The Academy for the Humanities

Published in Yediot Achronot - July 26, 2013
Personal Column: Sever Plocker
2. The Academy for the Humanities
Many countries are aware of the crisis in the humanities. In
France, a state commission of inquiry headed by Pierre Laskier
has just published two volumes of recommendations to promote
France’s “cultural uniqueness.” Although the bulk of the
recommendations relate to the transition to the digital era,
including a recommendation to impose a 1 percent culture tax on
all instruments used for surfing the Internet, they express a
heartrending lament on the sad state of the humanities in France
and a plea for immediate change.
In the United States, a special committee made up of professors,
heads of NGOs and foundations, writers, businesspeople, and
retired politicians has been established to promote the humanities.
The committee recently published an exhaustive report titled “The
Heart of the Matter.” “In aspiring to create a public cultural
discourse, a creative and flexible work force, and a more secure
nation, we view humanities as having a decisive role,” the report
states. “They are the gatekeeper of the republic, they are the
source of national memory, civil initiative, cultural understanding,
communications, and the shared ideals of all of us.” Among the
committee’s recommendation was investing large amounts of
public money to give the citizens of the United States a broad
education in history, civics, logical thinking, and world culture.
And what is happening in Israel? A few years ago Amos Shapira,
then the president of Cellcom and today the president of the
University of Haifa, declared his intention to get the CEOs of the
large companies to sign an agreement stating that they would hire
people with advanced degrees in the humanities. Shapira, a
tireless visionary, succeeded in obtaining the written commitment
of twenty leading companies. In practice, few of them, if any,
fulfilled their commitment; since then, not one job announcement
has begun with the words “seeking a philosopher” or “seeking a
linguist” or even “seeking a historian.” The public-government
employment sector has completely ignored the agreement and has
put no effort into making its job openings available to holders of
MAs and PhDs in the humanities, except in education.
The centrality of Israel in Jewish spiritual life is now but a fading
memory. In the 1960s, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was a
world leader in areas including philosophy, history, logic, and
Jewish studies. To hear the lectures of the historian Prof. Jacob
Talmon or of the philosopher Prof. Hugo Bergmann, or of Prof.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz in Jewish studies, one had to grab a seat
hours in advance.
“Since then,” Dr. Leonard Polonsky tells me with a sorrowful sigh,
“all the universities in Israel want to become the Technion.”
Polonsky, an investor and Jewish philanthropist who lives in
London, donated more than $45 million to build and run the
Polonsky Academy for Advanced Studies in the Humanities [and
Social Sciences], which was inaugurated in Jerusalem this month.
The academy, which is affiliated with the veteran Van Leer
Jerusalem Institute, will host dozens of young scholars who have
already received and will receive the generous Polonsky
fellowship: NIS 800,000 each. “I want the young PhDs in the
humanities to be able to devote themselves entirely to completing
their research and their books without having to struggle with
making a living and without having to take on work that does not
contribute to their intellectual horizon,” Polonsky explains. The
demand for fellowships, he says, is overwhelming: ten times the
planned number.
Dr. Polonsky, 86, was born in the United States and served in its
army. He studied in Great Britain and settled there. He controls
Hansard Global Plc, a financial services company, listed on the
London stock exchange. The company develops and manages
long-term savings portfolios, through life insurance policies, for
international clients, “while taking advantage of tax breaks,” as he
puts it. Thanks to Hansard’s conservative and selective investment
policy, its profits grew substantially during the crisis but have
shrunk in the past two years.
Polonsky is married to Dr. Georgette Bennett, a journalist and
sociologist of Jewish-Hungarian descent. The philanthropic
foundation that the couple manages has donated and continues to
donate large sums also to British universities, as a counterbalance
to Arab donations and sometimes in cooperation with them.
I wrote at length about the cornerstone-laying of the Academy of
the Humanities in the summer of 2010. In an intimate conversation
Polonsky told me then, “I make money in order to donate it.
Donating is the raison d’être of my financial dealings, and actually
of everything I do. I donate, therefore I am.”
Since then the building has been completed. It is outstanding both
in its beauty and in its clever use of climatic and environmental
advantages. Prof. Gabriel Motzkin, the chairman of the Van Leer
Jerusalem Institute, who initiated the project, will serve as the
academic president of the new center. Israeli universities are
focusing their efforts in attracting faculty and raising funds in the
natural sciences, the exact sciences, technology, and computers.
The options for an academic career in the humanities, Polonsky
admits, are very limited, and in the absence of a national program
of support, they will shrink even more. “Even my academy,” he
says, “will not on its own reverse the trend of retreat [from the
humanities]. At most, it will slow it down.”
If Polonsky had donated NIS 200 million to build a new wing in a
hospital or a sophisticated lab in brain science his name would be
broadcast by the media and by politicians. TV channels would
devote precious broadcast minutes to his enterprise. But the
Academy for Advanced Studies in the Humanities? Who in the
startup nation cares about that? Nevertheless, Polonsky is happy.
“At my advanced age,” he says with a captivating smile, “it is a
great joy to see the conclusion of a job that you’ve begun.”
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