Israel is an incredible place, where it is not uncommon for contemporary events to evoke fundamental human questions and fundamental questions about the nature of Judaism. One such event is the opening of Shalem College, the country’s first liberal arts college, which not only puts such great questions front and center in its curriculum but also represents, itself, a statement about Jewish national identity and the vexed question of the universal and the particular.
This October article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly nicely describes the college’s goals and its roots in the Shalem Center, which was a recipient of support from the Tikvah Fund even before Tikvah took its first steps to becoming the publishing and teaching operation that it is today. Here are a couple of selections:
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.”
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.
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