West Point leads international cohort to explore Israel

By Lt. Col. Christopher Fuhriman and Majs. Aaron Korman and Alex Pytlar Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering - August 30, 2022
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From historical beaches to the Lebanon border, U.S. Military Academy staff, faculty and cadets gained insights into Israel’s geopolitical reality.

As part of the U.S. Military Academy’s academic broadening experiences program, the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering (GEnE) led two groups on a comprehensive tour of Israel. The Faculty Development Conference included 26 staff and faculty from 10 departments and centers. 

Building off the faculty trip, the summer cadet field study included a group of 45 cadets and eight faculty members from three USMA departments as well as representatives from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Virginia Military Institute and Canada’s Royal Military College Saint-Jean. 

The educational value of partnering with sister academies and an important ally in the Middle East for this in-country experience simply cannot be replicated in a classroom. The MirYam Institute sponsored the tour and facilitated the groups’ access to government, military, religious and corporate leaders in Israel’s diverse society.

  Both cohorts gained unparalleled exposure to Israel’s border situation, national defense posture, political and legal landscape, and rich history and culture. 

Attendees were introduced to Israel on its pristine Mediterranean beaches at the historical sites of Caesarea and Acre. They spent time learning about the Druze people, an ethnic minority group living in Israel, before learning about the Bahá’í faith centered in Haifa.

  Visits to the Lebanon border and the Golan Heights afforded front-row seats to the proximity of threat from Hezbollah and the Iranian influence on Israel’s northern front where cadets heard from leading military experts.

  “These site visits led to a new found appreciation and focus on international affairs and conflicts our partners are dealing with,” Class of 2024 Cadet Samuel Myers, a Defense and Strategic Studies major in the Department of Military Instruction, said.

  He also noted how excited he was to build on the relationships he’s made during academic research this upcoming academic year.

After visiting important historical sites at Capernaum, Tabgha and the Sea of Galilee, the tour continued in Jerusalem where the group enjoyed an audience with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s parliament building. 

The group also met several other members of Israel’s parliament and a sitting Supreme Court justice, toured historic sites, a battlefield and Israel’s national Holocaust memorial.

“Hearing from such a wide range of speakers with firsthand experience made this trip extremely valuable,” Maj. Alex De Rosa, a French instructor in the Department of Foreign Languages, said. “It was like a graduate-level course in Israeli policy compressed into 10 days.ˮ

Following several days in Israel’s capital city, the tour descended to the lowest place on Earth, where cadets enjoyed floating in the Dead Sea and hiking at a spring in the Judean wilderness. 

The group rode mountain bikes along the rim of the world’s largest erosion crater before visiting Israel’s Cyber Security Center in the Negev Desert. 

The academic program finished with a briefing at the Gaza border, a tour of a desalination plant and a cadet debate centered on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Understanding the geographic disadvantage of Israel and the innovation that brought sustainable agriculture cannot be fully appreciated without standing in its deserts. The connection of the people to the land cannot be felt without sharing local traditions, standing in the Jordan River, or walking in the Old City of Jerusalem.

  “The phrase ‘seeing is believing’ does not do justice to our experience in Israel. Our interactions, experiences and discussions quickly showed us that the people of Israel love their land and their country, just as we do ours. Seeing is not just believing; seeing is compelling,ˮ Maj. Jonathon Morgan, an instructor from the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, said.

Historic, religious and cultural topics came to life through the invaluable experience of seeing Israel in person. 

“You cannot really understand the precarious nature of Israel’s geopolitical situation until you see how narrow the country is in places, and how close its enemies are to its borders, cities and citizens,ˮ Lt. Col. Chris Fuhriman, the Geography program director in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, said. “They have no strategic depth. That became obvious to us on a helicopter tour where we could see the Mediterranean Sea out of one window and the West Bank out the other.”

The lessons learned by cadets and faculty will inform them for the remainder of their military careers. Each participant gained a significant understanding of a range of topics, which are central to U.S. policy and military actions in the Middle East. 

“I can proudly say that my perspective and perceptions have widened, and I have truly received the clarity needed to better understand the geopolitical and security challenges of Israel and the greater Middle East,” Class of 2024 Cadet Hamza Shehata, a Psychology major in Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, said.