February 28, 2008
Coming soon—a Jewish liberal arts college
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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