The Israeli government yesterday approved the establishment of Israel’s first liberal arts college, Shalem College. Thank you to the many friends and colleagues from around the world who have written to congratulate me. For those who have not seen it, I’ve pasted the article about the decision that appeared in Ha’aretz below. Maybe a few words of background are in order as well.
Many people are surprised when they hear the phrase “Israel’s first liberal arts college.” In America especially, there is little awareness that the best Israeli students, like many in Europe, usually get an undergraduate degree in one (or two) professional disciplines: They finish the army or national service and go straight into a BA in law or medicine or physics or economics. Since Israeli universities don’t usually require a common core curriculum or even a substantial program of distribution requirements outside the discipline the student is studying, this means that few of Israel’s most capable and ambitious students will ever in their lives take a university course in the Bible or philosophy, political theory or literature, Zionist or European history, Christianity or the Koran. The idea of going to college to become a well-rounded person; or to be exposed to the greatest minds of the ages; or to learn how to quickly become proficient in a subject one hasn’t studied before; or to learn to write; or to develop one’s character; or to be trained to lead one’s nation—none of these elements of what Americans think a college education is about has any tangible presence in the theory and practice of Israeli higher education, whose aim is almost exclusively to train specialists who are simply first-rate in their own disciplines.
What does this kind of specialized education do to Israeli public life? It means that public discourse on most subjects of importance is conducted at the level of slogans, or not at all. And for Israel, this isn’t a viable lifestyle choice. If you’re a small nation at war, being unable to conduct a serious public debate on crucial subjects can be as great a danger as anything your enemies can cook up.
The idea of a Jewish liberal arts college was meant to meet this challenge by offering Israelis a new model of higher education: One in which students with the potential to become leading citizens of their nation were given two years of courses in Jewish and general subjects that would help them do just that—courses taken in addition to their area of specialty.
Ha’aretz has actually run a series of articles on the subject, including a front-page story when the Council for Higher Education initially approved the college. These articles mention my establishing Shalem in 1994. But they skip the earlier back-story. When I was an undergraduate at Princeton in the 1980s, the idea of establishing such a college in Israel was already the subject of discussion in the circle of students at the kosher dining hall, Stevenson Hall. In 1990, Josh Weinstein and I established the Israeli non-profit (“amuta”) that later became Shalem. The following summer we held an 8-week program in Yishuv Eli north of Jerusalem that brought together twenty young men and women for a unique fusion program in which Jewish texts and Western philosophy were studied “in hevruta” (that is, using the traditional study-partner method of the yeshivas). Other instructors that first summer included Gabriel Danzig, R. Yitzhak Lifshitz, and my wife Yael Hazony, also a Princeton grad. We called it the Israel Academy of Liberal Arts (IALA)—which the students pronounced Yalla (meaning “Let’s go!” in Arabic). Operations were initially supported by a small gift from Barry Klein and a parlor meeting that Ruth Wisse ran in her home.
The IALA summers were a pilot for the larger project: The aim was to grow these summer institutes until we were strong enough to be able to offer something that existed nowhere else in the world—an undergraduate education that would resemble Princeton’s in its intensity and the demands it would place on the students, but would incorporate Jewish texts and Zionist ideals into the curriculum as well. Looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed that so many people were subjected to this idea for so long. But it worked. In February 1994, Ronald Lauder gave me my first six-figure contribution, and we opened an office in Jerusalem. That year we changed the name of our non-profit to “Shalem,” meaning wholeness or perfection, which is also one of the biblical names of Jerusalem. This name was given to the institute we established by Ofir Haivry, a young historian who joined that year and went on to become a central intellectual force in the project. In 1996, we were joined by Zalman (Sandy) Bernstein, and he quickly became Shalem’s largest donor and the first chairman of our board. At that time, too, we were joined by figures such as Roger Hertog, who became Shalem’s chairman upon Zalman’s death; Daniel Polisar, another Princeton alum who had taught at the IALA summers and later became Shalem’s second President; and the historian Michael Oren, who became our most best-known scholar before leaving Shalem a few years ago to become Israel’s ambassador to Washington.
In the year 2000, Basic Books and The New Republic published my book, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul.It was a controversial book, whose ideas were developed together with Ofir Haivry in seminars during our first years together at Shalem. Many things have been said about it as a work of history or political theory. But when the book was written, one of our central aims was that it should serve as a manifesto for Shalem College: It told the story of Zionist leaders like Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion and the way they worked to bring the idea of a Jewish state into currency. And it also told the astonishing story of how the leadership of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (a university proposed by Herzl himself) actually worked to prevent such a Jewish state from being born. By focusing on the power of ideas in the life of the Jewish people, and on the power of academic institutions to change the way these ideas develop and grow in the public life of a nation, The Jewish State provided tools for thinking about the problem of universities in their relationship with the larger polity in which they are situated. In other words, it provided tools for thinking about the problem of higher education in the Jewish state. For anyone who wants to know why we need an institution like Shalem College, The Jewish State is still the guide to what needs to be done. Hopefully many other universities and colleges in Israel will ultimately be influenced by this model as well.
The road to the government’s decision yesterday has been a long one. None of us who started down this road more than twenty years ago believed it would take so long or be so hard. I want to express my gratitude to the many devoted people who gave so much to this effort over the years. In particular, I wish to offer blessings for success to Prof. Martin Kramer, who will be the first president of Shalem College, and to everyone who will be working with him.
Here’s the article from Ha’aretz:
|Israeli government recognizes Shalem Center as academic institutionThe conservative think tank, founded in 1994 and backed by American right-wing donors like Sheldon Adelson, will now be able to offer bachelor’s degree programs in Jewish philosophy and Middle East studiesBy Talila Nesher | Jan.13, 2013 | 4:53 PM |
The government approved recognition of the Shalem Center as an academic institution on Sunday, after the Council on Higher Education gave its seal of approval last week. The private, conservative research institute in Jerusalem will now be able to offer a bachelor’s degree program in Jewish thought and philosophy, general humanities, and Middle East studies and Islam.
Shalem College plans to admit 50 students a year to its four-year B.A. program until it reaches full capacity with 200 students. The college will be headed by Prof. Martin Kramer, currently a senior fellow at the Shalem Center.
As is customary procedure for newly approved institutions, a monitoring committee will be set up to evaluate the new programs and the development of the institution before it is accredited to actually grant the degrees.
The Shalem Center was founded in 1994 by Dr. Yoram Hazony, who was a close associate of Benjamin Netanyahu. It supports academic work in the fields of philosophy, political theory, Jewish and Zionist history, Bible and Talmud, Middle Eastern Studies, archaeology, economics, and strategic studies.
According to its mission statement, “It seems that the entire Jewish people is suffering from an identity crisis that’s intensifying, whose signs are seen in all areas of life. The need to provide a proper response to these processes is the force that motivated the founding of the Shalem Center.” Its website lists Yair Shamir, currently a candidate for Knesset from the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party, as chairman of its board of directors. Former research fellows include Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren; Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon; and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
According to Amnon Portugali, a scholar of neoliberalism at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, “The Shalem Center imported American neoconservative and neoliberal ideas into the political and social discourse in Israel, as per the model of American right-wing think tanks, and its activity constitutes a classic paradigm of the way these American institutes operate, integrating strategic thinking and a neoconservative perspective with neoliberal social and economic policy.”
“When the Shalem Center was founded, it was considered a marginal phenomenon in the Israeli intellectual arena,” Portugali said. “Today there is no research institute with as much influence on the Israeli government as the Shalem Center.”
The center, which has raised over $10 million toward the establishment of the college, has the generous support of donors from the American right. Current and past donors include the Bernstein family, Sheldon Adelson, George Rohr, Ron Lauder and Leonid Nevzlin. It has received a $5 million gift from U.S. businessman David Messer, who is on the center’s board of directors.