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Q & A with Ram Shmueli: Keeping Israelis safe – and educated

Ram Shmueli

Retired Brig.-Gen. Ram Shmueli is the former head of intelligence for the Israeli Air Force and now heads an organization that’s working to reform the Israeli education system. In 2015, he was awarded the Jerusalem Award for Unity, for his efforts to unite different parts of Israeli society. He will be in Toronto in late January and will give a talk at Adath Israel synagogue on Jan. 22.

What’s on your mind at the moment?

This is a very sensitive time in the Middle East, as you see. In two days, everything can change. Usually, very important things are happening secretly. So only once it’s happened do you know what’s happened. This is the situation.

Not that I know what’s going to happen, I’m not on active duty now, so I don’t know anything. But I have my experience to feel what’s happening and I know something is happening. But you can never know what will happen with Iran and the U.S. and how it will influence Israel. These are very sensitive times.

So I have only my experience from the past. For example, I was the head of the intelligence when we realized that there was a hidden nuclear reactor in Syria. As you know, we destroyed the reactor. But nobody could have imagined when they had to make that decision – including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – that in five or six years, the area would be controlled by ISIS. Try to imagine if ISIS had control of an active nuclear reactor.

These are the things that are at stake when you speak about the Middle East. So I can’t predict the future, but I know, based on my experience, that something is happening here and it’s very sensitive.

What will you talk about when you’re in Toronto?

I will combine both my operational experience as an F-16 squadron commander, so I’m going to share with the people some stories from the cockpit. And then I will jump to stories about decision-making, when you’re in the position of the decision maker, supporting the prime minister, the Ministry of Defence and the chief of staff in making decisions. And then I will try to apply my experience to the future. How can I see what is happening now in the Middle East? Who are the key players when Israel is at stake, and how should we manage this kind of a chaotic situation?

What was your experience like as the head of Israeli Air Force intelligence?

Most people in the army do not go through intelligence, so it’s a fortune for me that I had the opportunity to be in the internal intelligence ecosystem in Israel.

And of course, after 9/11, the co-operation between countries all over the world became much stronger. So I had many, many tools in many countries. Al-Qaida built a net, like a spider web of people. They don’t have a structure or hierarchy of regular organizations like we have in our countries. Al-Qaida, they believe differently. They have the spirit and the spirit was spread all over the world and there is no hierarchy that someone gives the orders and everybody does it. So the intelligence community all over the world had to adjust itself.

In order to fight a net, you have to build a net against it – and I was part of it. I saw it happening all over the world, we started sharing more knowledge. You know, the problem of intelligence, since it is so secret, you don’t want to share. And if every country keeps its own knowledge, it makes us weak against al-Qaida. Since 9/11, I see the intelligence community all over the world started to co-operate very deeply, unlike they’ve done before.

So why did you turn to education after leaving active duty?

For me, it’s very natural. When you’re a commander and you have thousands of groups and people and pilots and mechanics, you are an educator. For me, I think that the strength of a country is due to its education system.

National security stands on three pillars. One of them is good armed forces, second is a good economy and third is good education. So for me, it was natural to go there. So this is how I became the head of a boarding school and then I became the head of a national movement about the social cohesion and another national movement about identity and connecting to the ground. And then today, after 11 years, I decided to wrap everything together and build the National Education Board.

Why did you build it?

The National Board of Education is a kind of a coalition in order to help Israel to build a ten-year plan for our education system. We have nine warning alarms that tell us if we are going to keep on like this in our education system, we might wake up in 2030 and see that we are behind the other countries, even though some people will tell you ‘hey, Israel is a startup nation. We have a good economy. The shekel is strong. So why do we have to change the education system?’ Yes, we are strong, but this is what’s happening now. And if you look at the future, all of those warning alarms, they tell us that the gap between the poor and the rich is almost the highest in the world, the productivity rate is very low compared to the world. The excellency in studying is not good enough compared to other countries, and the status of the teacher is low. So all of those tell you that you have to act, you have to act because we are on the edge of a crisis in the educational system.

Why is education one of the pillars of national security?

It’s very simple. Even Yitzhak Rabin, in his famous speech after winning the Six-Day War, said that it was not the tanks and not the airplanes, it was the spirit of the people that won the war. And since I’ve been in combat all my life, I always know that the spirit of the people and the quality of the people are the issue. It’s kind of a brain confrontation between the enemy and ourselves. So our human resource, especially in Israel, is the most important resource that we have.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity