Jewish Journal


February 28, 2008

Coming soon—a Jewish liberal arts college


Dr. Yoram Hazony and Dr. Daniel Gordis (below). Photos courtesy The Shalem Center

Dr. Yoram Hazony and Dr. Daniel Gordis (below). Photos courtesy The Shalem Center

This is one in a series of articles on myriad topics related to Israel that will run weekly as we approach the Jewish State's 60th anniversary on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in May.

Dr. Daniel Gordis At a time when most Israeli university professors were on strike, Dr. Yoram Hazony, co-founder of the Shalem Center, a think tank and research institute, continued with his course schedule as usual at the center's handsome, three-story building in the upscale German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. He was recapping for Israeli college students alternate ways Western philosophers have solved the dichotomy between the world of ideas and reality. The bookshelves of the small conference room were lined with talmudic and biblical books as well journals on Zionism, political thought and philosophy, many of them Shalem titles.

If all goes well, this course will be included in the curriculum of a new College of the Jewish People, an idea Hazony is determined to bridge with reality in the face of challenges invovled in starting such a college: accreditation, funding, recruitment of student and faculty and resistance by some members of the Israeli media and academic establishment.

Israeli-born and raised in the United States, Hazony first envisioned a college for the Jewish people while an undergraduate student at Princeton, where he describes discussing religion, philosophy and politics late into the night with friends in the kosher dining hall. While seeking answers to questions relating to Jewish identity, it soon became clear to him that an American Ivy League college, whose credo was to prepare leaders "in the nation's service," could not prepare leaders in the service of the Jewish nation.

"The idea of the Jewish liberal arts college began with the question: What would Jews or non-Jews interested in the Jewish perspective need to study in order to think about the biggest questions from a perspective that's relevant to Jews," Hazony said in an interview in his office.

He founded the Shalem Center in 1994 with others from Princeton, Daniel Polisar, currently Shalem's president, and Dr. Joshua Weinstein. Hazony believes the groundwork has now been laid to realize Shalem College.

Shalem has grown from a think tank with a staff of three to an institute operating on a $10 million yearly budget with a staff of 100. Most of its funding comes from the Tikva Fund, created by the late philanthropist Zalman Bernstein. In recent months the center has been the subject of scrutiny for internal administrative problems and in the past Hazony's critiques of Israeli education have been the subject of controversy. Nevertheless, it has established its influence internationally.

Shalem runs six research institutes and its own press, and its senior fellows include best-selling author and historian Michael Oren, former Knesset member Natan Sharansky and former Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon.

shalem center
Last year, Shalem recruited Dr. Daniel Gordis to spearhead the creation of the college. Gordis made news in Los Angeles in 1999, when he announced that he was making aliyah with his family five years after serving as founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University). The Ziegler school was the first Conservative rabbinical school on the West Coast, and Gordis' new position will enable him to once again make Jewish educational history.

"If you can come in on the ground floor of something that you think has the capacity to dramatically transform the country, then that seems to be the ultimate concretization of the ideal of aliyah in a way that nothing else could be," Gordis said from his new office on the Shalem campus, where he serves as senior vice president.

The college is planned as an American-style, four-year liberal arts school, an educational model that doesn't exist in Israel. Israelis usually enter a three-year college or university program in their early-to-mid-20s, right after army service, choosing their majors straightaway. Israeli universities generally don't share American campus or dorm culture. Most students view their college years as vocational training and commute to school, often juggling their studies with a full- or part-time job.

"We want to change the experience of what being an undergraduate student is about," Gordis said.

Shalem envisions an isolated, rural, full-fledged university campus modeled after American schools like Williams College and Bryn Mawr.

"We want to create a cocoon, not an ivory tower, where people can read and think and sit on a lawn and read Plato and Aristotle and [Rabbi Joseph B.] Soloveichik and [Zionist thinker Micah Joseph] Berdichevski," Gordis said.

What will differentiate Shalem College from most American universities is an emphasis on an integrated core curriculum that combines studies in Bible, Talmud, rabbinic literature and Zionist and Jewish thought with Western philosophy, political theory and Middle Eastern studies.

"It's going to be a college that takes Jewish ideas seriously and the Zionist narrative seriously, even though you can critique it," Gordis said. Shalem has developed a reputation as a politically conservative institute, but Gordis stressed that the college will accommodate a wide range of political views, minus anti-Zionist views: "People who think Zionism has nothing to do with the Jewish world wouldn't want to be here."

Anti-Zionism and post-Zionism viewpoints, which question the basic conception, relevance or moral basis of the Jewish state, have plagued humanities departments in Israeli universities since the country's founding, said Hazony, provost of the college. In addition, he has observed that Judaism and the Bible have been cast as minor characters in the narrative of the development of Western civilization, not only abroad but in the Jewish state.

"The history of political theory is taught from a perspective that assumed that the Bible, Talmud and later literature had no influence at all in what we think today. This is historically false," Hazony said.

He hopes the college will revive the recognition and prominence of the role of Judaism and the Bible in shaping modern democratic ideas. Jack Reichert, 27, is complementing his university studies in philosophy with studies at Shalem. He was born in Boston but made aliyah with his family at 12.

"It's nice to get a slightly different angle than that of mainstream Israeli academia, particularly among universities here in Israel, which have a strong left bent. Shalem is mostly centrist, if not right of center," Reichert said.

While he has an eye toward a career in business, Reichert believes it is important to study philosophy for his own enrichment.

"It was a breath of fresh air taking early modern philosophers seriously again," he said of his Shalem philosophy classes. "In the academic world, the focus is on [Immanuel] Kant and afterwards."

Shalem leaders estimate that it will take about three years before it will obtain a permit from Israel's Council of Higher Education to run its Hebrew-language B.A. program. Colleges seeking accreditation must fill out lengthy paperwork for each major and fulfill a number of requirements regarding faculty and facilities. In the meantime, Shalem has launched a pilot program that offers free university-level courses to a select group of college students.

According to Dr. Nitza Davidovitch, director of planning and assessment at Ariel University Center, Israel's largest academic college, founding a new school of higher education in Israel is an ambitious but doable undertaking. Davidovitch completed her doctorate on the impact of new Israeli colleges on the larger universities.

"Many of the new academic colleges started from the ground up, often as a nondegree-granting college or institute, usually to answer a need, while others began as a satellite of another university," she said.

As of 2007, Israel's schools of higher education consisted of eight universities, 27 public academic colleges, 27 teacher training colleges, eight private colleges and 17 foreign branches. "With more and more institutions being founded today," Davidovitch said, "the criteria are more significant, more standardized and stricter."

Humanities, she thinks, are a tougher sell to Israelis. "Humanities in general are in trouble," Davidovitch said. "Even universities know this. Not many students want to study humanities. They want something practical, useful. The average student after the army asks, 'What will I do with my degree.' Humanities are important, and there is a question if there is a public for it. We assume there are some crazies who want it. It may catch on."

Professor Israel Bartal, Hebrew University dean of humanities, welcomes the concept of a liberal arts college in Israel but decries an ideologically motivated one, particularly one predicated on what he considers a skewed view of Zionism and an unfair attack on mainstream Zionist education in Israel.

A professor of history and a self-proclaimed Zionist, Bartal has been a vocal critic of Hazony's book, "The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul," in which Hazony presents anti-Zionist leanings of the founders of Hebrew University.

"Unfortunately, I'm not inclined to share anything that is described at the Shalem Center as Zionist. For me, Zionism is much broader. It's not an American neoconservative tag or American image," Bartal said in an interview in the plush and bustling faculty lounge at Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus during the professors' strike, which was resolved in late January. About forty percent of the students were still attending classes at the time of the interview. "We're talking about the complexity of life and culture in Israel," Bartal said. "I'm afraid these people have to go back to classic texts of Zionism and polish their Zionism to understand what it is about."

He deflects Hazony's accusations regarding the ideological hegemony of academia. "Some of the founders of the Greater Israel movement teach in the history department," Bartal said. "In order to claim there is a majority of one group or another, you have to come up with a full list of professors. Since Israel is a democracy and a Western country, we never ask for political credentials when we hire faculty, and we are proud of that."

Despite his unabashed disdain for Hazony's ideas and what he believes is a faulty prognosis of higher education in Israel, Bartal agrees that humanities education in Israel will be well-served by moving toward American educational models. He is leading a reform in his own department based on the recommendations of Dr. John Gager of Princeton, starting with instituting writing classes for it students. "The combination of Jewish humanities and what we call general humanities -- we share the general idea," he said. "But I'm not claiming we are trying to shape a generation of Jewish leaders. This is beyond our scope."

Hazony continues to contend that humanities education in Israel is dominated by an ideological wing that seeks control over certain ideas coming out of academic establishments.

Fear of competition in the marketplace of ideas, he believes, is behind a cover story on Shalem in the influential, left-leaning Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, last November. The article covered the former chief financial officer's alleged embezzlement of funds and accused Shalem with gross management problems, including excessive turnover, extravagant spending and nepotism.

Hazony is not deterred by the negative publicity.

The article, he said, "does its best to end on the note of ridiculing the idea of a new college, because their hope is that by making it seem that it's illegitimate or unnecessary or absurd to have liberal arts education in Israel, then it won't happen," he said. "But it will happen."

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