The U.S. Can Learn From Israel’s Cognitive Meritocracy

Taylor Brandon/blue and white flag on pole

For over fifteen years, Hamas has been building a vast network of tunnels throughout the Gaza strip. Nicknamed the “Metro” by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the tunnels stretch for up to 500 miles, or twice the size of the New York City subway system, and cover an area roughly twice the size of Washington D.C. These tunnels, which are frequently built under civilian and protected sites, confer military advantages by allowing fighters and weapons to move freely without being vulnerable to airstrikes while being protected by de facto human shields. Locating and destroying these tunnels is one of the primary goals of the IDF in its war with Hamas.

The IDF has stated it has destroyed roughly 20% of the tunnels thus far, using a variety of methods. One of the primary tools the IDF is using is a sensor system codenamed Power Number, that was invented a little over a decade ago by three graduates of Talpiot, an elite IDF training program.

Talpiot has its roots in the aftermath of another devastating surprise attack on Israel, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 where the IDF was caught off guard and lost over a thousand tanks and 20% of its Air Force. The IDF’s leadership at the time realized that if the Israeli state were to survive in the future, they would have to out-think a numerically superior enemy. This would mean developing a level of technological supremacy that would negate the Arab states’ greater military mass. 

The IDF’s initial idea to meet this challenge was to create an institute modeled after Xerox PARC, the research and development group in Silicon Valley which was responsible for many revolutionary developments in computing, including the personal computer. But the Israelis soon realized they did not have the resources needed to fund such an institute. Instead of an institute filled with established researchers, the Israelis sought to find a small number of the smartest young people in their country and, during their peak in creativity, task them with developing weapons no other country possessed. This program became Talpiot.

This institutional design reflected the reality that while the Israelis did not have much money, what they did have was a population with many intellectually gifted young men who were mandated to serve in the IDF once they turned eighteen. Over time, the program came to serve a similar function in Israeli society as Ivy League universities serve in the U.S. Despite its many problems, the university system is here to stay. If anything, top universities are becoming more important as centers of power not just in the U.S., but also other developed countries and even in China. The Talpiot program shows what a supplement or partial replacement for universities as a means to forge a new national elite could look like.

Finding and Cultivating Talent For National Security

The first commander of Talpiot, Dan Sharon, a former IDF paratrooper, recruited his friend, Felix Dothan, who had just completed his PhD dissertation at Hebrew University on the topic of “the development of thinking and how one could improve his or her own thinking.” Dothan’s aim for Talpiot wasn’t merely to confer technical knowledge or select the most intelligent; it aspired to teach people how to think and learn fast.

Together they wrote a memo that describes what they were looking for from recruits: “We need applicants with a high IQ. We are looking at the top 5 percent when it comes to intelligence, creative ability, the ability to focus, stable and pleasant personalities.” Furthermore, applicants must have “dedication to their homeland and the strong will to survive in the unit.” They wanted the smartest men (and in later years women) they could find at the age when they still believed anything is possible. But they wanted more than raw intelligence which created a difficult selection problem.

Dothan and others began working on a selection process that would isolate candidates who fit their criteria. Talpiot launched in 1979 and was initially designed for a cohort of 25 people selected from a pool of up to 10,000 test takers that would complete a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics—computer science was added in 1983—from Hebrew University with four years of content stuffed into three years. With the help of academic consultants, Talpiot’s leaders designed psychometric tests that would assess candidates’ cognitive ability and creativity. The two hundred or so candidates that were shortlisted underwent a taxing interview where they were subjected to logical puzzles designed to test their creativity and critical thinking skills and asked to explain physical phenomena that went well beyond what they had studied at school.

A flaw in the selection process was quickly discovered; highly creative technical minds often do not have “stable and pleasant personalities” and members of the first classes of Talpiot were finding it difficult to be team players. Additional personality tests were implemented where prospective recruits were put through intense simulations to determine their leadership and teamwork capability as well as motivation and “moral value.” Once selected for the program, Talpiot students spent nearly all their time together, which fostered an intense bond.

The training was designed to push students to their limits. A favored technique was to identify the problem-solving strengths of students and play against them, forcing them to learn and think in different and original ways. As David Kutasov, a theoretical physicist at the University of Chicago and a Talpiot alumnus put it “A lot of kids these days, even at top American universities, are too conventional and not original. At Talpiot they beat it out of you and push you towards originality.” The intensity of the program results in a high attrition rate; nearly 25% of those originally selected fail to complete the program.

Talpiot is sponsored by the Israeli Air Force and the Israeli Administration for the Development of Weapons and the Technological Industry, or Maf’at. Maf’at serves as the central node in the Israeli R&D establishment, coordinating efforts across the IDF, its largest defense contractors, the Institute for Biological Research, and the Israeli Space Agency. Despite the Air Force connection, Talpiot students spend time embedded with units across the IDF in rotations designed to enable them to take the academic knowledge they are learning in the classroom and apply it to field exercises and real battle situations.

Talpiot officers build R&D job descriptions for their graduates to fill that are based on the highest priorities of every military branch. They then work on job placement throughout each student’s three-year undergraduate program with the goal of putting every graduate in the position where they can have the highest impact. Upon receiving their degree, students serve a six-year commitment with the Army, Navy, or Air Force, typically in an R&D capacity, although some have become fighter pilots or pursued other combat specialties.

Defense Projects Can Drive Economic Growth

Besides their coursework, each student was tasked with what is called “the Project,” which entailed coming up with an original idea that solves a defense problem, create a budget for it, and then produce it. Many of these student projects would ultimately be developed by the IDF; the famed Iron Dome missile defense system has its roots in an early mockup by a Talpiot student. 

From its inception, Talpiot’s leaders found they were in competition with recruiters from Unit 8200, Israel’s version of the U.S.’s National Security Agency, for the same candidates. The leaders of each program came together and reached a handshake agreement to work together to find the most promising young people and let each candidate decide between the two programs.

The joint talent search starts with monitoring potential recruits as early as elementary school and continues through after-school programs in junior high and high schools, such as the Nachshon Program, which is based off Talpiot pedagogic concepts and is designed to create a cadre of the best young technical minds in the country. Feeder schools, including a boarding school for gifted students, the Israeli Arts and Science Academy (IASA), have also been formed. Today, 7% of Talpiot’s current fifty-person class are IASA graduates and 25% of IASA graduates go on to earn PhDs in technical subjects.

Elite programs like Talpiot and Unit 8200 are reserved for Israeli citizens and their alumni have played an outsized role in advancing Israel’s economic and military power. Despite a total defense budget of only $23.6 billion—compared to the U.S.’s $130 billion annual budget for defense R&D alone—the IDF has consistently been able to develop novel weapons systems that achieved the original mandate of Talpiot to develop “totally new weapons that don’t exist among (other) nations.”

Often these systems and technologies are developed jointly by the U.S. and Israel. Aside from Iron Dome, which is produced by Israeli and U.S. defense contractors and largely funded by the U.S., a prime example is the computer virus Stuxnet, which ruined 20% of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and caused a thousand of the Iranian military’s computers to physically degrade. The virus is widely believed to have been developed by the National Security Agency and Unit 8200.

Talpiot members have been credited by the Times of Israel with “having an impact on every weapon and communications system used by the IDF and every tool used by Israel’s intelligence community.” Several ex-Talpiot have received the Israeli Defense Prize, which is the country’s top defense prize and is awarded annually by the President of Israel to the individuals, units, or projects that were found to have significantly improved the security of the state.Talpiot alumni have been successful in the private sector as well, founding over one hundred companies worth over $50 billion. 

Perhaps the most prominent example is Check Point Software, which was founded by veterans of Talpiot and Unit 8200 and developed some of the first anti-virus and cybersecurity software for Internet-connected computers in 1993. Today, the company is Israel’s largest cybersecurity firm and the second-largest Israeli company overall in terms of market capitalization. Check Point sparked the growth of Israel’s cybersecurity industry, which in 2021 accounted for nearly 10% of the global market. Around 80% of Israel’s cybersecurity founders had experience in IDF intelligence per a 2018 study. Israel’s aerospace and defense industry has similarly prospered, with close to $13 billion in exports in 2022. Israel has developed a particular expertise in drone technology and electronic warfare, both of which stem from IDF research programs.

Combined, the aerospace, defense, and cybersecurity industries account for roughly 15% of Israel’s annual exports. A large portion of Israel’s economic strength stems from industries whose leadership and technical expertise are drawn from Unit 8200 and Talpiot alumni. Venture capital firms have been started by their alumni, including Glilot Capital Partners and Axon, whose strategy is to fund startups whose founding teams are fellow veterans of these programs.

These alumni are increasingly venturing beyond their traditional domains and have founded companies in markets as diverse as transportation, healthcare, construction, agriculture, media, and more. The startups they founded have helped turn Israel into a technological powerhouse. At one point in 2023, Israel, with a population of 9 million, was home to 89 unicorn startups valued at over $1 billion dollars. Israel is one of just a handful of small countries, alongside Estonia and Singapore, with more unicorn startups per capita than the United States. 

Talpiot alumni have also become some of the most renowned researchers in the world in fields ranging from theoretical physics to systems biology. Examples include Yoav Freund, who won the Godel Prize for his work in machine learning, and Elon Lindenstrauss, who received the Fields Medal—the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”—for his work in the area of dynamics. One former member received a technical Grammy for inventing an audio mixing technology. Unlike many other academically selective programs, they manage to avoid selecting for excessive conformity that impedes intellectual explorations. Avi Loeb, a Harvard astrophysicist and ex-Talpiot member is regarded as the world’s “leading alien hunter,” for his hypothesis that Oumuamua—the first interstellar object observed passing through our solar system—is artificial. 

Political Barriers to Solving the Selection Problem 

The success of Talpiot’s alumni is made more remarkable by their relatively small number; roughly 2000 people have graduated from the program in its lifetime, equivalent in size to the average annual freshman class at Harvard. The success of Talpiot has spurred the development of a similar program in South Korea which explicitly referenced Talpiot as an inspiration. While China has developed a similar program as well.

A U.S. program of this kind would require cooperation with a top university to play the role that Hebrew University provides to Talpiot. An undergraduate R&D program designed to develop novel weapons would not be a welcome addition to the campus at many U.S. schools, however. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and other universities banned the Reserve Officer Training Corp from their campuses for forty years, only allowing it to return in 2011. Stanford’s business school recently blocked students from even forming a club related to defense technology.

Ironically, as Talpiot’s founders explicitly sought to emulate America’s Ivy League universities when they established the program, the U.S. was already moving away from this model. The process through which U.S. diplomats are selected is instructive as to why this is the case. For nearly a century, anyone wishing to become a U.S. diplomat has had to pass the Foreign Service Officer Test, which historically had a 20% pass rate. During the decades following World War II, the test took three and a half days and required a near-polymathic grasp of history, geography, foreign cultures, and politics. 

In 1989, a court decision found the test was discriminatory because men passed its mandatory general background section at roughly twice the rate of women. In response, the State Department made the exam much shorter and easier and, in 2022, it announced the exam will no longer be graded pass/fail, to enable it to hire low scorers who were members of underrepresented minority groups. Any attempt to implement a comparable talent development program in the U.S. would face the same disparate impact legal challenges and diversity and inclusion imperatives that transformed the Foreign Service Officer Test. These problems are particularly pronounced at America’s most elite universities, where students are selected using very different criteria.

In contrast, in Israeli society, the pinnacle of business and politics are dominated by veterans of elite IDF units such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessor Naftali Bennett, who are veterans of Sayeret Matkal, the IDF version of Delta Force. Part of the reason the Israeli public has uncomplicated beliefs about the righteousness of its defense is that it is led by an elite with uncomplicated beliefs about the righteousness of its defense. And the first step to joining the Israeli elite is through programs like Talpiot.

Similar processes to the Talpiot Program used to be the standard model for the U.S. elite for decades. The same prestige-seeking motives that result in Harvard grads joining McKinsey today would once lead Ivy League graduates to try and become CIA officers. The pace of advancement opportunities within such institutions has slowed to the point they have limited appeal to today’s graduates. The current U.S. model is broken in that it largely fails to identify its most talented and ambitious young people and then it fails to offer those it does select a worthy path of achievement.

Selecting students based on patriotism and psychometric testing to determine capability, followed by rigorous training, would entail a profound change in U.S. ideology, but perhaps the most difficult part would be overcoming the aversion to giving such young talent not just funding to work with, but significant authority to implement and apply novel technical solutions to pressing problems. Programs like Israel’s Talpiot aren’t the only means of addressing such problems, but all means that might work will require changes to the selection and education of the country’s future elites that are no less profound. 

Brian Balkus is a market intelligence principal at an energy infrastructure firm. You can follow him at @bbalkus.