NEW LONDON – Many Israel-advocacy programs created in the U.S. today are direct responses to the limited and often one-dimensional view of Israel portrayed in the media. More than a decade ago, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) launched an initiative to give future U.S. military leaders a clear understanding of Israel’s strategic importance and everyday challenges.
JINSA’s U.S. Military Academies Program works to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Israel via two components: a lecture series at the U.S. military academies conducted by Israeli defense and security professionals, and a summer institute in Israel for cadets and midshipmen from the four academies.
For two weeks in Israel, the students meet and travel with young IDF officers and soldiers to discuss the role of the military in democratic countries, similarities and differences in officer schooling. They receive college-level academic programming in the problems of the Middle East region, briefings and extended question-and-answer sessions with high-level IDF officers, retired senior intelligence and national police officers, leading academics, and journalists. Participants also tour sites of historical, religious, strategic, and archeological significance.
In 2012, after a decade-long hiatus, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (USCGA), based in Groton, resumed participation in the summer program, after Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut (JFEC), brought the program to the attention of fellow Rotary Club member, USCGA superintendent Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz.
“She said that the academy didn’t have the money for it, so I told her I thought I could find some,” recalls Fischer. He did so, drawing from a JFEC endowment fund named for Harold Weiner z”l, who had served in the U.S. Navy.
Stosz arranged the academy’s participation with JINSA and received an invitation for cadets to participate in the summer program. JFEC funded the three Coast Guard participants in 2012; JINSA took over full financial support this year, with JFEC contributing “walk-around money” to each cadet, Fischer says.
Last year, the academy selected three cadets to participate; this year, it sent five. The program is only open to first-class cadets – those in their senior year at the academy – who have already had 16 weeks of operational training. Participants are selected through an application and screening process, overseen by Cmdr. Jeffrey Haukom, who reports that the cadets describe the program as “life-changing.”
The JINSA program is one of many summer opportunities presented by Haukom to USCGA cadets, who then research and apply to those that interest them. This summer, the five cadets were split among the two trips, June 1 to 16 and June 23 to July 8.
“Everyone finds out what we’re doing over the summer at once when we receive an email listing everyone’s name and summer assignments,” says Jaclyn Harbison of Ellicott City, Md., who was in the first group. “I applied because I wanted to get a first-hand, behind-the-lines look at tensions in the Middle East while experiencing another nation’s culture. I also was excited to get the opportunity to become a better-versed officer, build relationships with Israelis and cadets from other service academies, and hear diverse insights on ways to carry out our missions. All five of us found out at once that we were going to Israel. [Fellow participant] Ally Mason screamed and started jumping up and down in her room, which was right above Cmdr. Haukom’s office. We had a good laugh about that when we all met up for our summer debrief.”
Allyson (Ally) Mason, of Willits California, says that she has wanted to go to Israel since age 10. “My mother lived there for a few months in college and her stories of the history and the culture made it number one on my list of places to visit in my lifetime,” Mason says. “So naturally, when the opportunity came up to travel there with other academy cadets and to have an up-close and personal look at the culture, history, government, and people, I couldn’t pass it up.”
Mason hoped to gain an understanding of the hardships faced by Israelis on a daily basis. “I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have rockets and missiles firing at random as a part of everyday life,” she says. “I wanted to know what it was like to live in a war zone, and what it was like to grow up knowing that, for most people, the military is an obligation.” A devout Christian, Mason also wanted to visit the birthplace of her religion and learn about the life and the land during biblical times.
As a government major, Samuel Kulp of Easton, Md. wanted to better understand Israel from political, cultural, and religious standpoints. “I find the politics surrounding the Middle East very interesting,” he says. “Also, I knew that Israel had a very unique culture that was a combination of ancient history and modern developments, and I wanted to experience it for myself. Finally, I am personally a religious person and I wanted to see and learn from all of the religious aspects of the country.”
Avon resident John Hamel was inspired by a high school friend who made aliyah.
“I was very curious about Israel’s internal and regional dynamics, and I hoped to gain a greater understanding about the culture and daily life of Israeli citizens,” he says. “In my past international travel experiences, I developed great insight and appreciation for the culture, history, and traditions of the nations, and I was determined to rid myself of any misconceptions and develop a true appreciation for the nation of Israel.”
“I decided to participate because it seemed to be a wonderful opportunity,” says Gabriella Scrudato, from Califon, N.J. “I hoped to gain a better understanding of a culture much different than my own, and apply this insight to my future career in the Coast Guard.”
While the itinerary was different every day, each was “a fire hose of information,” Harbison says. After an optional early-morning running tour with guide Muki Zohar, the students would be on the road by 8 a.m., have dinner together at a hotel, and given free time at night.
“Every stone you touch in Israel seems to have a story. The political issues and structure fascinated me,” Harbison says. “A teacher from an Israeli university spoke to us one night about the parliamentary democracy that the country has. Getting to see the borders of Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip also showed how complicated the situation is in that region. The Palestinians in the West Bank, the three different terrorist groups, the turmoil in the surrounding countries, the exceptions of Arabs and Orthodox in the military conscription, and the disagreement on land for peace are all in their own right huge topics, but Israel is located in the very heart of it and has to face them all at the same time. It is a nation that is trying to westernize, but is facing many challenges.”
The cadets visited several historical sites every day, moving from biblical times to the Six Day War to the Crusades. They hiked Masada and swam in the Dead Sea, rafted down the Jordan River and toured a kibbutz. The students were joined during the second week by embedded IDF soldiers. “It was very much a tourist-feeling trip,” says Kulp. “But we had a very unique perspective because we were traveling with members of the IDF for virtually the entire trip, and we were allowed to see things and talk to people that was not normally allowed because we were members of the military.”
The cadets came away with a unique understanding of their counterparts in the IDF. “One of the most interesting and somewhat surprising things that I learned from the trip is that the members of the IDF have virtually the same concerns, desires, and goals that we cadets do here in the States,” says Kulp. “Although we live virtually half a world apart, we are still driven by the same forces and in that sense have a very strong common bond.”
Mason was struck by the interaction between IDF officers and soldiers. “The military seems more like a brotherhood than a hierarchy to them,” she says. “During their training, the chain of command is obviously very strict and very structured. But it seemed that when all of that is done, they are all part of the same family. They are all soldiers fighting the same battle side by side.”
The diversity of such a small country made an impression on the cadets, Hamel says. “While distilling the countless lessons and unique experiences is very difficult, the one most interesting thing I learned was Israel is extremely culturally diverse. Before going, I did not comprehend how many different religious sects and geographic groups there were living in Israel. Previously, I assumed a collective national identity with agreed-upon goals and policies. This misconception was deconstructed throughout the trip as we traveled to different parts of the country and met with various people. Some differences, such as between the Orthodox and secular Jews, were visually obvious. Others were not readily apparent and took meeting with different groups. We met with a Druze community and listened to a lecture from Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab-Israeli. These were two instances that really accentuated the cultural diversity within Israel. This made the complex dynamics within Israel and the region slightly more understandable.”
What’s more, Scrudato says, for a country that faces so many challenges, Israelis are surprisingly optimistic and open-hearted. “Although a country fighting for survival each and every day, the Israeli people are full of hope, happiness, and a zest for life,” she says. “It is truly inspiring to see, and it helped me reflect on my own life and truly living my life to its fullest potential despite the hardships I may face.”
Harbison discovered a more modern place than she had anticipated. “I feel naive saying this, but I was very surprised to find that the impression that people in the United States have about Israel is about five years behind the times,” she says. “I went over expecting terrorist attacks and a lot of military escorts. Instead I found a country that has been through many wars and is ready to stand in opposition to surrounding threats, but since the wall went up around the West Bank, terrorist attacks and suicide bombings have gone down 80 to 90 percent. It blew my mind that I didn’t know that before.”
“Seeing how small the country is in person also was something that I never understood before,” she added. “I was talking to some Israeli friends once about how I go to
school about a six-hour drive away from my home, which is relatively close compared to most others who have to fly. They laughed and said that it takes three hours to drive from the northernmost part of the country to the south. I found, when I did some research later, that the country is smaller than the size of New Jersey and Delaware combined. I had no idea it was so small.”
Each cadet will apply their experience in Israel differently, as they go out into the world post-academy. “Now I have a better understanding of the Israeli culture, and perspective on the world,” Scrudato says. “This is crucial for making decisions in the international community.”
Kulp is inspired to pursue a career of international relations. “Through my experiences in Israel, I saw the importance of solid, rational international communication and cooperation,” he says. “I saw that there are many sides to every international event, and I want to strive to be a fair and balanced decision-maker helping to negotiate such events.”
While Hamel isn’t sure that he will have direct interaction with the IDF as a future Coast Guard Officer, Hamel says that he feels prepared to do so. “I derived many other insights from the experiences on the trip,” he says. “Most notably, I learned how to observe and adapt to a different culture. This skill will benefit me in any overseas deployment, liaison work, or international joint operations in my future career.”
Mason says that her outlook on international affairs has changed considerably as a result of the trip. “I have a new appreciation for the connections we have to our allies, and for the efforts that are made between countries to maintain those ties,” she says.
Like Mason, Harbison gained a greater appreciation for the complexity of the Middle East. “This trip has definitely sparked my interest in keeping up to date on what is going on in the Middle East,” she says. “It showed me how blind I was to world affairs, which seems wrong since I live in a country that is deeply involved in their politics. This country is a lot more than just another headline. In the Coast Guard, we save people of all cultures. It means so much for me to relate with the people that I serve. Understanding their stories in essence humanizes the dehumanized and will give me a greater sense of the unique cultures that make up America and those of foreign relations.”