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.

Boycott me. Please.

This article first appeared at Foreign Policy on December 20.

I 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.

While 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.

Shalem College comes alive

This 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.