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

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

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’être. “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.”

Yoram Hazony ’86 talked about starting a liberal-arts college when he was still a Princeton undergraduate.
Yoram Hazony ’86 talked about starting a liberal-arts college when he was still a Princeton undergraduate.
Shlomi Bernthal/Black Star

Jerusalem can be a noisy place — a place of car horns honking and sirens shrieking and people shouting, clamoring to be heard. Yoram Hazony does not shout. He speaks almost in a whisper, and amid the lunchtime din at a café in Jerusalem’s stylish German Colony neighborhood, one must strain to catch everything he says. 

On this day, in the summer of 2012, Hazony is discussing his latest book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, which asserts that the Bible should be read as a book of reason and political thought. Over a lunchtime discussion that runs for more than three hours, Hazony comes across alternatively as a biblical scholar, a political theorist, and a fighter in a culture war. He argues that although major tenets of liberalism, such as self-determination, might be associated with people like John Stuart Mill or Woodrow Wilson 1879, they are rooted in the biblical tribes of Israel. 

Hazony notes that much of the Hebrew Bible was written by exiles after the destruction of the 500-year-old Jewish kingdom. “The Jews are sitting outside of their kingdom, which has been destroyed completely, thinking about how should we, as people without a state, think about the state? Should we have states? What should be our relationship with that?” Thus was born the idea of the nation-state, he says. 

“The idea that the Jews should have their own kingdom and that it should be free from the rule of Egypt and Assyria and Babylonia ... and on the other hand it should not rule over neighboring people like Moab and Edom, which should have their own independent kingdoms — that idea, as far as I know, appears for the first time in world history in Hebrew scripture,” he says. (Hazony does not address how that relates to the idea of a Palestinian state, but he has written that one should be accepted only if it accepted Israel as a Jewish state — a possibility he described as remote.)

The son of a former Princeton engineering professor, Hazony was born in Israel and came to the United States as a child to be raised in Princeton; he decided when he was 18 that he would move back. One evening, after college, Hazony was in Israel attending a Sabbath dinner, “pontificating” about philosophy with the self-confidence of many a new Princeton grad. Seated with him was a rabbi who never attended college. The rabbi responded with a reference to famed political philosopher John Rawls ’43 *50. “Who is John Rawls?” Hazony recalls asking. The rabbi pulled from his shelves books by Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Bertrand Russell. Soon Hazony was back in New Jersey, working on a Ph.D. in political theory at Rutgers and attending a graduate seminar on the philosophy of law, with Professor Robert George. 

Both Hazony and Polisar, who wrote his Princeton thesis on Israeli politics and his Harvard dissertation on the failure of democratization in the Palestinian Authority, struck George “as political activists and intellectuals.” Hazony stood out for his willingness to defy prevailing opinions. 

Hazony wrote his Rutgers dissertation on the political theory of the Book of Jeremiah and its relevance to modern topics; his first book, published in 1995, was about the political teachings of the Book of Esther. If his interest in the philosophy of the Bible sounds academic and perhaps irrelevant to current affairs, Hazony draws a straight line to political life today — to what he views as efforts to delegitimize Israel as a modern homeland for the Jewish people and an ignorance about Israel’s roots in both Western and biblical thought. In the 1990s, Hazony believes, other intellectuals began moving the discussion toward “post-Zionism,” and in 2000 he responded with a provocative book titled The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul. The first part of that title recalls an earlier book of the same name — the one in which Theodor Herzl, in 1896, laid out his vision for a Jewish homeland. 

Hazony’s Jewish State was written after the creation of the European Union — which “is all about dismantling the old nation-states.” Those ideas hit Israel hard, he says, to the point where even Israelis came to doubt the idea of Israel as a nation-state for the Jewish people.

“Israeli culture has become a carnival of self-loathing, offering little from which one could construct the renewed Jewish civilization that was to have arisen in Israel, or the restored state of the Jewish people that was the dream of its founders,” he wrote. “If we wish for the Jewish state to end otherwise than did the Soviet Union, then we must turn our attention back to the motivating idea that has grown faint and unintelligible.”

In the book, Hazony didn’t mince words about how he felt Israel’s cultural and academic elite had jeopardized Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. He blamed historians “obsessed with exposing the invidious character and crimes” of early settlers and a court system that cared more about “replicating Canadian legal institutions” than about creating one to fit Israel’s needs. He harshly criticized academia for research and lectures he thought contributed to an anti-Zionist atmosphere and blamed Israel’s school system for de-emphasizing the “classic Zionist narrative” in new textbooks. Hazony also leveled charges at Israel’s most acclaimed contemporary writers: Amos Oz displayed a “carefully controlled disdain for Zionism,” while A.B. Yehoshua had “an almost obsessive need to take a hammer to the Zionist narrative and the idea of the Jewish state.” 

Not surprisingly, the book made a splash, drawing mixed reviews. Hazony’s “criterion of national boosterism seems uncomfortably close to the one set by Soviet ideologues for approved writers and artists producing Socialist Realist odes to the state,” wrote The New York Times. 

Last January, after Shalem College was accredited, Hazony wrote that he considered The Jewish State largely as a “manifesto” for the college, laying out the framework for how higher education in Israel ought to function and showing how ideas “develop and grow in the public life of a nation.” Now he has left Shalem because of unspecified “substantive disagreements over policies,” but says his departure will allow him to take the ideas behind Shalem to other universities in Israel. In May he was appointed to a six-person government commission on general studies and the liberal arts. “Shalem College,” he says, “was just the first step.”

Shalem College opened Oct. 6 in a new, leased building on the Kiryat Moriah educational campus in Jerusalem. Princeton professor Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a keen observer of Israeli culture and politics, describes the new college as “revolutionary in Israel.” It follows an American-style model with a four-year undergraduate program. Other Israeli colleges follow a European model: They grant a bachelor’s degree in three years, and students immediately immerse themselves in their specialties. “It will be an interesting and possibly unsuccessful issue,” Kurtzer says of Shalem, “because most Israelis spend three years in the army before college; they come out and are kind of anxious to get started on their life.”

Princeton alumni would find much that is familiar in the new college, and for good reason: Its planners visited Princeton and a handful of other elite colleges when they were designing the humanities-based curriculum (notably Columbia, St. John’s College in Maryland, and the directed-studies program at Yale). Kramer, who had directed the Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and already was associated with Shalem, was named founding president. Professor emeritus Bernard Lewis donated “many thousands of volumes,” largely on the history of Islam and the Middle East, to Shalem, forming the core of the college’s library. Suzanne Last Stone ’74, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, led the development of Shalem’s core curriculum and will lecture at the college.

Texts are taught in small discussion groups akin to preceptorials, and the college is emphasizing undergraduate instruction (there is no graduate program). The core curriculum, compulsory for all students, is based largely on the great books in Jewish and Western traditions and includes the natural and social sciences, art, music, literature, and Western and Eastern thought and religion. (Among the required authors are Plato, Maimonides, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Einstein.) Classic works in other traditions, including Islam (students must read parts of the Quran) are represented, but Polisar — his office decorated by posters of Herzl and Martin Luther King Jr. — notes that from the beginning, the Shalem founders “knew that the Western tradition, along with the Jewish tradition, would get pride of place.” 

After completing the core curriculum, students will focus on one of two major areas: philosophy and Jewish thought, in which students will “learn that the Jewish tradition has served as an important source for Western philosophical reflection,” according to Shalem’s website; or Middle East and Islamic studies, in which students will study Arabic, read classic works of Islam, discuss Islamic philosophy, and “even listen to the Friday mosque sermons.” 

Stone says that by reading primary sources in the Western and Jewish traditions, students will learn that “the questions that are played out in the newspaper every day are actually products of a very long argument and conversation” and should not be interpreted solely “through the lens of the moment.” She takes inspiration not only from Princeton, but from the way in which students traditionally study Jewish texts intensively in pairs and small groups: “This is not about religion. It’s about the quality of learning — the dedication, passion, commitment; the engagement people have with the primary material and their fellow students, grappling with the texts, questioning the primary material.” 

As a think tank, Kurtzer says, Shalem deserves credit for bringing a new, conservative voice to public debate; he notes that most notable Israeli think tanks are either liberal in perspective or concerned only with matters of security. By contrast, Shalem brought together more-conservative thinkers who otherwise might not have had an intellectual home, and gave former government and military officials a base from which to continue their involvement in public life. Told of the founders’ repeated references to the “Princeton in the nation’s service” motto, Kurtzer responds: “If they follow the motto of ‘in the nation’s service,’ that’s one thing. A lot of the stuff they’re focused on is nationalism, as opposed to service. There is a connection. But there are some people who fear that there is an overconcentration in their ideology on the role of the nation.” The fear, Kurtzer said, is that Shalem is “building up the nationalism side to the point that is potentially dangerous.” 

People across the Israeli political spectrum are paying attention to the new college. Yael Sternhell *08 is a fellow at a new think tank called Molad (“renewal”) that hopes to revive the Israeli left, marginalized since the breakdown of the peace process and the second Intifada in the early 2000s. As Shalem has done, Molad is working with both young intellectuals and seasoned scholars, and it hopes to lay out a policy agenda to help Israel’s left regain leadership. Sternhell agrees that Shalem has been influential in introducing conservative ideas and providing an intellectual home for public figures. She suggests, however, that its greatest success might be in American-style fundraising, providing resources that other Israeli organizations only can envy. (Most of the large donors listed on Shalem’s website are based in North America.) Sternhell sees the college as “a new phase in the very same effort; that is, to forge a neo-conservative Israeli intelligentsia.” 

Those associated with Shalem reject the assumption that the college will have a particular, conservative point of view. “I know that people say Shalem is conservative. It’s not my view of it,” says Polisar. “If you talk to our faculty members and scholars, it’s not their view of it.” The faculty — many of the professors are emeritus at other universities — includes scholars known for a variety of views, including two winners of the Israel Prize, one of the nation’s highest honors: Asa Kasher, a philosopher who wrote the code of ethics for the Israel Defense Force; and legal scholar Ruth Gavison, who co-founded the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. No Arabs are on the faculty, though Polisar says that “in principle, we’re certainly open to it” and that the college hopes to bring in Arab, Muslim, and Christian speakers who are experts in their fields.

According to Polisar, every project undertaken by Shalem as a think tank and research institute had to meet two tests: Was it something Shalem leaders believed “contributes to the public and intellectual life of the state of Israel, of the Jewish people, of humanity,” and would it help lay the foundation for creating a liberal-arts college? Those translations of Western classics, for example? Polisar says that when Shalem first published its Hebrew translation of The Federalist Papers, fewer than half a dozen university courses in all of Israel assigned even a single Federalist essay. Within two years of publication in Hebrew, he says, 14 courses at Hebrew University alone used the translation. 

Shortly before opening, Kramer, the president, said the college had received many more applications from qualified students than there were slots available, and that 80 percent of accepted students had enrolled ­— a yield that is higher than Princeton’s. To compete for top students with Israel’s elite universities, Shalem is charging each student in the first class $1,600 per year (full tuition would be $10,000) and returning more: at least $550 per month in stipends. Kramer says the college will grow but will remain relatively small. 

According to Kramer, the class reflects a cross-section of the Israeli Jewish population geographically, socioeconomically, and in terms of religious observance, from the “avowedly secular” to the strictly observant. There are no Arab students, though Kramer says the doors are open. 

Whether the college will resonate among the different people who make up Israel’s population, including its Arab citizens, remains to be seen. “There’s not going to be a litmus test for whether you believe in zero states, one state, or two states,” Polisar says. “The assumption is, if you’re interested in this curriculum, and you’re interested in this faculty, and you want an intensive, intellectual experience and are willing to work very hard, then bruchim habaim: You’re welcome.”  

Marilyn Marks *86 is PAW’s editor.