The liberal art of nation-building

A liberal arts education will help to strengthen the state of Israel, according to a think tank that plans to open Israel's first liberal arts college.

December 23, 2010

Jerusalem's Shalem Center is an influential research centre dedicated to the study of Zionist and Jewish history, philosophy, political theory, the Bible and the Talmud.

Its scholars have close links to government - Michael Oren, who was a distinguished Fellow, is now Israel's ambassador to the US, and Moshe Ya'alon, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, is now Israel's vice-prime minister and minister for strategic affairs.

The centre runs a publishing house and produces the largest-circulation general-interest journal in Israel.

Now it is aiming to expand its work by educating the Israeli leaders of the future at Shalem College, which is due to open in 2012.

This week, the Shalem Center announced that Suzanne Last Stone, director of the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, is to take leave of absence to head the liberal studies department. She will be responsible for the college's core liberal arts curriculum. The chair is endowed with a $2 million donation.

The Shalem Center, which is considered to be on the centre-right of Israeli politics, argues that although the country's higher education system prepares young people well for careers, it neglects the humanities and exposure to the great ideas of the Jewish people.

Its four-year BA degree - a year longer than most degrees in Israel - will attempt to redress the balance by introducing a new US-style model that will focus on the humanities and be aimed at the best students.

The core curriculum will include the study of the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, Greek philosophy, economics and history.

"I think it is extremely important to have a broad-based education in the classics of Western civilisation and, in the case of Israel, also in the classics of Jewish thought, to create an active, informed citizenry and a community of leaders," Stone told Times Higher Education.

Students will be able to choose to major in either philosophy, political theory and religion - a programme that will explore both the Western philosophical tradition and classical Jewish sources - or Middle East and Islamic studies.

The Shalem Center, founded by a group of Princeton graduates, hopes to replicate that university's environment of small-group undergraduate tutorials and to eventually grow to an institution of 1,000 students.

Stone, also educated at Princeton, describes her move as natural. "I am a graduate of Princeton and I experienced first hand what that sort of education is like, how much it shapes you. For nearly 30 years, I've been associated with the Yeshiva University, which has a very strong sense of melding together the best of Western and Jewish tradition.

"In the past decade, I've become an institution builder by building a centre in Jewish law."

She adds that she has always explored the subject through the lens of the humanities. "The next step really is to contribute far more directly to Israeli society by laying a new intellectual infrastructure. I am really deeply excited about it."

She argues that a liberal arts education will foster a strong but open democracy, a culture of "vigorous but respectful" debate, and the "solid and visionary" leadership that Israel requires.

"To evaluate events that are shifting at every moment in the region, Israel also requires a deep knowledge of the past," she says.

"I think the timing is right for this. Israeli society is shifting. The young are at a stage in life where, despite having to do army service usually before they start college, they are ready to take on a few intensive years in which they devote themselves to this sort of education in preparation for contributing to the public good."

Daniel Gordis, the Shalem Center's senior vice-president, has spoken of the aim of creating a "college in the service of the nation", arguing that a liberal arts college is desperately needed in order to cultivate "young people prepared to speak constructively about Jewish sovereignty, its challenges, its failures and its future".

The college, which will be funded via private sources, will be spearheaded by the controversial scholar Martin Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (2001). He has said that the college will not become "yet another home for scholars who have made their reputations by negating the Zionist and Israeli narrative".

rebecca.attwood @tsleducation.com.

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