Israel Recognizes Shalem Center as Academic Institution, Despite Initial Criticism

The conservative-leaning research center enjoys backing of Gideon Sa'ar for academic courses; will be allowed to award BAs.

Talila Nesher
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Talila Nesher

The Shalem Center, a conservative-leaning research institute in Jerusalem, has been recognized as an academic institution by the Council for Higher Education and will be allowed to open a college offering a bachelor's degree program this October.

Shalem College plans to admit 50 students a year to its four-year B.A. program until it reaches full capacity with 200 students. The college will be headed by Prof. Martin Kramer, currently a senior fellow at the Shalem Center.

The council has agreed to grant the center a permit "to open a bachelor's degree program in philosophy and Jewish thought, and a bachelor's degree program in Middle Eastern studies and Islam."

As is customary procedure for newly approved institutions, a monitoring committee will be set up to evaluate the new programs and the development of the institution before it is accredited to actually grant the degrees.

The Shalem Center was founded in 1994 by Dr. Yoram Hazony, who was a close associate of Benjamin Netanyahu. It supports academic work in the fields of philosophy, political theory, Jewish and Zionist history, Bible and Talmud, Middle Eastern Studies, archaeology, economics, and strategic studies.

According to its mission statement, "It seems that the entire Jewish people is suffering from an indentity crisis that's intensifying, whose signs are seen in all areas of life. The need to provide a proper response to these processes is the force that motivated the founding of the Shalem Center."

Its website lists Yair Shamir, currently a candidate for Knesset from the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party, as chairman of its board of directors.

Former research fellows include Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren; Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon; and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.

According to Amnon Portugali, a scholar of neoliberalism at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, "The Shalem Center imported American neoconservative and neoliberal ideas into the political and social discourse in Israel, as per the model of American right-wing think tanks, and its activity constitutes a classic paradigm of the way these American institutes operate, integrating strategic thinking and a neoconservative perspective with neoliberal social and economic policy."

"When the Shalem Center was founded, it was considered a marginal phenomenon in the Israeli intellectual arena," Portugali said. "Today there is no research institute with as much influence on the Israeli government as the Shalem Center."

The center, which has raised over $10 million toward the establishment of the college, has the generous support of donors from the American right. Current and past donors include the Bernstein family, Sheldon Adelson, George Rohr, Ron Lauder and Leonid Nevzlin. It has received a $5 million gift from U.S. businessman David Messer, who is on the center's board of directors.

In 2009, the center submitted its request to open a private academic college in the classic Anglo-American liberal-arts tradition, which would provide a "well-rounded, holistic intellectual experience," with a focus on the humanities. In July 2010, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who is chairman of the Council for Higher Education, appointed two committees to examine the center's application.

Reports from the two committees - both of which have been obtained by Haaretz - are highly critical of the original plans submitted by the Shalem Center. Despite the criticism, the center was given the opportunity to make changes until it could obtain approval.

According to the reports, the Shalem Center did not at first submit a list of senior faculty "with academic reputations and teaching experience in the field who would work full time. ... The committee felt that the Shalem Center must add to its ranks senior lecturers with PhDs ... and suggested it consider including women of equal ability to the faculty."

The committee also "got the impression that the staffing of some of the courses did not match the primary specialties of the faculty members recommended to teach these courses. In response to the panel's remarks, the Shalem Center recruited, among others, Prof. Asa Kasher and Dr. Michael Feigenblatt, who committed to teach at the Shalem Center full-time."

The committee added, "It expects to see additional enhancement of the faculty in the relevant fields, which will assure the strength of the program for the long term."

The panel made numerous other comments about the specifics of the philosophy and Jewish thought program, but concluded, "Given all the changes that were made in the faculty and the declared intentions of the Shalem Center with regard to this matter, the committee believes that at this initial stage the teaching faculty for the program is adequate."

The Shalem Center declined to comment, noting only: "We are prevented from commenting on the issue of the academic center until the official process is finished and all the permits are received from the CHE."

The Shalem Center in Jerusalem, soon to offer undergraduate degrees.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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