Posts Tagged Shalem College

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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Shalem College goes Forward

Shalem CollegeThe Jewish Daily Forward runs a fact-packed and objective article about Shalem College:

In the most ambitious attempt to import American-style higher education to Israel to date, the country’s first liberal arts college will open its doors this fall.

The four-year degree program at the new Shalem College, located on the Jewish Agency’s campus in the East Talpiot neighborhood in Jerusalem, will teach a broad curriculum like those found in American liberal arts colleges, and will use financial incentives to encourage students to be active in campus life.

The program is a world away from that of most Israeli colleges… The core curriculum has a strong ‘great books’ emphasis, and includes Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Durkheim and Einstein. Key texts from Jewish tradition are drawn from the Babylonian Talmud, Maimonides, Spinoza and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sections of the Quran are also compulsory.

There’s information on the vision, the curriculum, and the scholarships, as well as quotes from my colleagues Daniel Gordis, Daniel Polisar, and Stephen Hazan Arnoff. And don’t miss the interesting comments by incoming students. Read the entire article here.

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A scholar’s library at Shalem College

Opinions are divided over the future of the printed book. Many believe it is destined to disappear. Already anyone with an iPad in a coffee shop has instant access to several million volumes—a massive library at one’s fingertips. It isn’t hard to imagine the printed book going the way of the cuneiform tablet.

But a book-filled library is fundamental to a college. To be surrounded by books is to feel part of the scholarly chain of transmission that links us to generations past. And it’s not just a matter of nostalgic ambience. There are vast numbers of books that aren’t yet freely available electronically, and that aren’t yet out of copyright. Between the older books in the Internet Archive, and the more recent offerings available through Amazon and other digital publishers, there are decades worth of books that just can’t be had without going to a library. Google Books will change that too, but it hasn’t yet. And when it comes to books in non-European languages, print still reigns.

So from the outset, my colleagues and I resolved that the new Shalem College in Jerusalem would have a respectable library on opening day, October 6, 2013. The core of that library has been provided to us thanks to the generosity of the great historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis.

Bernard Lewis needs no introduction to my readers. In addition to his own prodigious output of authored books on Islamic and Middle Eastern history, Bernard was an avid collector. His personal library, at the time he moved out of his Princeton home two years ago, came to 18,000 volumes. It was then that he sent his library to Tel Aviv University, to which he had promised it many years ago.

But he did so with a proviso: any book in his collection already possessed by Tel Aviv University’s library was to be passed on to the library of the fledgling Shalem College. And so the new college library has come into possession of many thousands of volumes, most dealing with the history of Islam and the Middle East, but also with many other aspects of medieval and modern history. It’s a splendid start for the library, especially as one of the first accredited degree programs in the new college is in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.

For me, the arrival in Jerusalem of so large a part of Bernard’s library closes a circle. I was his student in Princeton in the late 1970s, when he held a dual appointment at the university and the Institute for Advanced Study. He had one of the largest offices at the Institute, and it was packed tight with his books. A few months after we met, Bernard invited me to the Institute, and proposed that I catalogue incoming offprints for a per-hour wage. (In the pre-internet age, scholars would send printed copies of their articles to one another, a method of dissemination that now seems as remote from us as the carrier pigeon.) He gave me the key to his office, and on evenings and weekends I would enter Aladdin’s cave, seat myself at his desk, and ponder what it must be like to be the most renowned historian of Islam in the world.

I also came to know his library quite well. I much preferred his office to the deepest basement floor of Firestone Library, where the university’s own Middle East collection resided, so I would bring my own work to his desk. And once every week or so, we would have lunch or tea, followed by a stroll in the Institute’s woods. We would then repair to his office, where he would select a shelf and begin a running commentary on the books it held—their relative place in the field, a bit of lore about the authors, and his take on the dedications. In those days, everyone sent everything to Bernard, and practically all of the books carried handwritten dedications. I recall some of his comments to this day. He once took in hand a book by his contemporary, the French Marxist (and rabidly anti-Israel) scholar Maxime Rodinson (who also happened to be Jewish). The dedication was quite admiring, which surprised me, given his politics. Bernard smiled with satisfaction: “He’s a scoundrel,” he said of Rodinson, “but I like him.”

When Bernard retired in 1986, he transformed the master bedroom of his home into a magnificent, light-filled library. His desk faced a wall of glass overlooking the grounds, and massive wooden bookshelves stood perpendicular to the walls. Even this addition didn’t suffice to contain the entire library, and the basement of the house was outfitted with shelves to handle the overflow. In a few of the bedrooms, every flat surface was likewise occupied by still more books. (Some sense of the library at his Princeton home is preserved by BookTV, which interviewed him there ten years ago.)

I feel privileged to have known Bernard’s library in both of its Princeton settings, but its two Israeli settings also do it justice. In January, Bernard visited Shalem College at my invitation, so that he could see the campus and especially the library: a two-tiered structure, featuring a large atrium-like gallery that provides ample room for books and for study. He selected the design of an ex libris plate to be placed in each volume, and I said some grateful words about his remarkable gift.

Now that we are deep into the digital age, few scholars will ever build so large a personal library. Bernard amassed his collection during the explosion of scholarly publishing that followed the Second World War, and before the advent of the Internet and ebook. Scholars in future won’t leave great collections behind, and in the libraries we do have, shelves will gradually yield to screens.

But scholars and students will always find inspiration in the physical book, for as the word “volume” suggests, the full appreciation of a scholarly achievement is much enhanced by an encounter with its heft. Book design is also evidence for past conventions that provide context for text, and the elegance of a well-designed book will always evoke pleasure. Bernard Lewis has given Shalem College a voluminous gift. When it is combined with the immense contribution represented by his scholarship, it secures his place in the pantheon of those who have nurtured the life of the mind in Jerusalem.

Martin Kramer accepts books from Bernard Lewis,
Shalem College, January 14, 2013.

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Shalem College is born

Sunday morning, the Israeli cabinet, in its weekly meeting, approved the recommendation of Israel’s Council for Higher Education, that Shalem College be accredited to enroll students for the Bachelor of Arts degree in the humanities. A new institution of higher education is born. I am president-designate of the new college, which will open its doors to its first class in October 2013, in Jerusalem.

I will have more to say about this in the coming weeks and months. For now, I would like to direct you, my Hebrew readers, to the new website of Shalem College, which has just gone live. There you’ll find plenty of information about Shalem College, which will bring the classic curriculum of the liberal arts to Israel for the first time. From philosophy to art, from Bible to physics, students at Shalem College will acquire a deep understanding of the human endeavor and the Jewish tradition in all their aspects. Students initially will have a choice of two degrees (majors), both combined with the same extensive Core Curriculum: the Interdisciplinary Program of Philosophy and Jewish Thought, and Middle East and Islamic Studies. These programs represent the end product of a deep and thoughtful interaction between our scholars and the academic committees and staff of the Council for Higher Education. We are beholden to the Council for its constructive and professional input, which improved virtually every aspect of our plan.

All the credit for this remarkable achievement goes to my colleagues—I myself have remained “on deck” for these past four years (this year, as a visiting professor in America), while they have done the painstaking work of gaining accreditation, raising funds, finding a campus (a beautiful building in Kiryat Moriah, pictured), recruiting faculty, and much more. The leader of this monumental effort has been Dr. Daniel Polisar, the most indefatigable man I have ever known. With wisdom and grit, and a steady sense of purpose, he has forged ahead through crises and tribulations to this day—his day.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with him has been an outstanding team of board members, scholars and administrators, each one an accomplished expert in a field of crucial importance to the future operation of Shalem College. We have also enjoyed the trust of generous donors, who maintained us unstintingly during the long gestation and who have provided the wherewithal for the first years of the College. I will have much more to say about the vital contribution made by all of these colleagues and friends, who deserve to be named, and who count as pioneers and founders. Until then, I applaud their brilliant performance, and I congratulate them on their triumph.

The work is finished, and the work has just begun.

Yitzhak Shamir and leadership

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks to a dinner of the Board of Governors of Shalem College (then in formation), Jerusalem, July 9, 2012. Present was board chairman Yair Shamir, whose father, the Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir, had passed away on June 30. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

In recent days, much has been written and said about Yitzhak Shamir, which is ironic, as Yitzhak Shamir was very taciturn and said little. The response to his passing has been nothing short of remarkable. He is now remembered by many with nostalgia as an ideal leader: determined, resolute, unyielding, principled. It says something about the moment we are in: as the “new Middle East” melts away, and even the bedrock peace with Egypt seems to shake, so Yitzhak Shamir is regarded rather wistfully as the kind of leader we need today.

I’ll leave it to others to elaborate on Shamir’s qualities. I would only add that the qualities he exhibited as a political leader—the tenacity, the resolve, the certitude in the way chosen—are precisely the qualities that enable political prisoners to endure exile and incarceration without losing hope. Yitzhak Shamir was exiled by the British empire to one of its most desolate outposts, Eritrea, in the hope of isolating and breaking him. He endured, escaped, made his way back home, and resumed his struggle.

Prison and exile leave an imprint often more lasting than study and reflection. They are a flame that forges character, and we see that in figures from Natan Sharansky to Nelson Mandela. Yitzhak Shamir came through that same flame. As far as I know, no one has written a book about political prisoners who became heads of state. In such a book, Yitzhak Shamir would deserve a prominent place, along with Menachem Begin.

Experience left him with a remarkable set of personal qualities. But as I always tell students, leadership isn’t a personal quality. It’s a relationship. For leadership to be successful, there must also be followers—persons who are in a symbiotic relationship with the leader. And so the interesting question isn’t only Yitzhak Shamir’s unique qualities, but why he so resonated with the Israeli public that he became the second-longest serving prime minister of Israel, after Ben-Gurion.

My summer interns are doing some work for me on Abba Eban, which gives rise to this reflection. Eban and Shamir were both born in 1915, only months apart. In one respect, they were similar: they were both outliers, Eban by his origins, Shamir by his politics. But otherwise, they were total opposites. During World War Two, Eban rose to the rank of major in the British Army; Shamir promoted attacks on British officers who were Eban’s colleagues. When the Lehi assassinated Swedish mediator Count Bernadotte, Eban was sent to represent Israel at his funeral. Shamir was always suspected of involvement in the assassination. Politically, of course, they were separated by the widest of gaps.

Eban was famously loquacious, a veritable talking machine. Someone once gave this tongue-in-cheek account of Eban’s oratorical style: “His speeches proceed with such an unbroken flow of admirable phrases that one awaits in a state of delighted incredulity the consummation of his eloquent sentences in which one sinuous clause takes up from its predecessors the elusive thread of the argument he is weaving, the shuttle of his words flying ever faster till he shakes out suddenly, like a conjurer’s silk handkerchief, the finish fabric of his speech.”

Shamir, by contrast, was extraordinarily taciturn, a man of few words. My friend Robert Satloff, who runs The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, shared this story with me, and I share it with you, Yair, as you may not have heard it.

The Institute rented out the St. Regis Hotel in the mid-80s to host an event with Shamir. 300 people filled the ballroom. My task was to prepare some questions for the Q/A session and plant them around the room. Shamir comes and delivers his usual remarks. 9 minutes total. Then we start Q/A and he runs through one question after another with olympic speed. (It doesn’t take long to say “no” — which he did better and with more frequency than anyone I ever met.) So, after a total of 28 minutes, Shamir exhausted every question (and every questioner) in the room. And we paid for a full hour!

Now if one had been situated in 1960 or 1970, and had to bet which of the two men would become prime minister of Israel, Eban would have been the obvious choice. If you’d been an American Jew, it wouldn’t even have been a question. The Encyclopedia Judaica first appeared in 1970. It devoted a column of print to Eban; Shamir didn’t even have an entry. Eban was an international icon, a hero of public diplomacy; Shamir worked in the shadows, spending years in secret operations.

Eventually both men served their county as foreign minister—but that’s as far as Eban got. The explanations are many, and there’s an element of accident and happenstance. But nothing in history is ever pure accident. There was something in Yitzhak Shamir that resonated in the Israeli people—something that made his brand of leadership appealing.

Future historians will debate what it was, but I’ll venture a preliminary guess: he personified an Israeli determination to stand firm against pressure. As a small country in a hostile neighborhood, Israel is always under pressure, from enemies and friends alike. There are many strategies to alleviate pressure—diplomacy, negotiation, concessions. Eban practiced them like a maestro. The problem is that these strategies often just invite more pressure. Shamir practiced a different strategy: simply make it self-evident that pressure will never work. This touched something deep in the Israeli psyche—and gave him a trusting following that transformed him into a national leader.

His policies can and will be debated, as will his legacy. But his strategy has proven itself. He didn’t reach it through profound study, just through the personally observed behavior of human kind. And this brings me to my final point.

There’s nothing particular in the career of Yitzhak Shamir that endears his memory to our project, Shalem College. He studied only sporadically; he learned what he knew from the school of life. Abba Eban collected 20 honorary doctorates from universities; Yitzhak Shamir collected two or three (and each time, the award excited protests). But his life poses the question we hope to answer. That’s because no young Israeli will lead such a life again. No young Israeli will be sent into exile as a political prisoner, driven underground to live under a false identity, be pursued by the armies of an empire. And it’s a good thing no young Israeli will live such a life, because we’re now a sovereign people.

In sovereign states where young people are protected and nurtured, which life experiences can begin to substitute for the tests imposed by the absence of sovereignty on an earlier generation of Jews? Since we’re not going to send our young people to a hole in Eritrea, or have them go to war with the crude tools of an underground militia, what other rigorous tests can we impose?

That is the mission of Shalem College. At some point, every stable and secure society must ask how it can mold leaders through some method other than adversity. The answer everywhere has been the rigors of a demanding education. We won’t see the likes of Yitzhak Shamir again, because the history that forged him is past. But we owe it to him, to ourselves, and to the Jewish people, to put our best young people to an exacting test, and so build them to be worthy successors of the founders. We’re grateful for the life of Yitzhak Shamir—and resolute in our determination to forge the successor generation with different tools, made possible by the privilege and power that comes with Jewish sovereignty.

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