The Intellectual Defense Forces

If you want to bone up quickly on any subject ranging from molecular biology to gender studies to Maimonides, where do you go? If you’re lucky enough to be able to read Hebrew, you know where—you pop over to the nearest book store or library and dig through the booklets published by the Broadcast University.

Israel’s universities may be in decline and their humanities faculties heading for intensive care, but this is one bright corner, and the light comes, of all places, from the army.

Each semester—three semesters a year—the Broadcast University offers four to five courses, consisting of thirteen 22-minute lectures. The program is a joint project of IDF Radio, Tel Aviv University, and the Ministry of Defense’s publishing house, which publishes each course as a short book. In this capitalist age, the lecturers are all volunteers. They receive no compensation at all for preparing and recording their talks, and only a symbolic honorarium when they are published in book form.

A bunch of Broadcast University books are scattered around the bookshelves in our home, testifying to our interests at various times. There’s an Introduction to Islam, one on Vedic poetry, another on midrash, and the series’ all-time bestseller, Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s “The Faith of Maimonides”(available also in English)—which has sold 25,000 copies.

According to the program’s current editor, Hagai Boaz, interviewed (in Hebrew, sorry) in yesterday’s Sefarim, Ha’aretz weekly book supplement, the series doesn’t avoid controversy. Next semester’s offerings will include a course on prostitution, as well as one on globalization taught by Dov Hanin, who is a member of the Knesset for the Communist Party. He says, though, that a course on the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be going a bit too far.

But Leibowitz, as well as being one of Israel’s leading philosophers and scientists, was a fierce critic of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. And he holds a number of Broadcast University records, according to Hagai: not only the author of the top-selling course, but also the teacher who offered the most courses (six), and the only one to be not only a lecturer but also the subject of a Broadcast University course.

All told, the program has offered 350 courses in its three decades on the radio.

The books are ubiquitous. You see them be perused by soldiers (they are just the right size to fit in to the thigh pocket of the standard-issue fatigues), and high school students on buses, and people sitting in cafes. They are used as textbooks in high school and college courses. It takes two large tables to hold them at the annual Hebrew book fair.

To the best of my knowledge, there’s nothing like these books in English. They’re more intelligent than the For Dummies and other such series. They’re cheaper, more concise than the usual popular science book, and easier to read in small chunks. As Hagai notes, the program and books are very old-fashioned and low-tech. The programs are just a person talking, and the books don’t have fancy graphics or illustrations. But it works.

And it’s the part of the defense budget I like best.


5 thoughts on “The Intellectual Defense Forces”

  1. How would they compare to the recently introduced “Very Short Introductions” from Oxford University Press?

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