Posts Tagged Shalem College

Europe defeats Islam

I summarize four more sessions from my fall course on the introduction to the modern Middle East (Turkey and the Arab lands) at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Below are entries for sessions five through eight. For earlier sessions, go here. As before, I spice up each entry with an insight from the late Bernard Lewis.

Class Five: Islam (reformed) Then Joined Europe. The Tanzimat, the Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century, are the centerpiece of session five of my intro to the Middle East at Shalem College. Then as now, many in the West complained of misgovernment, corruption, and repression in the East. The Ottoman empire, on the doorstep of Europe, seemed like an affront to enlightened European values. Arbitrary government, a bureaucracy for sale, discrimination against non-Muslim subjects—the list was long. Sound familiar?

Was it that bad? Debatable. But one Ottoman sultan set out both to satisfy Europe and strengthen his own position by pushing through far-reaching reforms. This was Abdülmecid I, the first sultan to speak a European language fluently (French). He reorganized imperial finances, established a civil code and courts outside the Islamic framework, opened a university, formed an education ministry, and more. Abdülmecid announced his plans in two imperial edicts, in 1839 and 1856—promissory notes to European opinion—and he bought the empire time by aligning with the British, who came to his defense, first against an Egyptian invading force, later (in alliance with France) against the Russians in the Crimean War. When it was over, the concert of Europe admitted the Ottomans and recognized the empire’s territorial integrity—until it didn’t.

But the big reform the Europeans demanded was to equalize the status of non-Muslims with that of Muslims in the empire. As Bernard Lewis wrote, in his magisterial Emergence of Modern Turkey, most Muslims viewed this as an “insult and outrage,” and as “a triumph over Islam of the millennial Christian enemy in the West.” The resulting resistance would slow the pace of reforms, but there could be no going back.

It’s hard to interest students in old treaties, but the Treaty of Paris (1856), following the Crimean War, can’t be avoided, since it recognized the Ottoman empire as part of the European system, subject to and guaranteed by its laws (which we now call “international law”).

If you visit the palace at Versailles, you can view this huge painting (three by five meters) that captures the moment. The artist, the Frenchman Édouard-Louis Dubufe, depicts the negotiators of the treaty. The two Ottoman negotiators are here: Mehmed Cemil Bey (the smallish figure by the door in the back), and Ali Pasha (seated on the far right). Contemporary reports say they came well-prepared.

Congress of Paris

Class Six: Britain’s Veiled Protectorate in Egypt. Exactly one class session: in my course on the modern history of the Middle East, that’s all the time we have to cover Egypt from the British occupation in 1882 to the First World War. Talk about compression. So what’s a must-have for this (sixth) session of the class?

Looming large is Sir Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, who basically ran Egypt as British “agent” and “consul-general” from 1883 to 1907. To this day, he remains enveloped in controversy. He took a dim view of the Egyptian capacity for self-rule: “We have to go back to the doubtful and obscure precedents of Pharaonic times to find an epoch when, possibly, Egypt was ruled by Egyptians. Neither, for the present, do they appear to possess the qualities which would render it desirable… to raise them at a bound to the category of autonomous rulers.” And so he ran the country himself. He stabilized the economy, but couldn’t stop the tide of nationalism.

The pigeons came home to roost, so to speak, in 1906, when a party of British officers on a pigeon hunt clashed with villagers in a Nile delta village called Denshawai. An officer died in the altercation, apparently of heatstroke, but several villagers were tried and hanged, others were flogged and sentenced to penal servitude.

The perceived injustice caused a huge uproar. In class, we read the condemnation of Cromer by George Bernard Shaw, and the poem on the executions by Constantine Cavafy. And we read a manifesto by Egyptian nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel, as well as the warden’s report on Ibraham Wardani, the nationalist who in 1910 assassinated Boutros Ghali, by then Egypt’s prime minister, who’d been one of the judges in the Denshawai trial. The stage is set for the later eruption of nationalist revolt against all things British, good or bad.

(My Israeli students also need to hear that in 1903, Theodor Herzl tried to persuade Cromer to open up northern Sinai to Jewish settlement. Cromer feigned interest but eventually nixed the plan. Herzl called him “the most disagreeable Englishman I have ever faced.”)

We end by discussing a passage in Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958). True, he writes, Egyptians

need medical help or education before they can understand, or make use of, an increase in their freedom…. First things come first: there are situations in which—to use a saying satirically attributed to the nihilists by Dostoevsky—boots are superior to Pushkin… The Egyptian peasant needs clothes or medicine before, and more than, personal liberty, but the minimum freedom that he needs today, and the greater degree of freedom that he may need tomorrow, is not some species of freedom peculiar to him, but identical with that of professors, artists and millionaires.

But when is “tomorrow” today? It’s a question that much preoccupied Bernard Lewis. But more on that on another occasion.

Images: Above, the accused at the Denshawai trial; below, the assassinated Boutros Ghali in death. (Both, Wikimedia.)

Egypt 1900s

Class Seven: The Last Ottoman Sultan Standing. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in salvage mode. It was bankrupt, its armies couldn’t stave off defeat, and its politics stagnated. But the once-glorious empire refused to give up the ghost. This was due, at least in part, to the resolve of its last effective sultan, Abdülhamid II, who reigned for almost 33 years, from 1876 to 1909. Session seven of my intro class on the Mideast at Shalem College revolves around this enigmatic man, who was controversial while he lived, and who remains so.

The last few years have seen something of an Abdülhamid revival in Turkey. He’s been the hero of a hugely popular television drama series, Payitaht Abdülhamid. High production values combine with a sharp disregard for the record of events (plus a dash of antisemitism), to paint Abdülhamid as a devout paragon of Muslim virtue. This perfectly suits the neo-Ottoman agenda of Turkey’s present ruler, who’s more of an Abdülhamid than an Atatürk. (That’s perhaps why it was persistently rumored that the new mega-airport just opened on the edge of Istanbul would be named after Abdülhamid. For now, it’s just Istanbul Airport.)

So who was the real Abdülhamid? You know the trope of the reform-minded prince who comes to power amid great expectations in the West, only to dash them by sliding into the authoritarian mode, or worse. (Sound familiar, Syria- and Saudi-watchers?) Abdülhamid’s first move as sultan was to promulgate a constitution and convene an elected parliament. Perhaps he thought this would prevent the amputation of Christian-populated provinces in the Balkans.

It didn’t, and a year later, Abdülhamid suspended the constitution and disbanded the parliament. It was his own show after that, and as “Turkey-in-Europe” dwindled, he fell back on the Muslim masses of Asia, to whom he promoted himself as savior-caliph. Massacres of Armenians and Assyrians eventually followed, and Abdülhamid became known as the “Red Sultan” in the European press. The later architects of secular Turkey similarly took a dim view of him.

It was Bernard Lewis, in his landmark Emergence of Modern Turkey, who first took a more favorable tack. “Abdülhamid was far from being the blind, uncompromising, complete reactionary of the historical legend,” he wrote (back in 1960). “On the contrary, he was a willing and active modernizer.” Railroads, telegraphs, schools, libraries, museums—he promoted just about any innovation that wouldn’t weaken his grip on power. No doubt, Abdülhamid deserved a rethink, and some historians have done it meticulously and fairly. But the present fad for him is over the top.

As I remind my Israeli students, Herzl met Abdülhamid in a futile attempt to extract some kind of charter for Zionism. It’s the stuff for another course, but we read Herzl’s verdict from his diary: “My impression of the Sultan was that he is a weak, cowardly, but thoroughly good-natured man. I regard him as neither crafty nor cruel, but as a profoundly unhappy prisoner in whose name a rapacious, infamous, seedy camarilla perpetrates the vilest abominations. If I didn’t have the Zionist movement to look after, I would now go and write an article that would give the poor prisoner his freedom.” It’s ironic, given the Elder-of-Zion treatment of Herzl in the current Turkish telenovela on Abdülhamid.

The Ottoman Empire outlasted Abdülhamid (he was thrown out in a revolution in 1909), but not by long. That it lasted as long as it did, may well have been to his credit.

(Image: Abdülhamid on his way to, or back from, Friday prayer. Herzl gives a vivid account of this spectacle in his diary. “Within less than an hour the most magnificent images rushed past us…”)

Abdulhamid at Selamlik

Class Eight: The War that Made the Middle East. It’s no small challenge to pack the entire First World War into one session (the eighth) of my intro to the Mideast at Shalem College. So I always fail, and end up running over into the next session. In large measure, the Middle East today is the product of that war, so it’s not remote history at all.

There’s the pre-war calculation that put the Ottomans into the war on the side of Germany. There’s the war itself, on multiple fronts, from Gallipoli to Mesopotamia, from Allenby in Palestine to the Arab Revolt (advised by Peter O’Toole… oops, Lawrence of Arabia). There’s the Ottoman-Russian struggle and the internal war on the Armenians.

In parallel, there’s the (double?) dealing: the British promises (such as they were) to the Arabs, the Sykes-Picot partition accord, the Balfour Declaration. Lots of maps to decipher, lots of texts to parse, and it can overwhelm the undergrad student. On top of that, part of the session gets eaten up explaining what the wider war was all about. That involves explaining why 20 million died, just as an aside.

In the end, I try to impress upon the students one major takeaway: the war tore up the old map, and the new one, based on a mix of great power interests and “national self-determination,” produced an endemic instability. But as I also remind my Israeli students, for the foresighted (such as the Zionists), the war provided a one-and-only opportunity to realize fantastic plans. The upset was total; no one in 1914 could have imagined what the Middle East would look like only 20 years later.

One aspect of the war was a source of grief for Bernard Lewis. He took the view that the Ottoman regime didn’t have a plan to destroy the Armenians, whose wholesale expulsion and massacre in 1915 didn’t constitute genocide. He said as much in an interview to France’s leading newspaper in 1993, and Armenian groups took him to court over it. It’s a complicated story; you’ll find Lewis’s side of it in chapter 11 (“Judgment in Paris”) of his memoirs.

His own final verdict is interesting: “If the word ‘genocide’ is to be used in its original and legal meaning… then the appropriateness of this term to the Armenian massacres of 1915 remains unproven. However, language changes, and looking at this again twenty years later it is clear that the word ‘genocide’ has developed a broader and less precise meaning today.” I suppose that meant Lewis came to acquiesce in the historicity of the Armenian genocide, in line with current-day usage. The question is, at what point does the term “genocide” become so elastic and ubiquitous in common usage that it ceases to move us? We may be past that point already.

Image: General Allenby, fresh from his conquest of Jerusalem, reads his proclamation to the city’s inhabitants, December 11, 1917 (Wikimedia).

Allenby in Jerusalem

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Emulating the West

This term, I’m teaching the introduction to the modern Middle East (Turkey and the Arab lands) at Shalem College in Jerusalem. I’ll try to post something from each class, with an insight from the late Bernard Lewis, who passed away in May. Below are entries for the first four classes of the semester.

Class One: The Retreat of Islam. Before Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, the Ottomans suffered unprecedented defeats at the hands of the Habsburgs and the Russians. In my opening, I dwell on the Treaty of Carlowitz, 1699, in which the Ottomans signed off on the loss of Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia, Morea, and more.

Lewis placed great importance on Carlowitz: “The disastrous retreat that followed the second Ottoman failure at Vienna, in 1683, was the first clear and unmistakable defeat. At Carlowitz the Ottoman Sultan, for the first time since the foundation of the Empire, was compelled to accept terms dictated by a victorious infidel enemy.” “The defeat… sealed at Carlowitz inaugurated a long period of almost unrelieved Muslim retreat before Christian power.” It’s hindsight, and “Turkey in Europe” lasted another 200 years. But it’s a good point to begin the saga of Ottoman retreat.

This engraving, from 1700, shows the victorious Christian allies with a map of Europe spread before them. The Turkish negotiator, on the left, looks detached; in fact, he salvaged quite a bit. And as I tell my students, at least the Ottomans were in the room. Two centuries later, the maps would be drawn without them. (Image reproduced in Hans-Martin Kaulbach’s Friedensbilder in Europa 1450-1815.)

Treaty of Carlowitz

Class Two: Bonaparte in Egypt. In the second session of my introductory course, I analyze the French invasion of Egypt, 1798. Because it was led by Bonaparte (later, Napoleon) it’s the subject of much myth and iconography. The future emperor repackaged this military disaster as a moral triumph of the Enlightenment. It’s a lesson in spin.

Still, it’s often viewed as the starting line of the modern history of the Middle East, or at least the Arab part of it. And it’s not just historians. Edward Said took 1798 as the departure point of his book Orientalism: “With Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt processes were set in motion between East and West that still dominate our contemporary cultural and political perspectives.”

So it’s interesting that Bernard Lewis, who had a much stronger sense of history, thought otherwise. “The French occupation proved to be of brief duration,” he noted (three years, to be precise), “and Egypt was subsequently restored to Muslim rule.” “In 1798, the process of defeat and withdrawal had already been going on for some time,” he emphasized—in fact, “the debate among Muslims about what had gone wrong and how to put it right began immediately after the retreat from Vienna” in 1683. But that debate “was limited to the Turks who had borne the main brunt.” Yes, the French invasion of Egypt shook up the Arabs, who’d been “sheltered from reality behind the barrier of the Ottoman Empire, still, even in its decline, a formidable military power.” But the Arabs were still a sideshow.

Lewis would always point out that the French invasion must have been particularly alarming to Muslims: Bonaparte’s small sea-borne force conquered and occupied a huge country, and it took a British force to drive the French out. But Lewis put 1798 on a timeline that’s longer and wider. Unlike the Ottoman retreats in Europe, Egypt was only a setback. So I warn my students not to be overly impressed by Napoleonic glitter. It would take much more, and many more decades, to awaken the Arabs to their predicament.

A prime piece of Napoleonic propaganda is this heroic portrayal among his plague-infected soldiery at Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804 (here, detail). As the Louvre website notes, “Gros has given Bonaparte the luminous aura and gestures of Christ healing the lepers.”

Bonaparte in the Pesthouse, Jaffa

Class Three: Ottoman Modernity. In the third session of my modern Mideast course at Shalem College, I present the major reformers of the first half of the 19th century: Muhammad (Mehmet) Ali Pasha in Egypt, and Sultan Mahmud II in the Ottoman Empire.

Murdering opponents has an old history, and both of these reformers did a thorough job of it—Muhammad Ali, to the remnants of the Mamluks (1811), and Mahmud II, to the Janissary corps (1826). Then as today, there were plenty of Westerners who made excuses. “If judged wholly by our notions,” wrote one former British consul in Egypt, “the massacre of the [Mamluk] Beys was, indeed, an act of inhuman treachery. But it cannot be looked upon with the same feelings of horror that we attach to similar crimes which have been perpetrated by Christian princes.” Why? Over there, “they are accustomed from infancy to bloodshed, and punishments such as make civilised natures shudder.” Make of this what you will, it certainly evokes the shrug of the shoulders that’s greeted Bashar Asad’s liquidation of his opponents in our time.

The purpose of reform was to aggrandize the power of the ruler. I have the students ponder these words by Adolphus Slade, a British naval officer who became an Ottoman admiral:

When a nation, comparatively barbarous, copies the finished experience of a highly civilized state, without going through the intermediate stages of advancement, the few are strengthened agains the many, the powerful armed against the weak…. The sovereign’s subjects, who before had a thousand modes of avoiding his tyranny, have not now a loop-hole to escape by.

Slade would have mocked the idea that modernization advances freedom.

But the reformers won some battles, dug canals, expanded cities, opened schools and hospitals, sent missions to Europe, and (inadvertently) set the wheels of nationalism in motion. Bernard Lewis tilted a bit against the usual European celebration of these achievements. “We may question the assumption,” he wrote, that the effect of the reforms “represented an improvement on what had gone before.” But could it have been done differently? It’s a question that dogs the Middle East even today.

Below: Mahmud II at first robed himself like his traditional Ottoman forebears (left, around 1809). He later exchanged the elaborate turban for a modern-style fez, and the robes for Western jacket and trousers (right, 1830s?).

Mahmud II

Class Four: Opera, Canal, and Debts. The fourth session brings us through Egypt’s Westernizing push under the Khedive Ismail, which some see as a belle époque, and others regard as the pride before the fall. It was something of both. The Paris-educated Ismail opened the country to European experts, enterprise, capital, and (in the end) intervention. “Egypt is part of Europe,” he announced.

It certainly might have seemed that way, in the new quarters of Cairo modeled after Paris, and in the grand celebrations marking the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, attended by a large swath of European royalty. But in the end, Ismail took on so much debt from English and French lenders that the country sank beneath its weight. A foreign debt commission took over the country’s finances, Ismail was pushed out, the Egyptian military revolted, and the British occupied the country (1882) to protect foreign interests. This temporary measure turned into more than half a century of tight British control.

One of the episodes that always fascinates students is Ismail’s building of an opera house in Cairo. If Paris had one, Cairo had to have one too, and to get it going, Ismail commissioned the famed Giuseppe Verdi to produce an opera suited to Egypt. The result: Aida, which had its first performance in Cairo in 1871. Set in the reign of the pharaohs, the idea for the plot was inspired by the renowned French Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette (Pasha). Opera performances found a small but devoted audience in Egypt, and after the opera house burned down in 1971, Egypt built another one, a gift of Japan.

In an easy-to-miss footnote to his bestseller What Went Wrong?, Lewis made the kind of astute observation about the opera that was his trademark:

One of the central problems of the story is the dilemma of the victorious Egyptian general Radamès, torn between the loves of two women—Amneris, the daughter of Pharaoh, and Aida the Ethiopian slave, the daughter of the Ethiopian king with whom Egypt is at war. Caught between these two women, Radamès is driven to treason and finally to death. For a 19th century European Christian, this was indeed an agonizing dilemma. It would have been meaningless in Egypt, either in the time of the pharaohs or in Verdi’s own day, and the hero could have had both ladies; the princess by marriage as a wife, the slave by gift or purchase as a concubine and perhaps later, as a secondary wife. Were Verdi and his librettist trying to send a subtle message to their Egyptian patrons; or, more probably, were they simply uninformed or unconcerned about the situation of women in Egypt?

Lewis, irreplaceable as usual.

Below we see the spectacle of the opening of the Suez Canal, in the presence of the A-list. Ismail deployed tens of thousands of forced (corvée) laborers to build the Canal, but they weren’t invited to the party. It’s a point Nasser stressed when he nationalized the canal company in 1956.

Inauguration of the Suez Canal

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A year of anniversaries

The War on ErrorAs 2016 winds down, I thought I’d share some end-of-year updates:

  • I’ve given an interview to the podcast program The Tel Aviv Review on my recent book The War on Error: Israel, Islam and the Middle East. I speak, inter alia, about Ari Shavit and Lydda, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Six-Day War, and why surgeons don’t perform operations in sewers. Listen at this link, and order the book from Amazon here.
  • My article “Repairing Sykes-Picot” caps the just-published proceedings of a conference on the enduring legacies of the post-World War One settlement in the Middle East. The book is entitled The Lines That Bind: 100 Years of Sykes-Picot, and it’s published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The volume also includes fine articles by Andrew Tabler, Fabrice Balanche, Michael Knights, David Pollock, David Schenker, Sam Menassa, Soner Cagaptay, Ghaith Omari, David Makovsky, and Brigitte Curmi. It’s free to download at this link.
  • In October, I concluded seven years of service as head of Shalem College. (I was appointed president-designate in 2009, when the College was still in formation, and I became its first president in 2013.) My successor is Isaiah Gafni, distinguished professor emeritus of Jewish history at the Hebrew University. Read about him here. I’ve joined the faculty ranks, where I teach the modern history of the Middle East, as well as a course on the Middle East in the work of Bernard Lewis. I’ll bet it’s offered nowhere else.

2017 will be a year of many anniversaries: the Balfour Declaration (1917), UN Resolution 181 for the partition of Palestine (1947), and the Six-Day War (1967). The errors in “expert” commentary about each will abound. I’m looking forward to a busy and interesting New Year—and wish the same to you.

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Boycott me. Please.

This article first appeared at Foreign Policy on December 20.

FP bannerI am now subject to a boycott by the American Studies Association (ASA), an organization of professors that includes roughly 5,000 members. The resolution, passed by the organization’s rank-and-file on Dec. 15, supposedly doesn’t apply to individuals, but it applies to me. The ASA explains:

The American Studies Association understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others) … until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

Since I am the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, an accredited Israeli academic institution, I’m clearly subject to the ASA boycott. And while my fledgling liberal arts college doesn’t have any “formal collaborations” with the ASA, it’s the thought that counts.

So just what was the ASA thinking? I don’t follow American studies—my field is the Middle East—and until this episode, I hadn’t heard of the organization. What I know about such associations comes from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), an organization of scholars who study the region. Needless to say, MESA has had plenty of boycott advocates among its leadership and rank-and-file. A few years back, they tried to pull MESA onto the boycott cart, but they failed.

Boycott advocates haven’t tried since, and for good reason: There are just too many people in MESA who know something about the Middle East. And by those standards, it’s not self-evident that Israel should be singled out and boycotted for its supposed transgressions. All you have to do is peruse the “intervention letters” sent by MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom. These letters-in-a-bottle to the likes of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan protesting dismissals and show trials of scholars and police violence on campuses are a pretty good indicator of where academic freedom in the Middle East is truly imperiled.

ASA president Curtis Marez acknowledged that some countries in the region have worse human rights records than Israel. However, he then justified the boycott with the unforgettable claim that “one has to start somewhere.”

If you know nothing about the Middle East, and have made a studied effort not to know more, you might think that “somewhere” is Israel. That’s because Israel and the Palestinians get outsized attention—in America. The crimes of others are ignored: What Syrians do to Syrians, Egyptians do to Egyptians, and Iranians do to Iranians—especially to professors—just isn’t compelling news, no matter how horrific. In that sense, the boycott resolution perfectly mirrors the U.S.-centric bias of the ASA: Everything over the horizon, beyond the continental scope of “American studies,” is just a vague blur of media caricatures.

One of the ASA’s central ideological prisms appears to be that the United States is an aggressive empire. Just scan the program of last year’s annual conference, titled “Dimensions of Empire and Resistance,” which was billed as a reflection “on indigeneity and dispossession,” the “course of U.S. empire.”

The United States has a range of allies and clients in the Middle East—but only Israel is viewed positively by a large majority of Americans, while Israelis themselves are overwhelmingly pro-American. For the ASA, that appears to be the bill of indictment right there. The surly Saudis are deeply ambivalent about America, but they’ve spread hush money across the American academic landscape, so don’t expect them to be boycotted. No, it will be Israel—as punishment not for its offenses, which aren’t the worst by any means, but for its “special relationship” with the United States.

I’m not exactly sure what I should do to get myself off the ASA’s blacklist. The organization posed this very question in an explainer about its decision, and could only conclude: “This is a difficult question to answer. The boycott is designed to put real and symbolic pressure on universities to take an active role in ending the Israeli occupation and in extending equal rights to Palestinians.”

Although this isn’t an answer at all, it suggests that I should abandon what I believe under pressure—acting not out of conviction, but out of fear for the fate of my institution. Instead of speaking truth, I am supposed to distort my truth. The boycott presumes that I am akin to a widget exporter, so focused on my bottom line that I can be turned into a lobby for just about any cause with the sufficient application of “pressure.”

Here is the fatal flaw in the boycott’s design: If I, as a scholar, were to change my tune under “pressure,” my credibility would be rightly destroyed, and I would lose my power to convince anyone of anything.

Let’s say that I’m on a first-name basis with a few Israeli cabinet ministers (I am). According to the boycott’s strategy, I should request a meeting with each of them, and tell them it is time to “end the occupation and extend equal rights to Palestinians.” “Why?” they would ask. What has changed since the last time we had a conversation?

In the past, I spoke out of conviction, in terms of what would best serve the interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. So why should they give a whit if, now, I tell them I speak out of fear for the standing of one institution, cherished though it may be? I would not only be unconvincing, I would become contemptible in the eyes of others and, above all, myself.

So I regret to inform the ASA that I will not knuckle under. I would sooner resign my presidency than alter, by one iota, my considered view of what is best for Israel. I may not be right (especially by the standards of the ASA resolution, which, if Peter Beinart’s assessment is correct, implies that the best thing for Israel would be its total dissolution). But it is my truth, arrived at freely, and the suggestion that I might be pressured into distorting it presumes that I, and my fellow heads of Israeli universities, lack all intellectual integrity. To which my reply is: Boycott me. Please.

Ha-FederalistWhile we languish under boycott, Shalem College will continue to do our best to bring to Israel the benefits of an American-style education. Ours is the first institution in Israel to find inspiration in the American tradition of the small liberal arts college. Shalem Press, our scholarly imprint, has commissioned and published outstanding Hebrew translations of The Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. These works are now assigned in dozens of university courses throughout Israel. We will continue to bring the most important American ideas to Israeli readers in Hebrew. And we will continue to teach our Israeli undergraduates the fundamental ideals behind the world’s greatest democracy, and their origins and resonance in the Jewish tradition. Boycott or not.

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Shalem College comes alive

To Shalem CollegeThis evening, I will have the privilege of presiding over the very first opening exercises of the newly-established Shalem College. As a historian, I am cautious in how I deploy the adjective “historic” for a current event. But I have a strong premonition that the opening day of Shalem College will earn a place of distinction in the history of Israel.

Shalem College students will study Jewish thought and Greek philosophy, Islamic theology and Western history, modern Israel and economic theory, statistics and music. Fully half of all studies are given over to the core curriculum, taught through the close reading of texts. And it is accomplished principally in small classes, around the seminar table, where some of the best Israeli students will learn and debate the great ideas that have animated the Western world, the Middle East, and the people of Israel.

Tonight’s event is first and foremost a warm embrace of the fifty undergraduate students enrolled into our inaugural class. They come from the length and breadth of Israel, from a wide range of social backgrounds and traditions. Also in attendance will be hundreds of well-wishers, who have offered moral and material support for what has been an enormously challenging endeavor.

The founding of a new college, inspired by the American tradition of higher education, had to overcome many obstacles, which at times appeared insurmountable. Many of those who commended us upon the initiative must have thought in their hearts that realizing it was a bridge too far. And a few didn’t just think it—they told us so.

There were so many moving parts. The plan had to be submitted for approval to Israel’s Council for Higher Education—an official accrediting body charged with maintaining the most rigorous standards in Israeli higher education. It is the job of the Council’s professional committees to challenge each and every one of an applicant’s assumptions. And challenge they did—a four-year process from which we learned enormously, and that greatly improved our program. In January of this year, we celebrated the grant of our cherished accreditation.

Scaling up from a research institute could not be done without widening the many circles of stakeholders. We have recruited outstanding faculty, committed to the vision of the college and devoted to its mission. We have been fortunate to enjoy the confidence of long-standing supporters, and we have discovered new friends courageous enough to invest their philanthropy in an educational startup. And we have been applauded by leaders from all walks of Israeli life, who have joined our public and academic councils, and who have been generous with their time and advice as we navigate unfamiliar waters.

A college also requires physical space: lecture halls and seminar rooms, a library, a student lounge, faculty and administrative offices, and space that invites spontaneous conversations and the sharing of ideas. In other words, a college needs a campus—and through the good offices of the Jewish Agency, we have found an initial home in a magnificent building in the Agency’s bucolic Kiryat Moriah educational campus in Jerusalem, a few minutes’ walk from the Haas and Sherover Promenades, from which we have a splendid view of the Old City.

The capstone of these efforts has been the search for students of such high caliber that they could study anywhere in Israel. For a new institution, there could be no more daunting challenge. The good names of universities and colleges are built over generations. A top-achieving prospective student, with a choice of many options, must be a pioneer to enroll in a fledgling institution that has yet to make its mark.

In the course of student recruitment, we discovered, much to our delight, that such young pioneers do exist in Israel—highly motivated young men and women who have always loved being part of something new and challenging, who flocked to our open houses and who then subjected themselves to our rigorous admissions process.

We have an extraordinarily gifted team, eager and ready to carry us forward. The indefatigable and indispensable Daniel Polisar has spent almost every waking hour strategizing each move, consulting with colleagues, and winning the admiration of friends both for his broad vision and his exacting attention to every detail. Daniel Gordis has been our top diplomat, traveling long hours to reach influential people and explaining with persuasive passion why Israel needs Shalem College. And David Messer, now our board chair, has provided crucial resources for the ramp-up and has become an integral part of the team, offering invaluable advice and assistance at key junctures. Behind these three stands a top-notch professional cadre of administrators, in every area from development to admissions, who have kept all the many balls high in the air with true aplomb. Thanks to their brilliance, my job as college president is far easier than it would otherwise be: indeed, they all eagerly assume burdens most presidents bear alone. This is their day.

This team is supported by an energetic and generous board, which has provided crucial guidance at many a crossroads. Their breadth of experience in areas where we ourselves have little has spared us many a mistake that might have delayed our opening. In particular, Yair Shamir, who served as board chair from 2008 until his recent appointment as Minister of Agriculture, added Israeli gravitas and infused the project with his entrepreneurial spirit and good humor.

This is an opportunity to recall the faith in this project shown by the late Zalman C. Bernstein, of blessed memory. He always regarded the research-oriented Shalem Center as a pillar that would serve to buttress Shalem College, and he committed to support the College when the time came. The Tikvah Fund has honored that commitment with great generosity, and its largesse is a mainstay of Shalem College. We are grateful both for its support, and for the encouragement and extraordinarily sage advice and guidance offered to us by its chairman, Roger Hertog.

Much work is behind us, but we are keenly aware that much, much more lies ahead of us. Until now, we were planners. Now, with young men and women streaming into our building, we are educators—in addition to the now-multiplied tasks of planning on which our further growth depends. There are hurdles to come. But today we want to share the sheer joy we feel at seeing students, eager and ready, filing into class. Shalem College has come alive. May it realize all our dreams, and give strength to Israel.

Martin Kramer is the president of Shalem College.

Update: At the opening, left to right: Daniel Polisar, Martin Kramer, Yair Shamir.

Left to right: Daniel Polisar, Martin Kramer, Yair Shamir

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