Nearly 50 American and Canadian military cadets toured Israel and German death camps in Poland this month, in a trip that seeks to buttress the future officers’ awareness of the history and shared values at the core of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The two-week Israel Strategy and Policy tour, which was initiated by the New York-based MirYam Institute in partnership with the U.S. Defense Department, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Virginia Military Institute and the Royal Military College of Canada, presented past and present to the future officers.
The cadets’ trip began with a three-day tour of the Nazi death camps, followed by 12 days spent crisscrossing Israel, taking in the sights and meeting with IDF soldiers and commanders.
For the non-Jewish cadets on the tour, the country’s size, diversity, mix of modernity and ancient, and the inseparable integration of the people’s army that is the IDF, came as a revelation.
“I was surprised flying in how much smaller Israel is compared to the U.S. and how densely packed everything is,” said Ian M., 19, from Cincinnati, Ohio, a cadet at West Point. “I was struck by the mix of the modern infrastructure in such an historic place.”
Sohum A., 21, a future infantry officer from New Jersey, also attends the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“I was surprised by how in such a small country you have widely different people and cultures who through thousands of years of history maintained their own identity while simultaneously living in close proximity,” he said.
Macy H., 21, from Seattle, also a cadet at West Point, said, “I knew that the IDF was a conscripted army but it is amazing how the IDF is part of society and how society is the army, and how integrated and inseparable the two are.”
Melina B., 19, from North Carolina and the Virginia Military Institute, offered, “The passion that Israelis have for their country and maintaining this place where they seek refuge and are able to be free even though there are wars is striking.”
The cadets came from a wide variety of backgrounds across the U.S., as well as a handful from Canada. They will be integrated across the military including, for the Americans, the Marines, the U.S. Army’s Armor and Infantry Branches, and the U.S. Navy during their multi-year service.
The trip sidestepped the Palestinian territories due to State Department-imposed security restrictions that did not allow them to enter the biblical heartland.
(Active duty officers on a separate tour that MirYam offers are provided with helicopter rides and briefings over Judea and Samaria, commonly known as the West Bank.)
“We seek to impact the leaders of today and tomorrow now,” MirYam CEO Benjamin Anthony said in a statement. “By exposing these officers to the broad array of policymaking considerations in Israel we assist the academies with their goal of building mission-ready academies.”
MirYam has brought hundreds of cadets and officers to Israel since its inception in 2017.
“The vast majority of the participants are not of the Jewish faith yet the connection they forge with Israel … is deeply rooted in shared values and common challenges to Israel, the U.S., Canada and the entire free world,” said Rozita Pnini, the MirYam Institute’s chief operating officer.
Willpower and resolve
“Seeing the sites of the biggest demonstration of antisemitism in world history showed us the power of having a Jewish state and better appreciate the willpower and resolve of the people of the State of Israel,” said Bethany J., 19, a future armor officer from Orlando, Florida, who attends West Point.
“My grandfather landed in Normandy during World War II and liberated some of the death camps,” said Alexander D., 20, a West Point cadet from Wisconsin. He recounted his grandfather’s harrowing description of seeing bulldozers pilling up bodies for mass graves.
During a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the group saw a video showing that same scene. “It made me realize why Israel is so important,” he said.
Ela F., 20, a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute from Gettysburg, Pennslyvania, said, “That feeling in my stomach standing in Auschwitz and at Yad Vashem will never go away.”
Not on the news
A recurring comment among the cadets was that Israel is not what you see on the news and is something you have to experience for yourself.
“The American people and the people of Israel share a lot of the same interests but from seeing the news headlines some people don’t realize this,” said Justin P., 21, from Washington, D.C., and the Virginia Military Institute. He called the trip an “eye-opening experience.”
Alexander D. added, “Standing on the Golan and hearing from the IDF soldiers makes you understand the significance of what the IDF is doing.”
Ela F. said, “You expect fear, but you see the day-to-day life of the clubs, parties, beaches and nightlife of Tel Aviv as people go on with their lives.”
Paul M., 20, also from Washington, D.C., and the Virginia Military Institute, said, “The ability to discuss things openly despite the proximity to danger and not get rebuked by your flag officer really struck me.”
Melina B. said, “These are things you can’t get from reading a book, watching a video or watching the news. You have to have your foot on the land.”
The cadets said that the news from Israel was one of rockets raining down on the country, Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, or a government in turmoil, a picture of a country constantly at war externally or internally.
“You are not getting the full story in the media,” Alexander D. said.
“They talk about the conflict but never tell you about the fundamental history,” Paul M. said.
“Israel has a PR crisis,” Ian M. said. “Remind people why the Jewish state has to exist. If people understand that they will have much more sympathy.”