For a country whose entire western border touches the sea, Israel has a poorly developed maritime history. Ten years ago Haifa University established a research centre and department devoted exclusively to maritime studies. In the intervening years, however, it has focussed exclusively on the natural sciences - marine biology, oceanography and earth sciences - and coastal and underwater archaeology. History has been marginalized, and what history there has been for the most part has been limited to the ancient period. Another department in the same university that is concerned with shipping deals solely with the economic and other aspects of the contemporary industry. Nevertheless, there are historians, some of whom are well known in academic circles, who are working on maritime topics. As we shall see below, most of these historians pursue maritime history as part of a wider range of studies or as byproducts of them.
In 1978 Zvi Herman, a non-academic but a prolific writer on maritime themes in Hebrew, wrote in the introduction to his popular The Man and the Sea: From Ancient Caves to the Kingdom of the Sea (Haifa, 1978) that he hoped the book would arouse interest in the sea and its problems, something that he felt was needed urgently in Israel. It is indicative of the state of Israeli maritime history that the publication of Herman's book did not spur any academic contributions to the field. Herman, however, has contributed a number of articles. Hillel Yarkoni, formerly a captain in the Israeli national shipping company Zim, recently highlighted the lack of “maritime awareness” during the launch of his new book, Seventy Years of Hebrew Seafaring (Haifa, 2003, in Hebrew). He has also proposed the establishment of an archive devoted to the history of Israeli shipping that would bring together material held by different institutions. While Yarkoni was referring to modern Israeli shipping, the same sorts of criticisms could also have been made about Jewish history since biblical times. In fact, Jews are not perceived by scholars as a maritime people, a point that was noted at a symposium entitled “Jews on Maritime Routes: Jews and Shipping throughout History” at Haifa University in 1997.