The year is 1857, and in the village of Prizren near the town of Skopje in Ottoman Macedonia, Hasan Efendi’s house was set on fire. Three years later, in the Black Sea province of Trabzon, Selimoglu Arif’s barn was burnt to the ground, as were quite a number of homes and farms in that district on various other occasions.

In these and many other cases, the arsonists were not identified, and often there was not even an attempt to find and punish them. For generations, the local practice had been to impose a compensation fee on the entire village, so that the damage was covered and no one has to fear retribution for testifying against the perpetrator.

However, it was precisely then, during the major reforms imposed by the Ottoman government between the 1830s and 1880s – widely known as the Tanzimat, or reorganization – that such practices were deemed unacceptable to the modernizing Ottoman Empire.

Legal responsibility had to be personal, not communal, so the High Court ruled that the arsonists in the cases of Hasan, Arif and the others had to be tracked down and punished according to the new criminal laws. Thus, a practice of effective insurance against a common evil had to be scrapped in the interest of becoming “modern.”

THIS IMPORTANT aspect of socio-legal history was presented by a young and promising scholar from a university in Istanbul, Turkey; it was vividly discussed at an excellent international workshop on law and society in the Middle East and North Africa, held at Ben- Gurion University 10 days ago.

The workshop was painstakingly organized by two BGU senior lecturers, in their own right leading contributors to the international discourse on law and society in the region. Using their considerable reputation and the respect BGU’s Department of Middle East Studies commands worldwide, they brought to Beersheba a group of distinguished international scholars. These included four historians from Turkey, four from the US and one each from the Netherlands and Germany, alongside more than a dozen Israeli scholars.

Both senior and young professors spent three days of intensive deliberations in what any fair-minded observer would note as one of the most stimulating conferences on Middle East history held in this country in recent memory.

Sadly, however, much of this went unnoticed by readers of The Jerusalem Post opinion pages. Those who read the op-ed piece (‘Incitement U’, June 7) could only conclude that the workshop merely offered an opportunity to insult one of the participants, who discussed the Beduin demands for recognition of their rights in lands they inhabit in the Negev.

Moreover, readers could wrongly form the impression that the purpose of the workshop was to delegitimize Israeli scholarship and bash Israel. None of this is true, of course, as the incident discussed was an isolated event within one of the workshop panels, and the deplorable attack was condemned by many of the leading scholars who witnessed it.

ISRAELI ACADEMIA in the humanities and the social sciences finds itself these days between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, an international movement – mostly from the anti-Zionist Left – to boycott our scholars and universities, and on the other, attempts by a few groups in this country – mostly on the pro-settler Right – to restrict academic freedom and control the manner in which politically sensitive issues are being taught on Israeli campuses, as well as the content itself.

Happily, at least for the moment both have failed to make significant inroads into mainstream public opinion, both here and abroad. The boycott “movement” is noisy at times, but has been a total failure in practice. The small Israeli organizations are visible and audible, but are by and large ineffectual. There so far appears to be no real threat to Israeli academic activities abroad, nor has there been any real damage to academic freedom or freedom of speech in Israeli universities and colleges.

Excellent research on the Middle East and North Africa in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman periods has come out in the past quarter- century in Turkey, Europe and the US. Hard work in the archives and on difficult-to-decipher manuscripts has yielded a thorough revision of the traditional history of our region, revealing a new one in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in relative peace under Ottoman rule for centuries.

When its authority was not challenged, government officials exercised their power moderately and inclusively; it was not the corrupt, incompetent, oppressive empire that the Arabs and the Europeans – each for their own reasons – had depicted it to have been.

The BGU workshop has further explored the nature of the reforming state in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As more research is being published, not least by many of the workshop participants, it emerges as a caring “nanny” state, one that had begun to side with the weaker social groups among its subjects, including the poor, the destitute, the sick, the enslaved, the peasants, wage laborers and even policemen and prisoners.

SO, AMONG the 16 presentations, we heard about the Ottoman legal mind as reflected in the ever-accumulating, codified compilation of laws and regulations known as Düstür; the reforms in the criminal justice system where torture, abuse and corruption were now being suppressed; the Jews and legal reform in 19th-century Morocco; legal reform and the transition to modernity in the imperial center and Egypt; family “honor killing” in Mandatory Palestine and tax reform in Mandatory Palestine and Israel; the legal implications of migration in Turkey (post-population exchange) and Russian-Ottoman concepts of freedom and lack thereof. And, of course, the Beduin land issue was also discussed, in an unpleasant atmosphere, on the first evening, with an unacceptable, reprehensible affront to one of the presenters.

BGU and its scholars have reaffirmed what has been widely known in the field, i.e., that Israel is a powerhouse in modern Middle East studies, and that second only to Turkey boasts the largest and most active Ottomanist community.

Partly due to our location in the region, partly owing to our historical heritage, there has been keen interest in promoting and supporting strong departments in five research universities and a number of smaller ones in some colleges. The government, through the Council on Higher Education, funds most of these endeavors, up to 70 percent in many cases, but private donors from Israel and abroad also contribute to the enrichment of academic life here.

The Israel Science Foundation, the Middle East Studies Department at BGU, and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung have all made this wonderful socio-legal workshop possible. Regardless of propaganda efforts by various invidious detractors, local and foreign contributors should continue to support such projects, which only enhance Israel’s global academic standing.

The writer is a professor and the holder of the university chair for Ottoman & Turkish Studies in the Department of Middle East and African History at Tel Aviv University.

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