Law seminar joins Middle East scholars, professionals

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Like most seminars run by Yale Law School professors, the Middle East Legal Studies Seminar features scholars debating current legal topics. Unlike most Yale seminars, however, the Yale professors are joined by scholars, judges and lawyers from around the Middle East, and they meet in places like Morocco, Turkey, Malta and Spain, not the Sterling Law Building.

Seminar participants met in Grenada, Spain, earlier this month, for a meeting themed “Legal Authority.” Law School Dean Anthony Kronman and law professor Owen Fiss helped found the series six years ago, which has since helped to bring together many scholars who under ordinary circumstances would be prevented from interacting by governments and political pressures.

Kronman and Fiss said the seminar is meant to serve as a forum for open, academic discussion, rather than as a means for advancing a political agenda. With hopes that peace will come in the Middle East, Kronman believes the group’s work will help build a viable community of scholarship and debate.

“Having Arabs and Israelis in the same room talking is unusual. We have 30 or 35 participants — they come from Israel, the PLO, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran,” Kronman said.

The papers presented this year included one on the history of Wahabi, a controversial Islamic fundamentalist movement that began in the 18th century. Another paper discussed the Israeli Supreme Court’s recent ruling upholding the legality of moving families of suicide bombers from the West Bank to Gaza.

Kronman said the seminar series got off the ground slowly six years ago, in part because some of the scholars who attend could be punished, or at least endangered, should a government official discover their involvement with the program. Fiss said while the seminars are not “secret” meetings, publicity is kept to a minimum in an attempt to avoid confrontations between the participants and any disapproving official.

During coffee breaks and dinners outside of the formal discussion, scholars and their families build relationships that Fiss said help break down prejudices between many of the nations, sects and tribes represented by the scholars.

Kronman said these informal moments during the weekends may be the most constructive parts of the discussion.

“The friendships formed will be the foundation to begin the work of reconstruction in the region,” Kronman said.

Fiss said the seminars provide emotional reunions for participants, who have often had to travel to “neutral” countries in Europe and North America to send and receive e-mail and mail from other participants.

Fiss and Kronman began the series after being inspired by the work of colleague Kenneth Mann, a former professor at the Law School. Kronman said Mann had met scholars who were affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Jordanian hard-liners. Mann wanted to expand the small nucleus of scholars he had formed into a larger group, and he needed an outside entity to moderate and organize the event. The Law School stepped in as the coordinating body. To find scholars to participate, Kronman traveled to Egypt, and Fiss went to Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank.

Tali Farhadian ’97 LAW ’03, a former research assistant for Fiss, attended two of the series’ seminars. She is confident of the group’s progress, but she said she knows the burgeoning crises in the Middle East present a considerable challenge for the group.

“The seminars make me think that there is a lot of hard work but it will get done,” Farhadian said.

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