NEW YORK, Oct 25 (JTA) — The West Point Military Academy trains some of America’s brightest aspiring military officers, yet the institution admits the officers are only prepped briefly about anti-Semitism.
The campus is currently hosting an exhibit on the Dreyfus Affair, showcasing historic documents on the turn-of the-century case that reflected anti-Semitic attitudes in the French military.
The exhibit adds to the cadets’ exposure to Judaism and the lessons of tolerance — but one West Point educator believes more should be done.
“Anti-Semitism is an issue that comes up often in the military, and the cadets need to be better prepared about it to serve on duty,” said Col. Lee Wyatt, deputy head of West Point Military Academy’s history department.
In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was falsely convicted of treason, publicly degraded and sent to Devil’s Island, a penal colony in South America. He had been accused by his military colleagues of passing on secrets to Germany — and his trial brought out bitter anti- Semitism within the French army ranks. However, after 12 years of investigation, Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated to the army.
Wyatt, who said he wants to use the Dreyfus exhibit at West Point to help combat negative Jewish stereotypes among enlisted solders in the military, hopes its cadets can become role models for religious tolerance.
The only required course at West Point that touches briefly on these issues is a World and American History class taught on the freshman level. The students learn about U.S. immigration policy and restrictions against Jewish refugees who fled from anti-Semitism abroad. Unless cadets opt to take an elective seminar course on the Holocaust in their senior year, that is all the relevant instruction they receive.
William Cohen, U.S. secretary of defense, wrote a letter to the exhibit’s organizers stating that moral judgment, ethical integrity and ethnic tolerance are “essential to the young men and women who will become our ‘commissioned leaders of character.’ “
Since the early 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other hate groups have been recruiting military personnel, according to the Anti- Defamation League. The Defense Department cannot prohibit enlisted soldiers from joining these organization, but they can and have discharged those who are actively involved in racist group activities.
“We’re hoping that the Dreyfus exhibit will stimulate discussion amongst the cadets, and generate ideas about how the military should deal with racist issues,” Wyatt says.
However, it is not clear how many cadets will see the exhibit. Located in the academy’s Eisenhower Hall, a corridor adjacent to the campus theater, the general public and student theatergoers will be its main audience. But the exhibit was highly publicized in the student press, and Wyatt believes that cadets studying French and history will also take the opportunity to view it.
Cadets also have other opportunities to broaden their knowledge of anti-Semitism. Lorraine Beitler, co-sponsor of the Dreyfus exhibit and the collection’s owner, finances a summer journey to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington for interested cadets.
In addition, Beitler discusses issues of Jewish concern with Wyatt, who teaches the elective Holocaust seminar. As part of the seminar, Beitler brings a small group of disabled Israeli war veterans every May to West Point.
“Beitler’s contribution gives the cadets a baseline for a better understanding” of Judaism, Wyatt says. “Hopefully, it should better prepare them to serve on duty.”