Israel’s Military Reaches Out to Minority Groups

In a partnership with universities, the army educates Ethiopians and other immigrants so they can become skilled professionals

As a top high-school student in the Israeli port city of Ashdod, Sally Benson was sure she had overcome the obstacles that have kept the vast majority of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews from pursuing a university degree, including poverty and low levels of education. The petite, self-assured Ms. Benson, the penultimate child among 12, is now in her second year in industrial engineering and management at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. But she admits that she could never have gotten this far without the help two years ago of a collegepreparatory course that she initially dismissed as unnecessary. The course is part of a program sponsored by Israel’s army that takes young people from disadvantaged ethnic and social groups and turns them into the top-flight professionals that the military needs. “I thought it would be easy,” Ms. Benson says, laughing. “It wasn’t easy at all.”

She wasn’t the only one struggling. The program, Atidim, or Futures, got off to a rough start. Nearly half the students enrolled during its first year, in 2002, failed the preparatory course. But the army and the two universities that are working together on it learned from their mistakes and persisted. This year the program is smaller and more selective, but teachers, administrators, and students are optimistic about its future. Atidim’s birth pangs, and the way it has overcome them, provides a lesson for those seeking to increase college enrollments and graduation rates among disadvantaged minorities.

Atidim was founded on the premise that there was untapped potential in the country’s Ethiopian, Druze, and Bedouin ethnic groups, as well as among Jews living in the disadvantaged towns and farming villages in Israel’s peripheral regions. The army was running short of professionals — primarily engineers, but also lawyers, doctors, and economists — because its Atuda corps, a prestigious program similar to the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, was no longer attracting enough top-quality high-school graduates willing to sign up for a seven-year commitment. The army needs the country’s top high-school students to staff its sophisticated research-and-development projects. But the incentives the army offers — a free college education and top-notch work experience — are not as attractive as they once were, says Lt. Col. Itzik Maya, the director of Atidim, at the program’s office in a high-security army technical installation.

Teenagers with the highest marks and test scores tend to come from middle-class neighborhoods in the big cities of the country’s central region. Their parents can afford to pay college tuition, and high-tech firms are willing to offer them high-paying jobs right out of college, he notes. To search for replacements for such students in the Ethiopian and other disadvantaged communities was a radical idea, Colonel Maya says. While many of Israel’s minority groups suffer from poverty, discrimination, and a lack of positive role models, the plight of the Ethiopians is arguably the worst. Facing oppression and poverty at home, about 35,000 Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. A great majority of them came from backward, rural regions where anything beyond a grade-school education was exceptional. “Most of the parents don’t work; there are a large number of single-parent families and a large number of children,” says Liat Mayberg, director of the Preacademic Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As the newest of the country’s disadvantaged groups, Ethiopians have not yet begun to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and there are few successful, educated members of the community to inspire its young people, she notes.

But Colonel Maya and other army officers noticed that, while relatively small numbers of Ethiopians and other minority groups were qualified for Atuda, they were increasingly well represented in the army’s combat-officer corps. This indicated, he says, that there were talents in those communities waiting to be tapped. With the right support, army planners reasoned, young Ethiopians, Druze, Bedouin, and Jews from outlying regions could successfully complete university studies at a high level and answer the army’s needs. At first, Atidim sought to identify high-school students from these groups who exhibited high potential and, with some guidance and help in high school, steer them toward Atuda, Colonel Maya says. But success was limited, especially among Ethiopians. It soon became clear that most Ethiopians — and many members of the other groups — who were at the top of their high-school classes were still not capable of successfully completing a high-level undergraduate program in engineering or the other fields that interested the army.

High Failure Rate

So, three years ago, Atidim joined forces with the college-preparatory program at the Technion. That long-established course provides a year of remedial study to promising young people with potential who nevertheless need to improve grades, test scores, and study skills to be accepted into the Technion or another Israeli university. The preparatory program serves, for the most part, young people who have completed their military service. It opened special classes for students accepted into Atidim, who were just out of high school. Because of their special needs, Ethiopian enrollees were placed in a separate class. A year later the Hebrew University opened a parallel class. The first Atidim cohort for Ethiopians entered the Technion’s preparatory program in the fall of 2002 with 40 students, but only 23 made it to the end of the year. Of those who completed the course, 3 were unable to find university placements and 10 ended up in second-tier college engineering programs.

The following year, when the Hebrew University accepted its first Ethiopian Atidim class, only 29 out of 48 completed the program. “They weren’t mature enough to understand what was being expected of them,” says Sharon Liberty, a counselor for the Hebrew University preparatory program who works with Ethiopian students. “It’s a very demanding year, and by the time they realized what they had to do, their studies had ended.” “When they saw that the studies were difficult, instead of putting out additional effort, they began to skip classes and not get up in the morning,” Ms. Mayberg adds. Teachers in the program also found that the students lacked basic knowledge that they expected a high-school graduate to have. “Forty percent of them couldn’t name the continents and couldn’t fill in a map of the local geography of the Middle East,” says Heidi Rabinovitch, an English teacher in the program.

The students received courses in study skills and individual tutoring, but it wasn’t enough. The major problem, Ms. Mayberg believes, was not lack of sufficient support but faulty selection. In Hebrew University’s first year with Atidim, Ms. Mayberg says, the army exerted pressure to accept students who came highly recommended by high-school principals, but whose scores on Israel’s national high-school-graduation examinations, and on the standardized college admissions test, were well below the usual minimum required by the preparatory program. Many of the students came from public boarding schools that take students primarily from disadvantaged areas and from poor, large families, often immigrants, in which the parents have difficulty supporting and educating their children. While the students from those institutions who applied to Atidim had been at the top of their classes, the level of the education at the schools was inferior even to city high schools in Israel’s peripheral regions. Furthermore, many boarding-school graduates had not developed good study skills, say Ms. Mayberg and her counterpart at the Technion, Muli Dotan.

The army’s Atidim staff hoped that with enough extra help and some motivation, even students who were below par in their grades and test scores could get into college. But Colonel Maya acknowledges that the selection was counterproductive. “It makes no sense to take an unqualified student,” he says. “Last year I went to battle with the preparatory programs to take these students, but it was a mistake. If a student like that ends up failing, it can be a very negative experience.”

More Selective

This year’s applicants were required to take a standardized test, and those at the Technion also had to take the admissions test that is standard for applicants to that institution. Low-scoring students were not admitted. The result is that fewer students made the grade, but those who did were more likely to succeed. Notably, most of them were top-performing students at their neighborhood high schools, rather than at boarding schools. Nearly all of them attribute their success to the importance that their parents attached to education. “My parents didn’t go to high school in Ethiopia, just elementary school, but they were always pushing me to study,” says Yalpal Siyum, who is from the town of Mazkeret Batya and is one of eight children. The program also now provides personal tutors, extra counseling, and more emphasis on learning how to study. One of this year’s students, Moshe Desalin, from the town of Karmiel in the Galilee, says he understands why so many of last year’s students failed to complete the precollege program. “It’s not like high school, and I think that by the time they realized that, it was too late,” he says.

Even though he had been a top high-school student, Mr. Desalin, who is at Hebrew University, appreciated the help he received in a six-week summer orientation session that preceded the precollege course itself. “They gave us guided study, showed us how to organize our material,” he explains. Since he had gotten through high school without needing to prepare much for exams, he had never learned to take and organize notes, nor to pace himself in going over course material so that he would not face an impossible task at the end of the term, he says. Ms. Rabinovitch, the English teacher, feels that this year’s students are far more likely to succeed than those she taught last year, but they still have much to learn. In her experience, Ethiopian students are particularly poor at time management, so one of the major tasks of the year is to teach them how to use their time well.

“I didn’t overload them with homework, but they’d come into class very sleepy and tell me they’d been up to 3 a.m. with their books,” she related. “They didn’t understand that they couldn’t stay up all night.” It is notable that, despite the program’s rocky start, many of this year’s students are the siblings, cousins, or neighbors of students who went through the program in previous years. Colonel Maya points to this as evidence that Atidim is already succeeding in one of its goals: changing perceptions in the Ethiopian-Israeli community so that both teenagers and their parents see college as an option. Colonel Maya says that students, including Ethiopians, from an earlier stage in the program have already completed their studies and have been grabbed by some of the army’s most elite technical units. However, these are a handful of top high-school students whom Atidim identified and supported, but not ones who needed a precollege program. It will be three or four years before the first Ethiopian students who went through the precollege course reach the point when they must apply for army postings.

One of the first to reach that point will be Ms. Benson, whose first year of undergraduate studies extended into the summer. She had to retake a couple of her exams in order to move up to the second year. She is working very, very hard, she says, harder than she ever thought she would have to. But she has no doubts that she will graduate. Mr. Dotan, the Technicon program director, agrees. Colonel Maya says that Atidim’s goal is to produce 40,000 college graduatesEthiopians and other minority groupsby the year 2020. If it succeeds, Israel’s universities, army, and society will have a very different look to them.

The author served in the Israeli infantry from 1982 to 1984, and in the infantry reserves until 2002.

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