparable.

I’ve met lots of smart teenagers from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. But members of elite units from the Egyptian Army start neither NGOs nor tech companies traded on NASDAQ—they use American taxpayer money to appropriate large segments of the country’s industrial base and enrich themselves at the expense of their countrymen. Bashar al-Assad’s top warriors don’t end up designing applications that benefit both Syrian society and the rest of the world at large—and for them going into politics now means taking one of two sides in a brutal civil war where they target even civilians from each other’s communities. The smart Lebanese Shiite kids who intercepted the Israeli Army’s communications in the 2006 war are not developing the next Waze—they are fighting and dying in a foreign country on behalf of a Syrian despot and an Iranian one.

With headlines from the region focusing on wars, kidnappings, bombs, occupation, and terrorism, it is not surprising that the strength and creativity of Israeli society are not well understood either within or outside the region. Europeans, and the Presbyterian Church, have no problems using the products of the Israeli social genius—in their cellphones, or when they get sick and need medications. It’s not Israeli goods they despise, they’ll say, but the policies of Israel’s government. But push them a little harder and they will have no choice but to confront their own hypocrisies.

Why doesn’t the Presbyterian Church divest from America, a country that has killed many tens of thousands more people in the Middle East than Israel’s armies ever have, and with far less provocation, very far from its own borders?

Or if that’s too hard, how about divesting from China, whose expansionist, repressive government commits far worse crimes than those that the Israelis are accused of committing, while controlling over 1.4 billion people—and which bans most forms of Christian worship, to boot?

Why can’t the deep thinkers of the world understand that the reason that Israeli ingenuity helps power the planet is that Israel is a powerful, progressive force of modernization in a part of the world that most needs modernity and rejects it with the most destructive force?

“The states are as the men are,” said Plato. “They grow out of human characters.” A nation whose army feeds off the carcasses of its own people will lose, and one that protects and creates what the world values will win. By that measure, Israel has won. Its adversaries never had a chance.


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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.