Eisenkot’s ‘Revolution’: A GI Bill Of Rights For The Israel Defense Forces

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Times of Israel header - Eisenkot's RevolutionIDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, July 13, 2016.

After World War II, some 16 million American soldiers returned home, looking for education, work and a place to live.

To help those veterans reenter civil society, on June 22, 1944, then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known colloquially as the GI Bill of Rights, which provided honorably discharged soldiers with a host of benefits, including tuition payments for universities, colleges and vocational schools.

Within a decade, more than 2.2 million former servicemen had used the GI Bill to earn a university degree, while millions more used it for vocational training.

Historians have credited the GI Bill with boosting the US economy and helping to establish the veterans of WWII as the “greatest generation.”

‘This continues the heritage of the IDF as a people’s army.’

On Monday, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot unveiled his own version of the GI Bill. Though more modest than the American initiative, Eisenkot’s proposal swiftly earned the praise of politicians and academics alike.

“It’s a revolution. This is a very ethical and important move that the chief of staff has undertaken. It improves the prospects for soldiers from Israel’s periphery” — cities and towns far from the center of the country, which have historically suffered from socioeconomic disadvantage — “where the cost of tuition is significant,” Prof. Gad Yair of the Hebrew University’s Department of Education told The Times of Israel.

“This continues the heritage of the IDF as a people’s army,” he said.

Under Eisenkot’s initiative, all honorably discharged IDF soldiers who began their service after July 1, 2014, will receive almost full scholarships for academic or vocational studies.

Gad Yair, a professor of sociology and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, during an appearance on a television show.

While veterans coming from poorer families will still have to be able to afford the associated costs of an education — housing, textbooks, etc. — the program “removes at least some of the financial roadblocks” to a better future, according to Yair.

He said the “revolution” couldn’t have come at a better time, as university enrollment has dipped in recent years.

“Institutions of higher learning are praising this step. I don’t want to say that they see it as a lifeline, but it’s an encouragement during a time when there’s a decrease in the number of students,” he said.

For now, the yet-unnamed program will provide funding only for combat soldiers and “needy” soldiers who receive monetary assistance from the army, but the plan is to expand the initiative to anyone who fully completes his or her service, according to the IDF.

“Within the next two years we are planning to open up this opportunity to every IDF soldier who gets released. And that is a process that we are starting at this moment,” an army spokesperson said.

To Yair, the program represents the most meaningful social initiative to come out of the military in almost four decades.

Former IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan in an undated photograph.“When I think to myself, ‘What was the last meaningful act?’ I think about the chief of staff [Rafael Eitan] who said that the army was taking responsibility for the populations in the periphery,” he said.

In the late 1970s, Eitan, known by the nickname Raful, started a series of programs to help underprivileged teenagers to better integrate into the army and eventually into Israeli society.

The soldiers helped by Eitan’s initiative famously became known as “Raful’s youth,” and many of the projects and programs developed at that time remain in place today.

Nearly 40 years on, Eisenkot is carrying on Eitan’s tradition, Yair said. “This is the same kind of movement. Eisenkot is making himself into a Raful. This is truly a historic step.”

The first eligible recipients of the new scholarships were released from the army last month and can already take advantage of the funds for the coming school year, an army spokesperson said.

Veterans in the program have up up to three years after their release from service to start their university degree.

As this scholarship requires recipients to have completed a full IDF service, thus far only “needy” female soldiers, who served for two years, are eligible, the spokesperson said.

Due to the relatively small pool of possible recipients, the cost of the program for the coming academic year will be less than NIS 100 million ($30 million), the official said.

Israeli students participate in a mass chemistry experiment.

Going forward, the cost is expected to increase to approximately NIS 230 million ($60 million) a year once male soldiers become eligible (in July 2017), and will go up to an estimated NIS 500 million ($130 million) a year when the program opens up to all soldiers, according to the IDF.

Money for the program will come from donations made to the Friends of the IDF or the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers charities, the army said.

In the past, donations from those organizations were mostly used to build sports centers, synagogues and clubhouses on IDF bases, or to purchase picnic tables and other pieces of equipment. Many donors would specifically earmark their contribution for the IDF’s more elite units, whose soldiers generally hail from wealthier families and cities in central Israel.

But now, “The money will go toward bachelor’s degrees rather than a gym. This is what will build up the army,” Eisenkot told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Israeli students sitting on the grass at the campus of Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Givat Ram campus at the beginning of the new academic year

Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich praised the effort for its equalizing impact, giving Israelis from all walks of life the ability to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“From now on, these donations will not be an on-demand program dependent upon the fantasies of donors, who naturally wish to give money only to the ‘well considered’ units. They will be used for the academic studies of veterans, complementing the money they already receive upon their release,” she said.

“This is a worthy goal, which creates — in no small amount — equality of opportunity at the critical point in one’s life: their university studies,” Yachimovich added.

Eisenkot’s initiative will be run through the existing Defense Ministry’s Veteran’s Guidance Fund, which helps discharged soldiers find jobs and scholarships.

Although the program will cover most of the costs of a university degree, the studies will not be entirely free. Veterans will have to chip in a portion of the money they receive upon their release from the army.

When a soldier completes their army service, they receive two sums of money. One, known as the ma’anak shichrur, or release grant, is given as a check and can be used for anything. The second, known as a pikadon, or deposit, is kept in a special account that can only be accessed — after a period of five years — to pay for school, buy a house, open a business, get married, or any other purpose.

‘Twenty thousand shekels in Israeli society is a large enough amount of money to stymie a student from going to university.’The amount of money is dependent upon how long the soldier served in the army and what position they held. For instance, a combat fighter serving for three years receives NIS 29,596.32 as their pikadon, while a non-combat soldier serving for two years gets NIS 13,153.92.

In order to receive the scholarship, the released soldier must use one-third of the pikadon money for tuition, meaning some soldiers will pay up to NIS 10,000, while others pay just over NIS 4,000.

As a three-year bachelor’s degree costs a little over NIS 30,000 ($8,000), depending on the subject, that means veterans will effectively receive at least NIS 20,000 upon their release.

That amount can be the difference between someone from a low-income family going to university or not.

“Twenty thousand shekels in Israeli society is a large enough amount of money to prevent a student from going to university,” Yair said.

IDF soldiers in a computer programming course.

“I do a survey of the students each year at the Hebrew University. Students tell me, ‘I didn’t come to study last year because I didn’t have enough money,'” he said.

Under Eisenkot’s initiative, veterans would not have to put off their degrees in order to earn the money to afford them, Yair said.

As the program is relatively new, the army still has to sort out some of its finer details.

For now the initiative will only pay for three-year bachelor’s degrees, meaning medical and engineering degrees, which require additional years of schooling, are not fully covered. And if a soldier already has a bachelor’s degree, it’s not yet clear if the scholarship would pay for a master’s.

‘This is a win-win. Everyone benefits from this. In short, it’s a genius move.’But with another year before the first large batch of veterans apply for the scholarship, the army should be able to find answers to those questions, the spokesperson said.

Though the almost half-a-billion-shekel price tag may sound expensive, the program will ultimately be a boon for everyone involved, Yair said.

“This is a win-win. Everyone benefits from this. The population will be better educated, the population’s income level will rise, the amount of tax revenue in Israeli society will go up so that the Finance Ministry will have more money for social welfare,” he said. “In short, it’s a genius move.”

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