Current Issue

Oct.†9, 2013

Vol. 114, No. 2


In a Nation’s Service

This new college has roots in Princeton, but it was created for a place 5,700 miles away

By Marilyn H. Marks *86
Published in the October†9, 2013, issue

Martin Kramer ’75 *82, left, is the president of Shalem College; Daniel Polisar ’87, the provost.
Shlomi Bernthal/Black Star
Martin Kramer ’75 *82, left, is the president of Shalem College; Daniel Polisar ’87, the provost.

As an undergraduate, Yoram Hazony ’86 ate his meals on Prospect Avenue — not at an eating club, but at Stevenson Hall, then Princeton’s kosher dining hall. Partly, that was because he had begun to follow the dietary requirements of an observant Jew. But it was also for the conversation, which rivaled anything he heard in class. Each night at dinner, Hazony and his friends — a collection of students from debating circles and campus Zionist groups — would talk about politics, philosophy, and issues of the day. They’d discuss what they liked and disliked about Princeton. Several of the students planned to move to Israel after graduation, and they often imagined what they would do once they got there.†

In the group was Hazony’s friend Daniel Polisar ’87; the two students co-founded Princeton’s conservative journal, The Princeton Tory, and teamed up to win a national debate title. There was Josh Weinstein ’87, a physics student who enjoyed philosophy; and Near Eastern studies student Julia Fulton ’88, who would marry Hazony a year before she graduated. “We certainly had a lot of conversations about what Israel needed,” Polisar remembers. “We were doing a lot of reading by public intellectuals, the gist of which was, ideas have consequences, and it’s the power of ideas that drives history and drives the future. ... It was clear to us that higher education is the leading force in shaping the way people think — certainly the most influential people in society. And therefore it shapes the future.”

At some point, the students came up with an idea: They would start their own college — one dedicated to the liberal arts — in Israel. Within five years of graduating, the Hazonys, then living in the West Bank settlement of Eli, and Weinstein had begun a summer program in which 20 students studied Jewish texts and Western philosophy. Then they were joined by other alumni and colleagues, and with support from American philanthropists Ronald Lauder and Zalman Bernstein (whose Tikvah Fund supports a highly regarded seminar program in Judaic studies at Princeton), the small program morphed into the Shalem Center, a research center and think tank in Jerusalem, in 1994. (“Shalem,” in Hebrew, means “complete.”)†

Dismayed by what they saw as a trend toward universalism in Israel — a move away from the things that gave Israel its particular Jewish character — the young alumni and their Shalem colleagues began publishing a quarterly journal called Azure: Ideas for the Jewish Nation. “In most countries, the role of defending the idea of the nation — the preservation and deepening of its heritage, its texts and holy places, and the wisdoms and social crafts which its people have acquired — belongs to political conservatives,” Hazony wrote in the first issue, in 1996. “What passes for a ‘national camp’ in Israel, the Likud and its sister parties, has no tradition of intellectual discourse to speak of. It has no colleges, no serious think tanks or publishing houses, no newspapers or broadcasting. Nothing like the writings of Smith, Burke, or Hayek has ever been written in Hebrew, or even translated.”†

The group started its own press, largely to publish Hebrew translations of classics of Western political thought, including Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek. It put on academic conferences that drew scholars from around the world, including Princeton professors. Its leaders scrutinized history textbooks, pushing for more Zionist content in Israel’s school curriculum. It provided employment and an intellectual home to public figures including Moshe Ya’alon, today Israel’s defense minister and a former army chief of staff; and historian Michael Oren *84 *86, whose term as Israel’s ambassador to the United States was to end this fall. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician, headed a strategic-studies institute at Shalem that was funded by a donation from conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife. (The institute closed in 2009, when Sharansky took the helm of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency.)†

And this month, the friends from Stevenson Hall achieved the goal they had set for themselves so many years ago at Princeton: They opened Shalem College, Israel’s first private liberal-arts college, with an American style of education, a high-profile faculty, a gleaming building in Jerusalem, and an inaugural class of 50 students. Former Tel Aviv University professor Martin Kramer ’75 *82 — known to many for his blog, Sandbox, about the Middle East — is president. Polisar is the provost; Weinstein, a scholar of Greek philosophy, an associate fellow. Hazony, who served as the Shalem Center’s first president, recently left to start a new research institute, called the Herzl Institute.†

In many places, a college would be just a college, training young people for professions and for lives as adults. The Princeton founders, all passionate Zionists, see Shalem as having a larger mission: the flourishing of Israel as a Jewish state. Polisar notes that the founders were inspired by Princeton’s informal motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service.”†

Most Israelis graduate from college without taking a course on the Bible or philosophy, political theory, Zionist or European history, or Christianity or Islam, Shalem’s founders say. The result? “It means that public discourse on most subjects of importance is conducted at the level of slogans, or not at all,” Hazony wrote in January about the college’s raison d’Ítre. “And for Israel, this isn’t a viable lifestyle choice. If you’re a small nation at war, being unable to conduct a serious public debate on crucial subjects can be as great a danger as anything your enemies can cook up.”

Post Comments
4 Responses to In a Nationís Service

Jonathan Price '75 Says:

2013-10-09 16:07:20

As if Princeton's current crop of neocons and Tea Partyers hasn't done (and continues to do) enough damage to our own country, Ms. Marks and PAW now apparently feel the need to celebrate the export of this toxic worldview to another country. I applaud efforts to invigorate intellectual debate in Israel, as elsewhere, but hope that the contributions of Messrs. Hazony, Kramer and Polisar go beyond an apologia for a Zionist vision that has curdled into the implementation of policies I doubt Theodor Herzl would have recognized or condoned.

Richard M. Waugaman '70 Says:

2013-10-14 10:04:43

Yoram Hazony '86 said Amos Oz displayed a "carefully controlled disdain for Zionism." Amos Oz is one of the few intellectuals in Israel who is still an outspoken advocate for the Jewish ideals of justice and tikkun olam, repairing what is morally wrong in the world. I share Jonathan Price's disappointment with the tone of this article. This college sounds exactly like what Israel does not need. I worry that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians unconsciously imposes on them the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Germans. That possibility was especially apparent when an officer in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) admitted the IDF was studying the tactics the Germans used against the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in order to suppress the Second Intifada of the Palestinians.

Judith N. Shapiro *78 Says:

2013-10-14 10:08:19

What a wonderful example of Princeton in the nation's service and the service of liberal democracy. Kudos to the alumni who persevered and made their dream a reality. Kol hakavod and mazal tov to them and to Princeton!

Ehud Finkelstein *69 Says:

2014-01-02 11:29:01

"Most Israelis graduate from college without taking a course on the Bible or philosophy, political theory, Zionist or European history, or Christianity or Islam, Shalem's founders say." "Shalem's founders" have not studied in primary school and high school in Israel, because these topics are being taught and studied in primary school and high school in Israel. A-props Bible, I would like to share with you an experience I had in Princeton: In 1968 the rabbi at the Jewish Community Center in Princeton was Everett Gendler. In the Yom Kippur eve sermon, he told the congregation how poor the people were in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. Someone told me then that he was looking for a Hebrew teacher. I bet that at that time I knew the Bible better than Mr. Gendler, and Hebrew is my mother tongue. I applied for the job, met Rabbi Gendler, but he did not give me the job probably because he did not want someone who knew Hebrew and the Bible better then him. I did, however, prepare for bar mitzvah at that time Peter Lichtenstein, grandson of Isidor Rabi, a Nobel laureate in physics. He even complimented me on the job ...
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