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. Continue reading

Disruptions on Campus: There’s Always an Excuse for Israel

A passage from a blog post by Steve Horwitz at BHL:

Here are a few thoughts for college libertarians who are able to invite speakers to campus and how they might do so in the most productive ways.

Let me start by saying that the sort of interruptions we’ve seen this week with Yaron Brook and Christina Hoff Sommers are utterly unacceptable. Those who disrupt planned presentations with official permission to use space and students expecting a talk should be forcibly removed from the room and subject to the relevant disciplinary consequences. There should be no negotiating with anti-intellectual terrorists. They should feel free to ask questions when the time comes or protest outside the building in ways that do not prevent those who wish to attend from attending. No excuses.

A question for Horwitz et al: what if “those who disrupt planned presentations with official permission to use space” on campus call themselves “the Israel Defense Forces” (IDF) and are sent by something that calls itself the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria? Should they be “forcibly removed”? Forcibly removing them is what a policy of “no excuses” would really entail. Continue reading

Hussein Ibish on Elie Wiesel

Here’s an excellent piece by Hussein Ibish in Foreign Policy on the mixed legacy of Elie Wiesel. I’d be hard pressed to find a sentence in it that I disagree with. I found this paragraph particularly poignant and admirable:

Many Palestinians have allowed the conflict with Israel to embitter them to the point that not acknowledging, learning about or engaging with the history of the Holocaust becomes a social and political imperative. This was most tragically illustrated in the experience of Professor Mohammed S. Dajani, a Palestinian scholar with impeccable nationalistic credentials, who led the drive to teach Palestinian university students about the Holocaust and ultimately had to leave his university position because of the backlashagainst the simple teaching and learning of history. Many Palestinians do want to learn about and recognize the tragedy of Jewish history, but many more myopically can’t see past their own present-day suffering and recognize Jewish Israelis as anything other than their occupiers and oppressors.

Until recently, Professor Dajani taught here at Al Quds University. I regret that I won’t be able to meet him. I particularly regret why I won’t be able to meet him. Continue reading

Postcards from Abu Dis (2): Pedagogy Under Occupation

My political philosophy class here at Al Quds University has met either once or twice so far, depending on how you count. I’m told that 19 students are enrolled, but only one showed up on the first day, so I didn’t really teach that much. Four students showed up for class two, so we had a full class. I’m told that this pattern of attendance (or non-attendance) is a bit of a tradition in this neck of the woods: things start slowly at first, and then, little by little, build to a pedagogical crescendo. It’s the reverse of the pattern I’m used to at Felician, where everyone on the roster shows up on the first day of class, but fewer and fewer show up as the term wears on, so that by the last day, you’re lucky if anyone shows up–and at some level, they’re lucky if you do.

There’s a sense in which what I’m doing here at Al Quds is pedagogically controversial and a departure from my usual approach to teaching. Without literally engaging in advocacy in the classroom, I’m taking an overtly political approach to how I’m framing the class. I am, in effect, unapologetically teaching not political philosophy per se, but “Political Philosophy (and the Occupation).” Though it’s not what I would do in the average American classroom, I’d like to think that it could bear scrutiny by observers from back home. So I thought I’d say a bit about it, and invite some scrutiny.

There’s no way to teach political philosophy from a literally neutral perspective. You can’t successfully teach, say, Plato’s Republic or Hobbes’s Leviathan simply by showing up in the classroom, knowing nothing about the interests or psychology of your students, and “covering the material.” That’s a recipe for pedagogical failure. It may work in other disciplines, but it can’t work in philosophy. The problem with it is that philosophical “material” is too open-ended and protean to be approached in this way. There’s no single, standardized “right way” to teach a philosophical text. There are too many choices to be made–regarding translation, selections, questions to be pursued and not pursued–and too many legitimate ways of making them. Choices of that kind are dictated in part by the audience you want to reach, and what you want to achieve with them.


Suppose you decided to teach Plato’s Republic, and “simply” wanted to “cover the arguments,” whether in the sense of merely summarizing them, or summarizing them, laying them out in deductive fashion, and testing each of them sequentially for validity and soundness. I suppose you could do that, and at some level, anyone would have to do a bit of it. But you couldn’t leave things there. The “material” you’d ideally want to cover is not reducible to a summary of the arguments in “the” text, or even reducible to a summary plus a sequential set of tests of the soundness of each argument (assuming that that’s even possible, and waiving questions about how to individuate the arguments in the text). At a minimum, what you’d need in addition to all of that is analysis of the contested concepts of each of the premises of every major argument–and not just a straight “conceptual analysis” as analytic philosophers often use that phrase, but a sort of dialectical and rhetorical analysis that takes stock of what those concepts mean to your students both cognitively and emotionally.

Putting things slightly differently: if you want the material to sink in—in any sense of “sink in”—you have to ask how it connects with the beliefs, desires, habits, practices, preoccupations, etc. (call it the ‘context’) that the students bring to the text. How do they conceptualize “justice,” “friendship,” “harm,” “advantage,” “promises,” “debt,” and so on? If you ignore that personal context, the class will backfire: the text becomes a series of alien and alienating abstractions without connection to the students’ experiences. That’s what makes teaching both challenging and enjoyable, and somewhat analogous to psychotherapy. Whether you’re teaching philosophy or engaging in therapy, you can’t waltz in, hit your “audience” with a Power Point presentation and waltz out. You have to interact with themgoing back and forth between the text and the context they bring to it, until each thing manages actively to illuminate the other. (By the way, this is why online teaching will never become a literal substitute for on-the-ground teaching in philosophy.)


The issue becomes particularly acute when you’re teaching a dialogue like the Republic: dialogues are stories, and readers either relate or don’t relate to a story.There is no successful way to teach “the arguments” of Plato’s Republic while ignoring how students relate to Socrates, Glaucon, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus as characters. You might as well read The Brothers Karamazov “for the arguments” while ignoring the brothers.

In fact, the dialogue form is what makes Plato’s Republic such a hard but great text to teach. What would make Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Mill easier to teach would be some way of presenting them in dialogue form. But that, of course, is what a class on such texts has to become. What Socrates says to those characters in the Republic is informed by his knowledge of their personalities, and the same thing has to be true of a successful instructor teaching Aristotle and the rest. Absurd and presumptuous as it may sound, once you teach Plato’s Republic, and move on to the rest of the class, you the instructor have to play Socrates to the Glaucons, Adeimantuses, Polemarchuses, and Thrasymachuses in your classroom–but on Aristotelian, Machiavellian, Hobbesian (etc.) material. The classroom has to become an extended dialogue.


As an American, 99.99% of the teaching I’ve ever done has been done in the United States. Even there, regional and institutional differences have always necessitated adjustments to my pedagogical methods. I saw this with blinding clarity one semester when I happened simultaneously to be adjuncting at Princeton University, The College of New Jersey, and Mercer County Community College—three institutions within a few miles of each other, but that may as well have been located in different galaxies. Princeton is an Ivy League university, TCNJ is a small state college, and MCCC is a two-year county college devoted to remedial work.

I’ll admit that I had a few Stand-and-Deliver-type fantasies about teaching my MCCC students by exactly the same standards and methods as my Princeton students, but mercifully, those plans didn’t get past the fantasy stage. The differences between Princeton and MCCC students, learning philosophy within five miles of one another on different sides of Route 1, are a blog post in themselves, but suffice it to say that they demanded drastically different pedagogical treatment. I didn’t happen to teach the same class at both places, but if I had, they’d have to be taught in radically different sorts of ways. And what applies to two or three different schools in Mercer County a fortiori applies to a school thousands of miles away in the Jerusalem Governorate. It makes no sense to teach Palestinians philosophy the way I teach it to Americans.


In general, the American students I’ve taught—twenty-one years’ worth of students at seven institutions in three states—are politically disengaged. They’re preoccupied with personal concerns and personal pleasures that push political concerns to the side: clubbing, drinking, drugs, sex, sports, shopping, and parties on the frivolous end; friends, family, romantic relationships, career choices, money, logistical worries (e.g., transportation, child care, etc.), and medical-mental health issues at the more serious end. Military veterans aside, the political world doesn’t interest them, and to put the point somewhat uncharitably, they rarely have anything of interest to say about it, either. The political issues that concern them are hyperlocal issues of direct consequence to them, e.g., the rules and regulations governing student loans. (It seems to me characteristically New Jersey-esque to think that defaulting on one’s college loans is a significant form of political protest. But I’ve complained about this attitude too recently to spend time on it now.)

The sort of issue that consistently makes its way to the front page of The New York Times strikes most of my students as distant, abstract, and ultimately meaningless. Take the headlines above the fold in today’s edition of the Times (meaning the June 9 edition): “Justices Reject Passport Law on Jerusalem”; “A Raid on ISIS Yields a Trove of Intelligence”; “Evangelicals Open Door to Debate on Gay Rights”; “A Rare Gambit Seeking Justice for a Shot Boy.” I can just hear my students asking:  What does any of that have to do with my life?

It’s tempting to respond that while the details of these stories aren’t directly related to their lives, surely justice, rights, intelligence and passports/constitutionalism are relevant. Isn’t that enough to get students engaged with politics? The answer is “no.” The response presupposes a concern with principle and a degree of empathy for others that isn’t always there (=usually isn’t there), and can’t easily be taught, if it can be taught at all, at least in a classroom (cf. Plato’s Meno).

In my experience, not even crime and race relations are an exception to the general rule of political disengagement, at least not in suburban New Jersey. The events of the last year–Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.–haven’t really changed anything. After all, race relations on campus (my campus) are generally good, and a black guy is president: that tends to be good enough to preserve the equilibrium of complacency. As far as my students are concerned, Ferguson, Cleveland, and even Staten Island may as well be foreign countries. So the pedagogical task in the American context is to find a way to make the political personal–to make it matter to students in a personal way.

Here in Palestine, the situation is just the reverse: the political is already personal; the (merely) personal is relatively unimportant. More specifically, for the Palestinian students I’ve met, occupation is their preoccupation. Like anyone, they may well be preoccupied, more remotely, with personal concerns and pleasures (hookahs, cigarettes, coffee, hanging out in cafes), but the burning issue that concerns them is life under Israeli military occupation. What they need (as I see it) is a means of standing back and taking a broader perspective on things than the daily grinding outrage they feel about the situation they’re in. That said, one can’t expect them simply to ditch the outrage and theorize in the abstract.

There’s a balance to be struck here, and it’s a hard balance to find. From experience, I’ve decided this time to push things in the politically engaged direction after having made the mistake last time I was here of pitching things in an overly abstract way. When I lectured here two years ago on Locke, I’d intended to give a relatively uncontroversial overview of themes in Locke’s political philosophy, along with a sketch of Locke’s relevance, at a very high level of abstraction, to the Israel-Palestine dispute. That first lecture (of three) didn’t go well, and its failure was a valuable learning experience for me. (I learned quickly enough to make the second and third lectures more successful, but they were on different topics anyway.) I still don’t think I said anything false, but much of what I said was irrelevant to the audience I was facing. And it’s not that I knew nothing about my audience’s concerns; I knew that they were living under a military occupation and resented it. But I had misjudged the degree and intensity of that resentment. I also knew less than I thought I did about the occupation itself.

Psychologically, I came to realize, my Palestinian audience simply could not focus on Locke qua Locke, abstracting entirely from Locke’s relevance to the occupation. My Locke lecture was, for them, like an outlandish two-hour thought-experiment offered for reflection to people in prison. “You keep talking about rights,” I remember one guy saying. “But we don’t have any of these rights.” And not having them became an insuperable barrier to hearing what I had to say about Locke. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, an objection to anything I had said. I hadn’t after all said that they had the rights Locke says we have. The objection was that in jumping straight into Lockean theory, I had made demands of them that flouted their experience.


Pedagogically, one has to make a choice here that one doesn’t, I think, have to make back home. If I’m going to get students here to open up psychological space for theorizing, I can either motivate that theorizing as a good thing in general, or as a good thing as a form of resistance to the occupation. And I’ve decided to go with the latter. I don’t see the point in pretending that I’m neutral on that subject, or even that the purpose of the class is neutral with respect to it. I’m not neutral, and neither is the class. The occupation is unjust. The class is a form of resistance to it. Enough divides me from these students as it is, even in the context of that agreement, to justify using the agreement to forge a common bond, and letting it promote classroom rapport. I’m teaching here to help them think their way out of the occupation, insofar as that can be done.

I’m teaching Plato tomorrow, but I think the point can more easily be conveyed by thinking about Locke. In teaching Locke here last time, I realized that one can’t teach Locke in Palestine by putting the text of the Second Treatise at the forefront and keeping the occupation on the backburner. One has to bring Locke to the occupation, and vice versa. To give a sense of what I mean, imagine a hypothetical class or set of classes on the first five chapters of Locke’s Second Treatise, as follows.

The class begins with Locke’s account and definition of “political power” in ST I.3. The definition seems straightforward enough; I don’t recall any of my teachers or interlocutors spending much time on it. But the details of the definition have a certain subtle significance in a Palestinian context, as applied to the Oslo definitions of Areas A, B, and C in the West Bank. Who (it’s worth asking) has Lockean “political power” in each place under that arrangement–Israel or the Palestinian Authority? That way of asking the question turns out to be both illuminating and disorienting. On a conventional view, the Palestinians rule Area A, there’s joint rule in Area B, and the Israelis rule Area C.* But that’s not the question. The question is: Who has Lockean political power over the West Bank? And the answer is that the Israelis do. That’s why the tripartite division of the West Bank doesn’t change the fact that the West Bank remains as occupied as it ever was: it remains occupied by Israeli political power in the specifically Lockean sense, not the conventional one, something worth bearing in mind when one faces someone who insists that the West Bank is “no longer occupied.”

Move to book II of the ST, which discusses Locke’s conception of the State of Nature. Most of PoT’s readers can probably recite some version of an undergraduate lecture on this topic: “A Lockean State of Nature is a hypothetical state of affairs in which persons exist with rights of freedom and equality, but without a common political power.” The sticking point is “hypothetical.” Yes, that’s what the words say, but what is a State of Nature really like? Nozick is somewhat helpful in clarifying this a bit:

To understand precisely what civil government remedies, we must do more than repeat Locke’s list of the inconveniencies of the state of nature. We also must consider what arrangements might be made within a state of nature to deal with these inconveniences…Only after the full resources of the state of nature are brought into play…will we be in a position to see how serious are the inconveniences that yet remain to be remedied by the state, and to estimate whether the remedy is worse than the disease. (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 10-11).

At this point, however, Nozick offers a very abstract (some would say implausible, fantastic, and rationalistic) account of protective associations, dominant protective associations, invisible hand explanations, and the task of backing into the state. It’s intended as a just-so story, but it sort of seems like a fairy story.

But there’s another way, a more concrete way, to see how serious are the inconveniences of life without a state. Go to a place that doesn’t have a state and take a look around. For instance, go to Area B in the West Bank and ask: is Area B a Lockean State of Nature? What inconveniences arise from the absence of a state here? What improvements, if any, would be made if a state could be brought into existence? What kind of state would improve things, and how? Your answers may not generalize to every State of Nature, but they may tell you something that you won’t get by reflecting from your armchair (a la Nozick) on Proudhon, Schelling, Rothbard, and Boulding. (Incidentally, go back and re-read p. 4 of Anarchy on this very under-remarked issue–how exactly do we conceptualize the State of Nature–and the question turns out to be both central to Nozick’s conception of political philosophy, and totally unresolved. But that’s a topic for a different post.)

Move now to book III of the Second Treatise, on the State of War. It might be valuable to apply a similar approach to this topic as to the last one. We can all read Locke’s definition of the State of War without any trouble, but how does it apply to particular cases? For instance: is the Palestinian Authority in a (Lockean) State of War vis-à-vis Hamas and/or Israel right now? Can the Palestinians be in a State of War vis-à-vis the Israelis if Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has sworn off “armed struggle” as a means of dealing with the occupation? Can a State of War obtain between two parties, like the PA and Hamas, that have formed an alliance with one another, albeit in a state of nature? Questions like that give Locke a poignancy in the Palestinian context he wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Book IV of the Second Treatise discusses slavery: some sensitive topics come up here. On Locke’s view, slavery is “the State of War continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive” (ST IV.24.16ff). Does that mean that the Israeli occupation is a form of slavery in Locke’s sense? Arguably, it does. Though Locke is famous for the view that suicide is morally impermissible (since we’re all God’s property, ST II.6.19), he leaves the door open for suicide under slavery (ST, II.23.13) while “resisting the will of [one’s] master.” But if you can commit suicide under slavery as a form of resistance to your master, can you kill your master while you’re at it? If the occupation turns out to be a form of Lockean slavery, that gives Locke a closer kinship to Hamas and Islamic Jihad than anyone might have expected, a thought that seems to have escaped most academic interpreters of Locke I’ve read.

Finally, consider Locke on property, with an explicit view to the implications of his views on property disputes in Israel and the West Bank (ST V). Here’s a short laundry list of questions that occur within the first few paragraphs of Locke’s discussion:

  • If, as Locke tells us, we’re to rely on reason and revelation for our account of property (ST V.25.5), does that mean that Islamic sharia is a legitimate source of norms regarding property rights? Sectarian prejudices aside, why wouldn’t it be?
  • While we’re on the topic: Is Locke pro-Palestinian or pro-Zionist or neither? Is Locke’s labor-based conception of property an implicit defense of the Palestinians’ natural right to stay on the land in defiance of legal processes that evict them, or is just a set of anachronistic apologetics for Labor Zionism?
  • According to Locke, initial appropriation of land proscribes wasting it, demands its improvement, and requires leaving ‘enough and as good’ for others (ST V.31-33). The model Locke seems to have in mind is agriculture—even more specifically, the English enclosure movement. But how does that relate, if at all, to nomadic Arab Bedouins in Israel/Palestine?
  • According to Locke, God gave the use of the land to “the industrious and rational” (ST V.34.5). Do Bedouins qualify as “industrious and rational” in the relevant sense? Or is Israel right to think that they’re neither: that nomadism wastes land, environmentally degrades it, and uses too much space, so that there’s a justification for expropriating Bedouins by force and putting them in settled and civilized housing projects?

That’s just a hypothetical set of classes on Locke. I doubt even the most proficient instructor could do more than scratch the surface of the issues I’ve mentioned in an actual class. But what’s true of Locke ends up being true across the board. To teach Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli (etc.) in Palestine, you have to ‘Palestinianize’ those texts. I don’t mean, of course, that you read them for things that aren’t in them. I mean that you have read them for what’s in them in relation to the context that surrounds you, where the context picks out features of the text or approaches to the text you might not otherwise have focused on.

The irony is that doing so makes these texts both easier and more difficult to teach at the same time, but in different respects. Easier because it gives them a concentrated focus that they would otherwise lack. More difficult because one rarely reads them in this way back home, and the task of integrating theory and practice is a difficult one where an outsider like me is forced to do a fair share of groping in the dark.

I told my students the other day that life under occupation gave them an advantage that few people have, and that as students of political philosophy, they ought to be grateful for it.

That got their attention. One of them asked me (with all due respect) what the hell I was talking about. I told her (them) that the advantage in question was epistemic: few people in the world live under military occupation, from which it follows that few people know what it’s like to live under one. Arguably, that goes for most philosophers, including most (though not all of) the philosophers we’re about to read in the course. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Mill didn’t (as far as I know) live under occupation-like conditions, though arguably, Machiavelli, Locke, and Marx did.

Since (I suggested) Palestinians can’t wish the occupation away, they might as well capitalize on whatever features of it can be put to their advantage. Political philosophy gives its devotees a perspective on their immediate political situation that facilitates a comprehension that they might not otherwise have had. But it works the other way around as well: ‘naïve’ readers may well have something to teach the giants of philosophy what they would never have thought of on their own.

That, at any rate, is my bet. I’m curious to see if I win it.

*Thanks to Kate Herrick for spotting a typo in the original version of this sentence.

Sari Nusseibeh’s Retirement at Al Quds University

My friend and colleague Sari Nusseibeh recently announced his retirement as President of Al Quds University in Jerusalem. (He was also one of the University’s co-founders, and teaches in the Department of Philosophy.) I was Sari’s guest at Al Quds last summer, where I was invited to give three lectures on topics in political philosophy of relevance to the Arab-Israeli dispute. With Sari’s help, I also got comprehensive political tours of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, did some sightseeing, went swimming in the hottest swimming pool I’ve ever experienced, and drank some of the best tea I’ve ever tasted. It was the experience of a lifetime for me, and I owe Sari (and his colleagues) a debt of gratitude for it that I can’t imagine ever being able to repay. (I also owe my Felician College colleague Fahmi Abboushi for putting me in touch with Sari on the occasion of Reason Papers’s 2012 symposium on Sari’s book, What Is a Palestinian State Worth?)

It’s remarkable that while here in North America, academics are bemoaning the death of the humanities and of the malaise of academia generally, Sari managed in a few decades to build a major university essentially from scratch–in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Booker T. Washington’s founding the Tuskegee Institute–I actually gifted Sari a copy of Up from Slavery–but on a grander scale. When I’m tempted to complain about academic life at home, I find myself thinking about what Sari has managed to do at Al Quds, and stop. Times may be tough for small liberal arts colleges in the US, but at least we don’t operate under the conditions of a military-bureaucratic occupation (or for that matter, the relentless anti-intellectual pressures exerted by religious fundamentalists).

Sari has narrated his own story better than anyone can, but I didn’t want to let the moment go by without offering a (non-alcoholic) toast in tribute to what he’s accomplished so far. The next time you confront someone who derides philosophy as a pie-in-the-sky endeavor, direct them to the life and work of Sari Nusseibeh. Like Socrates, he’s managed in theory and practice to bring philosophy down to earth–and at the center of life, where it belongs.