Teaching Machiavelli in Palestine

First version posted April 3, 2019. Revised June 12-15, 2022 for presentation at the 15th Annual Summer Conference of the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry, June 16, 2022, at Mugla Sitki Kocman University, Mugla, Turkey. Minor revisions added, June 16, 2022. Minor revisions added July 14, 2022 for presentation at NASSP Conference, Neumann University, July 15, 2022

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 offer 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 nationalism to Islamism. 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. I neither confirm nor disconfirm that impression. My basic pedagogical strategy is to validate what I think the students get right, and push back on whatever needs questioning.

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, house demolitions, and wholesale military incursions 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.

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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 and Molotov cocktails on the street. In a sense, then, my students, both men and women, are the living embodiments of the exhortation from Petrarch that 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 actual motivation they bring to class.

I have students read the whole of The Prince in Arabic translation, focusing heavily on chapter 3, 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” the ruling class (or would-be ruling class), 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 the state—to be feared but not hated, to be judicious with cruelty, to be careful about relying too heavily on fortifications, to make careful judgments about whom to arm and whom to disarm, and so on.

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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? 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? That question forces students to clarify what they mean when they refer in an undifferentiated way to “Israel,” what they know about it, and how.

The first issue leads naturally to the next. As we’ve seen, Machiavelli distinguishes between conquests of ethno-cultural kin and ethno-cultural aliens, making different recommendations in each case. Note that Machiavelli’s claim is offered from the perspective of the occupier, one prima facie inaccessible to the occupied: the occupier sees the occupied people as either alien or kin. Machiavelli never addresses the occupied peoples’ perception of the occupier.

My students take an interesting approach to this issue, effectively reasoning about it in reverse: taking themselves to be representative Palestinians, and the Israelis of their experience to be representative Israelis, they infer that because they see Israelis as ethno-cultural aliens, Israelis must inevitably believe the same about them. That assumption makes more sense to them of the occupation than the alternative, for what sense would it make (they wonder) for kin to occupy kin? So, they infer, fundamental cultural difference is what marks the occupation out as Machiavellian, and licenses further inferences about it. It seems safe by this reasoning 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.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but two assumptions are worth singling out for discussion. One is to question the inverted reasoning: why assume that Israelis see Palestinians the way that Palestinians (or at least the ones in the classroom) see them? What if they don’t? Is it so obvious that kin would refuse to occupy kin? Machiavelli’s Prince, after all, is mostly a guidebook for that very purpose. Another is to question the basic assumption involved. Why think that the ethno-cultural differences between Israelis and Palestinians outweigh the ethno-cultural similarities between them? The similarities are there if one looks. And how did the antagonism between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism come to swamp the kinship between two kindred Peoples of the Book, arguably with more in common than either has with the other People of the Book? The answers are not self-evident.

The preceding issue leads to a third. Suppose we assume that the Israeli occupation is a straightforward application of the second prong of Machiavelli’s strategy: if so, it tells us that an alien conqueror must divide the conquered population in order to rule it. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, this advice presupposes that there are divisions within Palestinian society to exploit. The latter presupposition contradicts a great many Islamist and nationalist pieties about the social cohesiveness brought about by adherence to sharia, or the indivisible unity of the Palestinian people. How to deal with this? 

If the initial inference–“Zionists are ethno-cultural aliens in Palestine”–is easy enough to make, the further implication–“The occupation succeeds by exploiting Palestinian division”–is both a bitter pill to swallow, and in tension with the first. It’s a bitter pill to swallow because acknowledging internal division involves an admission of weakness, and requires an unpleasant (even dangerous) discussion of the issue of collaboration with the Israelis. It’s in tension with the first inference because the first reifies both sides into mutually exclusive, mutually antagonistic parties: Us versus Them. The second implies that there is no cohesive “Us”: “we” are an internally divided pseudo-polity that half-identifies with our oppressor.  

There is good material here for a productive-but-potentially-fraught discussion of the nature of political unity and disunity, both generally and as applied to the case at hand. How united are the world’s Zionists, Palestinians, Arabs, Jews, and Muslims? How valuable is unity, and at what cost is it to be sought? How widespread is Palestinian collaboration with the occupation? Why does it take place, and how much does it explain about the occupation’s durability and power? How should it be handled? How not? 

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, so that 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 omnipotence it doesn’t actually have. In accepting it, students often lapse into 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.

I find it useful, in this light, to dwell on ways in which the Israeli occupation departs from Machiavelli’s blueprint. If the Machiavellian blueprint really identifies ideal prescriptions for an ideal occupation, it follows that Israeli deviations from the blueprint are weaknesses to be exploited. Maybe the occupation isn’t as powerful as it seems. Alternatively, if deviations from the Machiavellian blueprint make perfectly good strategic sense, then perhaps it’s Machiavelli’s advice that’s defective. In other words, maybe he’s not the military genius he’s held out to be. Either way, it’s important for Palestinians to see that “the West” is not, even by its own standards, the infallible deity valorized in its own rhetoric. 

soldier2

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 serenely and delicately 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. It’s not possible successfully to 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. Integrating the claims of The Prince is, we might say, a modest preparation for liberation.

In reading The Prince under occupation, my basic aim is to induce students prepare for the task of liberation, arraying the psychic and political forces at their command for a battle that will last their lifetimes.  Like Machiavelli’s Italians, my Palestinian students often daydream the end of occupation, invoking God’s presumed favor on them as a guarantee of its eventual collapse: “God willing, the occupation will end.” It’s useful to take a page from Machiavelli and remind them that God cannot be expected to supersede their free will, depriving them of the “glory that falls to their lot.” It’s also occasionally necessary to quote Scripture to this end:

Do you imagine that you will find your way to Paradise, not having known what others before you have suffered? They suffered affliction and loss, and were shaken and tossed about, so that the Apostle himself cried out to his followers, ‘When will God’s help arrive?’ Remember that God’s help is ever at hand (Qur’an, II.214).

According to Machiavelli, help is always at hand for those with arms (if you’ll pardon the pun).

The liberation my students seek can’t 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, I can only watch that enterprise from afar. Ultimately, they must enact it, follow it where it leads, and take responsibility for the results. As Machiavelli puts it, “For the battle is just when it is forced upon us.” The task of course is to know how and when to fight—and how and when not to. Easier said than done, of course. But inescapable.


Thanks to Sari Nusseibeh, Said Zeedani, Awad Mansour, Maha Samman, Sinan Abu Shanab, Hadi Abu Hilweh, Amer Dajani and my students and colleagues at Al Quds University for the many helpful conversations that shaped this paper, as well as to interlocutors at the 15th Annual ISME Conference for stimulating discussion. Thanks also to Monica Vilhauer of Curious Soul Philosophy for helpful written comments. Thanks above all 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.

12 thoughts on “Teaching Machiavelli in Palestine

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  4. Just gave the paper: three questions I got from the ISME audience; I’ll lay out answers when I get a chance.

    (1) What’s the MacIntyre connection? (I had prefaced the paper by saying that while I don’t explicitly mention MacIntyre in it, there is an implicit MacIntyre connection/influence). [Jenifer Booth]
    (2) How did the students respond? [Francis Petruccelli]
    (3) Is there a broader philosophical upshot beyond offering a strategy for teaching this text to this audience? [Chris Lutz]

    Very helpful discussion, and very thought-provoking conference generally. Only wish I could be attending it in person, in Turkey!

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    • A few quick, telegraphic answers to the questions above above: though I don’t mention “MacIntyre” in the paper, there are three or four MacIntyre-related connections or influences on the paper, as follows:

      On (1), the connection to MacIntyre:
      1a. The first is less a MacIntyrean than an Aristotelian connection. I have my Palestinian students read Books I of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, and all of Machiavelli’s Prince. The contrast between Plato and Aristotle on the one hand, and Machiavelli on the other, gives the impression that moralism in politics is opposed to realism of any kind. Machiavelli goes out of his way to play up this contrast in The Prince.

      But the contrast is misleading. Aristotle’s politics is arguably both moralized and realist; Aristotle manages to integrate both sets of considerations in one (semi) unified theory. Commentators have in fact suggested that Politics V’s “advice to tyrants” is a proto-Machiavellian text. I don’t agree, but there’s something to the claim. The pedagogically relevant point is that there is a way of integrating some of Machiavelli’s less extreme claims into a moralized conception of politics, and I use the discussion of Machiavelli to nudge students in that direction. They have a tendency to think that they’re obliged either to take Machiavelli’s claims wholly on board, or reject them in a similarly wholesale way. That dichotomy is very Machiavellian, and very un-Aristotelian. Though they don’t read that part of Aristotle, they indirectly encounter it through my push-back on Machaivelli’s amoralism.

      1b. In his interview with Giovanna Borradori in The American Philosopher, MacIntyre talks a bit about how the burdens of capitalist modernity are typically borne in disproportionate measure by small-scale, pre-modern societies. The Zionist assault on Palestinian society fits this description to a “t,” and it’s one that self-consciously informs how I teach political philosophy, e.g., when I teach both Machiavelli and Locke. It’s not an accident that Machiavelli describes conquest and occupation as an “acquisition,” and that Locke generates rationalizations for the same endeavor. I pursue that theme throughout our exploration of “modern” half of the class (Machiavelli to Marx).

      1c. One of the recurring themes in MacIntyre’s work is the connection between theory and practice in moral and political philosophy: philosophy only has value insofar as it guides practice, and is informed by it. I regard resistance to occupation as a full-fledged practice in MacIntyre’s sense, and see the class as both informed by, and an attempt to inform that practice. (In this sense, Palestinian students, immersed in practice, are more proto-MacIntyrean than American students.)

      1d. The conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism/Islamism is a good case study for MacIntyre’s claims about incommensurability and how it’s to be overcome. This is not a topic I explicitly bring up in class, but is one that the class implicitly broaches–less for my students, I suppose, than for me.

      On (2): I cut the students’ responses out of this version of the paper for reasons of space and presentation time. A longer version of the paper includes those responses, as well as my responses to them.

      On (3): I’ve struggled a bit with what I take to be the larger upshot(s) of this exercise to be, over and above laying out a way of teaching Machiavelli. In a vague way, I think the exercise reveals something deep about the difficulties of cross-cultural communication, especially under conditions of duress. But I have yet to formulate that in a completely adequate way.

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  5. Questions from the NASSP conference (July 2022), answers forthcoming.

    (1) Why aren’t students simply right that Israel is following the strategy of fragmentation as opposed to the strategy of assimilation in the West Bank? (Michael Buckley)
    (2) How does your background affect how you teach this class in this context? (Kevin Graham)
    (3) Do you teach Machiavelli’s Discourses? Would it be useful to teach Machiavelli alongside Sun Tzu?
    (4a) What language is the class taught in?
    (4b) What does “collaboration” mean in the context in which you’re using it, and why isn’t it a good as opposed to bad thing? (Roksana Alavi).
    (5) Why is it that (these?) students are so attracted to Machiavelli?
    (6) Do you mention Gramsci when you teach Machiavelli, and how does your approach to teaching Machiavelli’s differ from/resemble his? (William McBride)

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    • On reflection, the questions asked at NASSP have turned out to be incredibly helpful to clarifying aspects of my project.

      (1) Why aren’t the students right that the Israelis employ Machiavelli’s strategy of fragmentation rather than assimilation in the Occupied Territories? For two related reasons and a third reason besides.

      Machiavelli presents the strategies of assimilation and fragmentation as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives, but they’re not. They may look mutually exclusive at first glance, but on closer inspection, they either overlap or mirror each other. The strategy of assimilation supposes that the conquered population is like the conquering population; it suggests annihilating the conquered population’s ruling class and then assimilating the rest of the population. The strategy of fragmentation supposes that the conquered population is unlike the conquering population; it suggests dividing and conquering this population.

      The first thing to note is that what distinguishes the two strategies is a matter of similarity, but similarity comes in degrees. So it’s prima facie implausible to think that the two strategies differ radically in kind. Each applies insofar as the conquered population resembles or differs from the conquering one. If this is a matter of degree or multiple dimensions, the same will be true of the applicability of the two strategies. So it’s a mistake to insist on a sharp bifurcation.

      At any rate, even aside from this, the two strategies overlap and at some level even mirror each other. The strategy of assimilation involves the annihilation of the ruling class prior to effecting assimilation. Annihilation is a form of division or fragmentation of the population, not assimilation. So the assimilation strategy includes an element of its rival. Meanwhile, the strategy of fragmentation divides the population into favored and disfavored elements, going out of its way to “caress” the former. “Caressing” is a metaphorical way of describing favoritism, itself a form of assimilation. So the fragmentation strategy includes an element of assimilation.

      Students tend to miss these complexities. They see the contrast between the two strategies, not the overlap. So they mistakenly infer that the strategies are mutually exclusive, failing to grasp that they’re not. They also miss the mixed nature of each strategy. So when they conclude that Israel uses the strategy of fragmentation, they tend to forget that this strategy involves an assimilationist aspect. They focus on Israeli depredations, not Israel’s covert distribution of favors to a favored class of Palestinians. What makes this a fraught topic is that some of the students in the classroom belong to this favored class, and others don’t. Students’ refusal to look squarely at this part of Machiavelli reflects their refusal to look squarely at both the occupation and the occupied. It reflects a desire to ignore or evade the class differences (and other differences) within Palestinian society itself.

      Students aren’t the only ones who do this. So do foreign visitors to Palestine. Partisans of the Palestinian cause tend to see Israel’s depredations, ignoring the (obvious) existence of a comfortable, affluent Palestinian class that is the beneficiary of Israeli favoritism. Skeptics or critics tend to do the reverse. Machiavelli’s account of conquest has a diagnostic value in this respect: it forces notice on the uncomfortable fact that an occupation is prolonged by getting buy-in from the set of people under occupation willing to make concessions to the occupier.

      Those are the two related reasons. The unrelated third reason is that Palestinian students have an investment in seeing Israeli Jews (or Westerners generally) as adherents of an amoral, predatory “Machiavellian” ethos, and seeing themselves as adherents of a contrary, moralistic ethos. This tends to be a piece of dogmatism that needs to be challenged. But the dogma is closely allied to students’ belief that Israeli employs the strategy of fragmentation, since employment of that strategy presupposes a fundamental difference in kind between the ethos of the conqueror and that of the conquered. The two beliefs work hand in hand: students assume that Israeli Jews are fundamentally different from Palestinian Muslims; they then assume that the Israeli authorities believe the same thing; they then infer that those authorities employ Machiavelli’s strategy of fragmentation. But each assumption is open to challenge.

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    • (2) How does my background affect the class?

      I’m an anti-Zionist partisan of the Palestinian cause, a person of Muslim upbringing (I fast for Ramadan), and an American who’s spent much of his life living in a Jewish household (I regularly attend a synagogue). That combination of similarity and “otherness” tends to have pedagogical utility. I’m similar enough to be trusted, but alien enough to constitute a challenge.

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    • (3) Do I teach the Discourses, and/or see any value in teaching Sun Tzu alongside The Prince?

      I don’t teach the Discourses. I don’t think that a reading of the Discourses would add much to a reading of The Prince in this context, and getting an Arabic translation of the Discourses would be a hassle. (Getting one of The Prince was enough of a hassle.) There’s also limited time, and a lot to cover.

      I’ve never read Sun Tzu, so I can’t speak to that issue, but since the course is on Western political philosophy, Sun Tzu wouldn’t fit the course description.

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    • (4a) What language is the class taught in?

      I teach in English, which is translated, sentence by sentence, into Arabic. The students mostly speak Arabic, which is translated, sentence by sentence, into English. The students read Arabic language translations; I read English ones. Each side knows enough of the other language to take some of the pressure off of the translators, but the translators do an enormous amount of work. (I’ve worked with four translators: Albert Aghazarian, Sinan Abu Shanab, Hadi Abu Hilweh, and Amer Dajani. Props to all four.)

      (4b) Why the negative connotations of “collaboration” in the paper?
      “Collaboration” refers to cooperation with the occupation authorities for their purposes. Since it’s a basic assumption of the class that the occupation is unjust, collaboration is taken to be an immoral form of complicity in injustice, in just the way that treason would be taken in an American classroom.

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    • (5) Why are Palestinian students so attracted to Machiavelli (more so than any other author covered in the class)?

      Here’s a preliminary stab at this question, highly influenced by Isaiah Berlin’s “The Originality of Machiavelli” (Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas).

      The basic explanation for the attraction of Machiavelli to Palestinian students is that The Prince gives the impression of explaining their predicament, i.e., the predicament of having lived their lives under foreign military occupation. It has no comparable effect on the American students I’ve taught.

      Beyond this, Machiavelli’s account gives the impression of cultural neutrality that Palestinian Muslims can accept without cultural alienation or religious reservations. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli is not discernibly pagan in outlook (in a sense that might be favorable to polytheism). Unlike Locke, he’s not discernibly Christian, in outlook, either. This sort of cultural neutrality is, I suppose, also somewhat true of Hobbes, Mill, and Marx (neither polytheistic nor overtly Christian), but Machiavelli is simpler and clearer than these writers, and speaks more directly to the predicament of life under occupation.

      To some degree, Machiavelli goes beyond cultural neutrality to confirming students’ prior beliefs about the inherently predatory character of Western culture (closely allied to Western imperialism, and by implication, to Zionism). Berlin cites Meinecke’s view that “Machiavelli’s doctrine was a sword thrust in the body politic of Western humanity, causing it to cry out and to struggle against itself” (“Originality of Machiavelli,” p. 39). At some level, I think Palestinian students intuit this, and find it gratifying. (This atttiude is a perfect example of what al Azm calls “Orientalism-in-reverse.” https://libcom.org/article/orientalism-and-orientalism-reverse-sadik-jalal-al-azm).

      Three more things:

      –Many Palesitnian students have the fantasy that a strong, decisive Saladin-like leader will suddenly appear on the scene, and deliver them from the humiliations of occupation. The Prince seems to underwrite this fantasy.
      –As devout Muslims, most Palestinian students believe in the reality of Satan. Machiavelli comes as across as literally Satanic to them, and stirs a common fascination with Satanic evil.
      –Machiavelli’s explanation gives the impression of combining two apparently incompatible things: a belief in the moral superiority of one’s people (vis-a-vis some adversary), and a commitment to political amoralism in the service of some overriding political aim. For a variety of reasons, Palestinian students find this combination appealing.

      Final, banal possibility: I tend to be better at teaching thinkers I hate than thinkers I like, so the students might find Machiavelli appealing because I did a better job of teaching Machiavelli than I did of teaching anyone else.

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  6. (6) Gramsci’s Modern Prince

    I didn’t read Gramsci’s Modern Prince until well after I had done my teaching stints in Palestine. I see four points of affinity with Gramsci, but on the whole don’t find him a useful guide to Machiavelli, and can’t say he influenced my teaching in real time.

    (a) I agree with his conception of Machiavelli as a political partisan rather than as a dispassionate “scientist.”
    (b) I agree that The Prince can and should be read as a text formally addressed to princes, but as susceptible to “backwards engineering” by the ruled.
    (c) I agree that in order to make The Prince relevant to modern politics, we need a modern analogue or substitute for the prince to whom the text is addressed.
    (d) Finally, my account of what I call “the strategy of fragmentation” is similar to what Gramsci calls “the third stage of the relation of forces.”

    But for the most part I find Gramsci too imprisoned by his Marxist jargon and assumptions to be of much use to anyone who doesn’t share them, as I don’t. Most of The Modern Prince focuses on the problematics of applying Marxism to then-contemporary Italian politics. This was of dubious relevance to Italian politics even when Gramsci was writing, but has zero relevance to Palestinian politics in the twenty-first century. Despite the title, and the sprinkling of references to Machiavelli, very little of Gramsci’s text is about Machiavelli.

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