Israel Studies at the United States Naval Academy
This is my second year serving as the first Visiting Israeli Professor at the United States Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis, Maryland. It has been a unique experience helping to create brand new Israel-related academic programs at the Academy. The Academy, established in 1845, is one of the US military service academies (along with West Point and the US Air Force Academy) which offer academic training to future military officers. The roughly 4500 Naval Academy students ("midshipmen") receive an undergraduate degree and are then commissioned as officers upon graduation. The Academy is academically one of the top US schools, offering an array of academic majors ranging from various sciences, technology, and engineering programs to the social sciences, languages, and humanities. The midshipmen (of which an increasing number are women) hail from across the country, come from diverse social backgrounds and offer a visiting Israeli professor the opportunity of interacting with broad segments of American society which would be less feasible at other academic institutions. They are an outstanding group of young men and women-capable students, curious, and eager to learn. As future Navy and Marine officers, the benefits of providing them with greater familiarity about Israel-its history and society cannot be overstated.
I have been warmly received by the Naval Academy's administration and faculty. Although the Academy previously did offer general courses on Israel and the Middle East, and sponsors several annual trips for midshipmen to Israel, none of them focused directly on Israel beyond regional politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Faculty members of the history department encouraged me to teach a course on Israel's history. Many of the midshipmen enthusiastically signed up for the course on Israel's history and society, which went beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a teacher, it was fascinating to watch them become acquainted with the complexities of Israeli society, and learn about issues which few of them had previously ever heard of. Discussing the history of Ashkenazi-Sephradi relations in Israel, for example, intrigued them.
One of them, after studying the topic, commented that "it doesn't seem like the worst problem in the world"- which I found to be a refreshing outsider's view of an issue which still at times bedevils Israeli society. Beyond introducing them to Israel's history, I sought to make some of the issues that underpin Israeli society relevant to their own lives. As future officers, they were curious to explore the notion of a society with a near universal military draft. Israel's problematic relations between religion and state also puzzled them, and offered another example of a topic which is also discussed in the United States. They also studied Israel's economy, its achievements and challenges. In addition to courses about Israeli history, I have organized a number of guest Israeli lectures on a range of topics, which introduced to diverse Israeli opinions on the Middle East to a wider Naval Academy audience. The midshipmen and faculty were impressed with the intensive Israeli debates about these matters (such as Iran or Israeli-Palestinian negotiations) which went beyond their perceived monolithic impressions of Israeli public opinion.
Finally, I have also tried to introduce the midshipmen to other aspects of Israeli life, ranging from art and music to food. Many of them confessed that their image of Israel was of a military, garrison like state, and were impressed with what they learned. Images of the Tel Aviv beaches led a few of them to even consider travelling there over their next spring break…whether any of them choose to do so or not, I hope more midshipmen at the Naval Academy will have the opportunity to begin their own academic journey to Israel, as these courses on Israel become part of the Naval Academy's curriculum.
Daniel Zisenwine is a research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Easter and African Studies. He currently teaches at the US Naval Academy.