TEL AVIV — The call to Lior Ma'ayam came, as it does to the best and brightest of Israel's youth, while he was still in 10th grade.
A star student in one of Tel Aviv's elite high schools, he was instructed to report to a nondescript downtown office building. There he underwent a battery of tests aimed at measuring not only his brainpower, but such less-quantifiable characteristics as latent leadership ability.
A few months later, the exacting sequence ended for Ma'ayam with an invitation to join what may be Israel's most exclusive club: the Israeli army's Talpiyot program.
Talpiyot is not a country club, but a rigorous training course aimed at turning out a corps of master technologists for the military--and more.
"Our idea was to build the next generation of the country's leaders," says Yair Shamir, a high-tech businessman here who, as chief of electronics for the army, helped found Talpiyot.
Rather than enlisting for the standard army term of three years, the fewer than 25 youths selected for Talpiyot each year serve for nine. Rather than map out their own academic career, theirs is chosen for them from among the physics and higher mathematics offerings at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There they are sequestered from most of the other students--not physically, for they share many classes, but by unspoken social tokens: They are younger than most other college students, who have already completed their army service, and unlike anyone else on campus, they attend in uniform.
Nevertheless, almost no one ever turns the invitation down. Talpiyot--the nearly untranslatable Hebrew word of biblical origin suggests a structure built to be imposing and impregnable--not only represents the pinnacle of brainpower in the Israeli army, it is an open ticket into the country's high-tech world.
The Israeli economy has transformed itself over the last few years from an economic laggard into one of the world's most important high-tech competitors, boasting the third-highest number of Nasdaq-listed companies in the world and billions of dollars a year in new venture investments.
"After I got chosen, my friends said, 'You'll be in a start-up [business] after the army,' " recalls Ma'ayam, now 36 and a vice president and general manager at Compugen, a private company that makes tools for the analysis of genetic code.
Talpiyot is also a sign of how closely tied the Israeli army has been to this country's high-tech boom. Far more than any other government institution or even the country's world-class establishments of higher education, the army has been the indispensable factor in the creation of the entire industry.
This catalytic process has been so successful, in fact, that the army itself now faces difficulties competing with its own offshoots for the best young talent in the country.
As small a group as they are, Talpiyot veterans are prominent among the founders or managers of Israel's most successful or promising high-tech ventures. Some companies brag about their array of Talpiyots the way others do the number of PhDs on their research staffs. At Compugen there are 12 Talpiyots, including one co-founder.
Across the industrialized world, of course, military demand has always been a factor in technological innovation. But in Israel, the relationship goes far beyond the conjunction of money and necessity that defines what Dwight D. Eisenhower branded the military-industrial complex.
Israel's military has not only been a customer of advanced technologies, but a training ground for its high-tech leaders. Many honed their competitive skills in the cockpits of its jet fighters or as managers of multibillion-dollar research and procurement programs. They in turn have carried the Israeli army's creative and independent character into the country's high-tech sector to a degree that would be impossible anywhere else.
"The military plays a different social role here [than in other countries]," says Gideon Tolkowsky, a former fighter pilot who now heads his own venture capital firm. "It's compulsory. This is a smaller country, and the military is more entrepreneurial--for better and worse."
In contrast to the United States, where today's all-volunteer army is very much an expression of socioeconomic class, the Israeli military sits squarely at the center of Israeli society. To people here, the army is more than a military organization that has repeatedly saved the country from extinction; it is invested with a large part of the national mystique, the way the French identify with their language or the Japanese with their imperial history.
Israelis have viewed service in the army as a unifying ritual ever since its founding in 1948, when it was feared that not even a common religion might do the job of synthesizing a single nation out of tribes of Jews from dozens of social and ethnic strata across Europe and Asia.