Teaching Machiavelli in Palestine

Here’s a draft of the paper I’m giving at the 25th Annual Conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses a few weeks from now in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Comments welcome.

Anyone who teaches Machiavelli’s Prince in a college setting faces a daunting set of pedagogical problems, among them the apparent anachronism of the examples that Machiavelli adduces in support of the advice he gives the prince. Few political philosophers are trained to discuss the political histories of Greco-Roman antiquity, the Ottoman Empire, or Renaissance Europe, and fewer students can endure reading or hearing about them. Yet such examples clot the text of The Prince, jeopardizing its accessibility and relevance to twenty-first century students.

The first few chapters of The Prince give the prince advice on how to maintain a military occupation over a foreign land. Despite its pitfalls, one way of teaching this material (I’ve found) is to cover it anachronistically as a set of prescriptions for a twenty-first rather than fifteenth century “prince.” To describe a concrete case, I draw here on my experiences teaching The Prince to Palestinian students at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, a small town just east of Jerusalem, located on the “wrong” side of the security wall that separates Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. What better way to teach about occupation than from within one?

I teach The Prince in a survey course on Western political philosophy from Plato to Mill. Students come to the course with a variety of attitudes toward the material, ranging from eager curiosity to open hostility, and a variety of doctrinal commitments, ranging from secular nationalist to Islamist. Machiavelli is inevitably the Western thinker that most powerfully captures their interest, if only because he most clearly epitomizes their stereotype of “Western culture”: amoral, treacherous, conniving, and power-hungry. In teaching the text, I try neither to confirm nor disconfirm that impression, but to persuade my students to temper the passions they bring to their thinking about al ihtilal (the occupation) with something like objectivity.

It’s a hard sell. The students I teach at Al Quds have spent a lifetime under military occupation, and expect to spend the rest of their lives that way. Most of the men have been arrested; many have done jail time. Most have been shot at; many have sustained wounds. Almost everyone knows someone, often a close friend or relative, who’s been killed in this or that altercation with the Israeli authorities. Shootings, detentions, surveillance, searches, checkpoints, interrogations, and house demolitions are everyday events for them, a way of life. Since permits are required to leave the West Bank, and in some cases to move within it, some students have never been outside of the West Bank; others have spent their lives confined to the equivalent of an American county within it.


Hebron Zone H-2, a Palestinian neighborhood whose population has forcibly been evicted. The neighborhood itself has been locked down for decades, and is off-limits to Palestinians. Around the bend is a settlement, Tel Romano, funded and inhabited largely by Americans. 

Unsurprisingly, every class I’ve taught at Al Quds seethes with repressed energy and anger. What can’t be expressed with words in the classroom gets expressed with rocks on the street. In a sense, then, my students, both men and women, are the living embodiments of the Petrarchian exhortation Machiavelli gives at the end of The Prince, of “valor’s” impulse to take arms against a foreign invader. Those aren’t just obscure words for them in some ancient poem, but the authentic motivation they bring to class.

I spend a class or two on chapter 3 of The Prince, innocuously titled “Of Mixed Principalities,” but actually a blueprint for imperial conquest and occupation. In broad outline, Machiavelli distinguishes here between conquests over ethno-cultural kin and those over ethno-cultural aliens. Conquests over kin are relatively easy: simply “extinguish” aspiring rulers, leaving the essentials of the occupied peoples’ law and customs in place, quietly assimilating them as you would assimilate members of your own state.

Conquests over aliens are harder. Ideally, the prince colonizes the conquered land, fragmenting it so as to make political unity among the conquered people impossible, and arming the colonizers so as to avoid having to maintain extensive garrisons in the conquered place. As a second-best strategy, the prince is advised to move the seat of his government into the heart of the conquered land, partly for purposes of surveillance and supply, but partly to convey a sense of finality and civilizational superiority over the conquered peoples. As an adjunct to these strategies, the prince is told to divide the population he conquers, “annihilating” some parts of it while “caressing” others, distributing despair and hope in ratios favorable to long-term conquest. In doing all of this, we’re told, the prince should give the appearance of morality and religion while being prepared to flout them, making sure to observe all of the other princely advice Machiavelli dispenses for maintaining lo stato—to be feared but not hated, to be judicious with cruelty, to be careful about relying too heavily on fortifications, and so on.


Demonstrations in Jerusalem, July 21, 2017

The parallels between Machiavelli’s advice and the Israeli occupation at first seem so striking that students jump reflexively to the conclusion that Machiavelli is not just the perfect guide to the occupation, but likely its direct, Satanic inspiration. On this reading, The Prince serves in their minds as “documentary evidence” of a centuries-old plot against Palestine by “the West,” confirming unreflective beliefs they bring to the text.  The key to teaching The Prince in this situation is both to capitalize on and to disrupt that reflexive reaction, forcing students to articulate what they take to be so obvious about it while questioning its obviousness. Consider four interlocking issues to this end.

Palestinian students take for granted that Machiavelli’s advice is advice intended for “Israel,” treated in effect as a single Machiavellian prince, identified in turn with whoever happens to be Prime Minister at the time. Such students reflexively ignore the fact that Israel is not a principality, and that its rulers are not princes. Internally, at least, Israel is a democracy, a fact that might seem to render Machiavelli’s advice inapplicable. But does it? The question forces students not only to re-consider The Prince’s applicability to the Israeli occupation, but to reflect on the internal workings of Israeli politics and culture, if only in the spirit of “knowing the enemy.” Machiavelli’s advice cannot, in the Israeli case, address a prince. If it applies at all, it must apply to some functional equivalent of a prince. But who or what plays that role in a democracy, insofar as Israel is one?

The answer to that question leads naturally to the next issue. As we’ve seen, Machiavelli distinguishes between conquests of ethno-cultural kin and ethno-cultural aliens, making different recommendations in each case.  My students typically fixate on the second  part of this advice, ignoring the first. Israelis, they declare with great confidence, are ethno-culturally alien to Palestine, and qualitatively different from Palestinians: they embrace immorality and injustice, while Palestinians suffer its effects. Surely, they reason, Israelis must equally see Palestinians as alien to them, for what sense would it make to conquer and occupy one’s ethno-national kin?

It follows by this reasoning that the Israelis must be following Machiavelli’s strategy for the conquest of ethno-cultural aliens rather than kin, which can then be used as a heuristic for virtually everything they do. For the same reason, it also seems safe to ignore what Machiavelli has to say about the conquest of ethno-cultural kin; since the Israelis obviously aren’t kin, time spent on such an inquiry would be time wasted.

The preceding issue leads to a third. Even if we assume that the Israeli occupation applies Machiavelli’s advice for the conquest of ethno-cultural aliens–and to some extent it does–Machiavelli advises the prince to exploit divisions within the conquered population. So reliance on this part of Machiavelli’s account presupposes that there are divisions within Palestinian society to exploit. Yet the rationale for adopting the heuristic proceeds on the assumption that Palestinians are a single ethno-cultural unit, not only distinct from Israelis, but unified amongst themselves. How on these assumptions to make sense of the existence of intra-Palestinian divisions? If Palestinians wouldn’t treat Israelis as the Israelis treat them, what to make of the fact that some Palestinians think that other Palestinians treat them worse than the Israelis do? Machiavelli’s advice for conquering alien ethnicities implies that the very existence of the occupation depends on the complicity of Palestinians of this description. Do they agree?

The third issue leads to a fourth. Whatever Machiavelli’s intentions, and whatever his claims about the relation of real to imagined principalities, the advice he offers in The Prince functions as a set of idealized prescriptions for an idealized prince. In reading The Prince, and applying its prescriptions to what they see around them, Palestinian students often fall prey to the belief that ground-level realities perfectly exemplify Machiavelli’s prescriptions. On this reading, adherence to the Machiavellian blueprint stands out more conspicuously than deviation from it: the occupation seems infallibly to enact what The Prince prescribes. This interpretation not only falls back into the conspiratorial mode of thinking I described at the outset, but gives the occupation an air of omniscience it doesn’t actually have. In accepting it, students often read The Prince in a spirit of despair that licenses either cynical indifference to the occupation or quixotic outbursts of violence against it. A closer look at the text and at students’ own experience of the occupation slows some of these inferences down, while suggesting more productive courses of action.


July 21, 2017. About an hour after this photo was taken, I had a conversation with Daniel Estrin, NPR’s Jerusalem correspondent, who confidently assured me that Israeli soldiers “rarely” shoot anyone. “So why carry weapons?” I asked. “Good question,” he responded, declining to answer.

Machiavelli famously begins The Prince by likening political inquiry to landscape painting: the person knowledgeable about politics must, like the painter, “ascend an eminence in order to get a good view of the plains.” It famously ends with an impassioned exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians. These two passages have seemed to some like unrelated or incompatible parts of the text, but they are perhaps better seen as bookends to a single, integrated enterprise, political liberation. No one can successfully liberate a country by engaging in dispassionate observation, however acute, and leaving the matter there. Nor can anyone do so through unthinking allegiance to a vengeful prince or party, however forceful or terrifying. Liberation is a systematic, methodical task that involves a disciplined alliance of coldly dispassionate reasoning, and burning, even fanatical commitment. To fail to integrate these roles is to fail at the task itself.

In reading The Prince under occupation, my fundamental aim is to induce students to forge this alliance in and amongst themselves, arraying the psychic and political forces at their command for a battle that will last their lifetimes.  Like Machiavelli’s Italians, my Palestinian students like to daydream the end of occupation, invoking God’s presumed favor on them as guarantor of its eventual collapse: Inshallah, sawf antahi al ihtilal. “God willing, the occupation will end.” I sometimes have to play Machiavelli and remind them that God cannot be expected to supersede their free will, depriving them of the “glory that falls to their lot.” The liberation they seek will not be realized by waiting for some latter-day Saladin to fall from the skies, but by daring, intelligent acts of self-liberation. As a mere foreigner, and mere academic, I can only watch that enterprise from afar. They must enact it, follow it where it leads, and take responsibility for the results. As Machiavelli puts it, iustum enim est bellum quibus necessarium. “For the battle is just when it is forced upon us.” The task of course is to know how to fight back—and how not to. Easier said, of course, than done.

Thanks to Hadi Abu Hilweh, Sinan Abu Shanab, Shukri Abid, Amer Albadan, Alison Bowles, Amer Dajani, Amy Gulliksen, Tarek Hardan, Raed Hilal, Sara Salazar Hughes, Awad Mansour, Anas Mashni, Maha Samman, Razan Tuffaha, Thaer Zareer, Sari Nusseibeh, and my students at Al Quds University for the many helpful conversations that shaped this paper. Thanks also to the many brave people across Palestine–in cities, towns, villages, and refugee camps too numerous to mention–for trusting me, and taking the time to talk to me.

No one listed in the preceding list is responsible for anything I say in this paper. Nothing in the paper should be construed as inciting anyone to violate the laws of any country. And I speak here only for myself, not for any party, institution, movement, or cause. My views are decidedly not endorsed by my employer, Felician University, which should not be held responsible for them. 

2 thoughts on “Teaching Machiavelli in Palestine

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. Pingback: 9/11 + 20 | Policy of Truth

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