Israel’s ‘West Point’ Of Defense Technology

Jerusalem College of Technology grads have played big part in developing many advanced defense systems

The Jerusalem College of Technology is a leading source of researchers at Mafat, the Defense Ministry’s Research, Weapons Development and Technology Infrastructure Administration, responsible for advanced tanks, missile defense, and better satellites, among other Israeli defense technologies stunning the world.

“JCT graduates make up nearly a quarter of researchers at Mafat,” Stuart Hershkowitz, a senior member of the JCT’s staff, told the Times of Israel in an exclusive interview. “We are also a strong presence in the Military Intelligence Directorate’s (Agaf Modi’in) Technology Unit.”

Hershkowitz mentioned the large number of JCT alumni who serve as directors, senior executives, or employees in Israel’s biggest tech companies and organizations, including Israel Aircraft Industries and Elbit Systems Electro-optics (El-Op).

Started in 1968, when it was called Machon Lev (the Lev Institute, with the name changed to Jerusalem College of Technology in recent years) JCT has about 4,000 students in five programs, geared towards religious and haredi students. Starting in high school, JCT trains students in hard sciences — physics, chemistry and advanced math — and offers a fast track to top IDF tech programs, such as Unit 8200, the army’s advanced intelligence and tech development program.

Although not directly affiliated with the IDF, JCT graduates “are all over the IDF and are involved in its most advanced tech programs,” said Hershkowitz, with the program a mix of America’s MIT, Stanford, and West Point Military Academy. “We haven’t really talked about our role in Israel’s defense establishment over the years — because the army asked us not to. It’s only recently that we were given a green light to reveal a little of what our graduates have done.”

The Merkava tank, made in Israel and considered one of the most advanced tanks in the world, is one such contribution. “Our graduates have been responsible for many of the latest upgrades to the tank, especially in the area of electro-optics, a specialty of JCT,” said Hershkowitz. Among the features of the updated Merkava is El-OP’s new fire-control system, the El-Op Knight Mark 4, with an all-electric turret and a system to protect the tank in case it is attacked by an anti-tank weapon. “The chief scientist for electro-optics in the IDF, also a graduate of JCT, is in charge of implementing the electro-optics in the Merkava, adding fire and control systems, night vision and more,” Hershkowitz said.

JCT graduates were responsible for one of the most important developments in Israeli satellite technology, a lightweight, small, but very accurate camera. “Israel is one of only seven countries that have launched objects into space, but because of our location, we have to launch with a smaller payload than other countries do,” Hershkowitz said. Israel has to launch satellites westward, against prevailing winds, since launches to the east, into the Arab heartland, are not possible. In order to ensure that the satellite clears the Earth’s gravitational pull, Israel’s satellites need to be lighter than other countries’. The light and compact camera — partly developed at El-Op — serves those needs, Hershkowitz added.

JCT students helped to develop many important safety devices for the IDF, including a back protector that blocks the harmful radiation from the large transistor radios that soldiers have to carry on their backs. Raanana-based T9Design, which uses similar technology in its backpack and headgear products, said that the issue of radiation from radios and other communication devices “is one of the most ignored issues in modern defense. Radiation is invisible, but it’s there — and the more communication devices on the battlefield, the higher the radiation levels, and the more soldiers are exposed to the dangers of radiation.” The fabrics used were developed for battlefield conditions in Israel, according to the company, with a nickel coating on the inside to guard soldiers from radiation emitted by radios.

Many technologies developed by JCT students have saved the country millions of dollars, Hershkowitz said. “One of our graduates, Y — whose name is classified — won a Mafat Prize for developing a system to ‘save’ satellites with failing photography systems.” Over time, the photos that satellites send back to earth deteriorate. “When this happened to satellites sent up by the US, it cost NASA $500 million to fix the problem by sending up new cameras to replace the failed ones. Y figured out a software fix that could repair the cameras from earth, saving enormous expense and effort.”

C-Music, a new anti-missile defense system being added to Israeli passenger airplanes, “is considered the most advanced system of its kind in the world and will provide ultimate defense to planes,” the Transportation Ministry said. “It combines advanced detection and disruption technologies and meets the stringent requirements of commercial flight.” C-Music detects incoming missiles with an infrared sensor and fires a laser to disrupt the missile’s navigation system and divert it from the plane. The system was developed at Elbit — again, by JCT grads, Hershkowitz said.

There are many JCT grads working in high-tech companies unrelated to the army; in fact, many of them start their own companies — and they hire their own. “About 30% of JCT grads are employed at companies that were started and are headed by our graduates,” said Hershkowitz. One example is NDS, the Jerusalem video technology company that was bought out by Cisco. Four of the five partners who established NDS were JCT graduates.

“It’s also notable that all of the students are observant, with religious studies taught in the mornings, and the evening reserved for technology subjects. Our students put in a very long day, but they feel it’s worth it,” he added.

Many of the students at JCT are from the haredi community, not generally known for its interest in technology. Based on JCT’s experience, that lack of interest is an inaccurate stereotype. “Out of the 4,000 students in JCT’s programs, about 1,700 would be considered haredi,” said Hershkowitz. “We are in touch with most of the leaders in the haredi world, including the heads of the Lithuanian yeshivas and the rebbes of the hasidic communities.” Although they would never announce it publicly, these rabbinical leaders have given students not suited for all-day Torah learning tacit approval to join JCT, Hershkowitz said.

If they can get in, that is. “We have a remedial program we put the haredi students through, but not all of them make it. Many do, however, and they go on to thriving careers in Israeli tech companies.”

JCT also has about 600 haredi females who study in separate engineering and nursing programs. “The revolution in haredi integration in Israeli society is happening right here, together with the technology revolution our graduates are helping to make happen,” Hershkowitz said