Enhancing Israel’s academic standing in Middle E. Studies
The year is 1857, in village of Prizren near the town of Skopje in Ottoman Macedonia, Hasan Efendi’s house was set on fire.
Students at Hebrew University. Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.