Meet Amichai Magen, Stanford’s Visiting Fellow in Israel Studies

Meet Amichai Magen, Stanford’s Visiting Fellow in Israel Studies

In spring quarter, Magen, a scholar of law, government, and international relations, will teach “Israel: Society, Politics and Policy.”
Amichai Magen joins the Freeman Spogli Institute as its inaugural Visiting Fellow in Israel Studies.

Spring quarter at Stanford will bring a familiar face back to campus, though in a new role and in a new program. Amichai Magen, an alumnus of Stanford Law School (’08), and formerly a pre-doctoral fellow and scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), will return as the inaugural visiting fellow in Israel Studies and visiting associate professor. 

Based at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), the Visiting Fellow in Israel Studies program was established with the generous support of Stanford alumni and donors. 

As a visiting fellow, Dr. Magen will teach the spring quarter course “Israel: Society, Politics and Policy,” and will help guide FSI programming related to Israel, as well as advise and engage Stanford students and faculty. His appointment, which follows the arrival to the program of Or Rabinowitz in fall 2022 as a visiting associate professor, will be based at CDDRL.

In the below Q&A with FSI, Dr. Magen explains what he’s missed most about Stanford, the goals of his spring quarter course, his work back in Israel, and his takeaways on Israel’s development as a democracy as it approaches its 75th year of independence.

In 2004-2008 you were a CDDRL predoctoral fellow and CDDRL affiliated scholar in 2008-2009. What have you missed about being on “the Farm,” and what excites you most about being back? 

My years as a predoctoral fellow and affiliated scholar at CDDRL were among the most formative and productive of my adult life. CDDRL was then, and remains, a model academic community for me; one that has continuously guided me as a scholar, teacher, and academic manager. Indeed, CDDRL shaped me in at least three profound ways: as a scholar, teacher, and institution-builder. 

As a young scholar, I was incredibly fortunate to join a vibrant, multidisciplinary hub of cutting-edge research and open intellectual debate. I remember CDDRL as a place buzzing with creative energy, ideas, and engagement in the key challenges of the time (such as understanding the color revolutions of 2003-2004; the challenges of political violence and governance failures in the Middle East; and how the European Union and United States approached democracy and rule of law promotion). Even though I was a “minion among giants” I was embraced as a valuable intellectual partner who was to be entrusted with real responsibility and empowered through active work as part of the CDDRL community. In that context, I was encouraged to innovate, to cut my teeth on exciting new projects, and to grow as a scholar. In terms of teaching, I was mentored by the best (wisest, toughest, fairest) mentors I could have hoped for, and was given my first opportunities to teach. 

Lastly, in 2004-2009 CDDRL was still very young, which meant that I got to observe, and even play a modest role in, its nascent institutional development. It is very rare that a young scholar gets to experience from the inside how a new world-class institution like CDDRL is built in real time. I still remember CDDRL's 5th anniversary retreat; where we took stock of the foundational years of the Center and debated where it should go next and how to best achieve the center's mission. Naturally, I have really missed Stanford's unique spirit and intellectual DNA. Over the past two decades, I believe that I have taken part of that Stanford spirit with me wherever I went – in my research and writing, teaching, and civic activism – but clearly that spirit is strongest at the source. Returning to "the Farm" is a real homecoming experience for me. This time I'll also be able to share it with my family, which is priceless.

You’ll be teaching a new course, “Israel: Society, Politics and Policy.” Why did you choose to teach this course, and what do you hope students will gain from it? 

Few countries in the world have captured the American imagination, or receive international attention, as much as Israel. At the same time, few countries are as poorly understood. Whether for reasons of geographical or cultural distance, Israel's rapid transformation into a high-tech superpower over the past three decades, or competing political and media agendas, this intriguing and surprisingly influential country is rarely explored for what it is - a human society, polity, constitutional system, and policy actor that is best understood in historical and comparative context. The purpose of the course is to do just that; to go "beyond the headlines" and seek to understand Israel as a society, political order, and international actor. Students who take the course should expect to gain a grounded, up-to-date understanding of modern Israel, but also to deepen their knowledge of the Middle East, aspects of U.S. foreign policy, and acquire tools to better understand the broader international system.

In Israel you are director of the Program on Democratic Resilience and Development at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University. Can you tell us about your work there, and your research interests? 

The Program on Democratic Resilience and Development (PDRD) at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy, Reichman University, is an interdisciplinary research, educational, and policy platform dedicated to the understanding and nurturing of free and responsible societies in Israel and around the world. Established in 2020, in partnership with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, PDRD seeks to better understand, protect and promote the values, institutions, and processes that enable human beings to create and sustain conditions of human dignity, security, liberty, and wellbeing. We also analyze twenty-first century threats to those values, institutions, and processes, and seek to nurture a cadre of young leaders committed to freedom and responsibility. In many respects, therefore, the Program on Democratic Resilience and Development at Reichman University is an initiative that has learned from, and echoes CDDRL. 

My own research is really centered around the perpetual human quest for good political order. Specifically, I am interested in the package of values, institutions, and processes that have given us the miracle of liberal modernity, and how to protect and adapt that miracle in the face of 21st century challenges. In this context, I have written extensively about statehood and areas of limited statehood, democracy, the rule of law, and political violence. I am increasingly interested in exploring whether and how liberal political orders (domestic, regional, and global) could generate "solution-structures" to the great fears of our age.

Israel is approaching its 75th year of independence. What are your takeaways on the development of Israel’s democratic institutions and governance at this milestone? 

I wrote about this topic recently in Yascha Mounk's "Persuasion." I would add that, at the moment, Israel's 75th anniversary could be remembered in one of two strongly divergent ways. If current efforts to achieve a broad national agreement on democracy-preserving/enhancing constitutional reforms are successful, 2023 would be remembered as "Israel's constitutional moment" – the point at which, following a brief crisis and mass popular mobilization for democracy, responsibility and moderation prevailed, and Israel finally moved to enact a clear constitutional framework in the spirit of its liberal Declaration of Independence. Conversely, if the current legislative agenda advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to weaken the Israeli judiciary is enacted, Israel will enter an unprecedented, and dangerous, constitutional limbo – a "clash of authorities" between the government and the rule of law, the outcome of which is anyone's guess. 

Israelis can (and do) look back at 75 years of remarkable democratic success under conditions of extreme adversity. Israel has faced several crises in the past that could have destroyed its democracy, but didn't (for example, the Yom Kippur War; economic meltdown/hyperinflation in the mid-1980s; the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin). This is testimony to Israel's history of democratic resilience, but what about now? I am still hopeful that our current national leadership will step back from the brink, decide to seek a responsible compromise that is acceptable to a broad majority of all Israelis, and that ultimately we will emerge from this crisis stronger and with better constitutional protections. Over the past three months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have exhibited outstanding civic responsibility, demonstrating peacefully but vigorously to protect their democracy. If Israel's elected leaders take example from the people of Israel, the country will pass the current "stress test" and its democracy may well emerge stronger from the test. The stakes are extremely high. 

Israel is a country that demands a lot from its citizens and the people of Israel are accustomed to be free. Many Israelis will simply not accept losing their open society and democratic ethos. They will not innovate, fight, or sacrifice for a non-democratic regime. Ultimately, Israel will be a modern liberal democracy, or it will falter, perhaps catastrophically. That is a very powerful incentive to be a democracy.

Media contact: Ari Chasnoff, director of communications, Freeman Spogli Institite for International Studies

Amichai Magen

Amichai Magen

Visiting Fellow in Israel Studies
Full Bio

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