Right of Reply: 'Ours' was a legitimate academic conference

By LESLIE SEBBA
January 30, 2007 20:02

Universities have frequently provided a forum for former Jewish terrorists, some the holders of high office - so why shouldn't Tel Aviv University's law faculty invite an ex-Arab terrorist?

4 minute read.



tali fahima 298.88

tali fahima 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

As one of the academics who participated in the conference so castigated by Amnon Rubinstein in his Post column ("Faculty of the hard Left," January 23), I feel the need to respond. I am particularly surprised at the nature of the criticisms, coming from the pen of such an eminent authority on legal and constitutional matters, with a distinguished record in human rights, justice and education - and delivered with the authority of the head of a leading academic institution. So far as I could see - and I missed none of this riveting 10-hour long conference - Rubinstein did not attend and this may partly explain the divergence of our evaluations as to what took place. The issue of the security prisoners held in Israeli prisons can be seen as involving at least three academic disciplines: penology, human rights and conflict resolution. The interest of those concerned with the methods of punishment and correction of criminals derives from the fact that there are now more than 10,000 security prisoners in the penal system. That raises myriad questions in relation to the administration of the prisons. Human rights issues generally arise in their extreme form in regard to populations deprived of their liberty; the case of security prisoners raises questions not only of human rights law, but also international humanitarian law. Surely the visitation rights of family members of 10,000 security prisoners (including the possibility of contact with their own children) should be at least as much a concern as the rights of Yigal Amir to conjugal visits - which incidentally I have gone on record as defending. Conflict resolution issues are also apparent here in the ambivalence of the government toward this population: When apprehended they are labelled criminals, yet when negotiations are in the offing, they are treated as political hostages who may be released at will. It is thus the failure of the academic community to have examined this topic hitherto that is hard to explain, rather than the organization of this conference. WAS THIS an academic conference, justifiably held in a university location? There are purists who argue that academic conferences are for academics. Thus a former colleague would insist that it was inappropriate for a judge to be invited to participate in a conference on the judiciary - only academics who conducted research on judges. However, this view is not widely held, and in practice university-sponsored conferences are liberally decorated with professional and public figures, including those from the military and even MKs and government ministers. The test should surely be whether the speaker has some expertise which he wishes to share with the audience. So back to the conference. First, I would contest - if only for the sake of my own reputation - that there was "not a single research paper or academic position" presented at the conference. My colleague Dr. Mimi Ajzenstadt, a senior lecturer at the School of Social Work and Social Welfare, analyzed the relevant statistical data and categorization of security offenses and their perpetrators, based upon police and prison sources. I myself considered the modes of trial process and, by contrast, the modes of prisoner release. Other presenters analyzed human rights documents as well as the psychological research on the effects of holding prisoners in isolation. There was no case of a speaker merely expressing political views: All were either academics or practitioners with some special knowledge of the field. Inevitably most of the practitioners in this field are critical of the political or military establishment (which does not render them "post-Zionist"), but the participation of Prisons Service legal adviser Haim Shmulevitz and other officials (past and present) can hardly be so classified. I am also surprised at Prof. Rubinstein's attack in principle on the participation in the symposium of an ex-terrorist - assuming that he no longer espouses acts of terror today. The universities have frequently provided a forum for former Jewish terrorists, some the holders of high office. Surely there should be no discrimination based upon the race of the victims of the terrorist concerned - Jews, Arabs or British? It is regrettable that there are relatively few academics with an interest in this field, and I would appeal to Prof. Rubinstein to use his good offices to remedy this. And if the audience at the conference was dominated by leftist activists, this merely reflects a regrettable lack of interest in this area on the part of the "mainstream." Tali Fahima, incidentally, was not a "guest" but merely a member of the audience. The view is attributed to Winston Churchill that the treatment of its prisoners is a test of a society's cultural development, while the concern of civil libertarians with despised minorities is based on the slippery slope thesis: today them, tomorrow us. It is sad that Prof Rubinstein's fear of "post-Zionism" has led him to renege on the values he has so staunchly defended in the past. The writer is Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law, Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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