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  • Television commentator Zvi Yehezkeli addresses the Ambassadors' Forum

    Bar-Ilan University Hosts Ninth Ambassadors' Forum

    Date: 2013-06-13 Hour: 15:27

    Can Islam and democracy exist side by side?  Will the Arab Spring engulfing the Middle East lead to the emergence of democratic Arab nations?  Not in the immediate future, according to Zvi Yehezkeli, Arab Affairs Correspondent and Head of the Arab Desk at Israel TV Channel 10, who delivered the keynote address at Bar-Ilan University's Ambassadors' Forum.  Ambassadors and senior diplomats from more than 50 countries attended the Forum, the ninth in a series, which focused on Democracy, Religion and Fanaticism.

    Referring to the Arab Spring, Yehezkeli said that while democracy is often used as a tool to effect change, the current uprisings in the region are not about bringing democracy to Arab countries.  "It's not because of Facebook, IPhone and You Tube, which are certainly helping these revolutions."  Rather, they are about revenge.  The Middle East, where Islam reigns supreme, is divided between ethnic groups, mainly Shiites and Sunnis.  In Syria, President Assad is massacring those who've come to take revenge on his rule, perpetuating a conflict which dates back to the seventh century, he said.  Islam is valued much more than democracy is, he asserted, and time will tell if democracy will be implemented in the Middle East.

    The very interpretation of democracy among Arab leaders is so different from Western understanding of the concept, continued Yehezkeli, who speaks fluent Arabic and has been covering the Arab world for more than two decades.  "In 2002 I sat with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, whose government compound was under siege in Ramallah.  I asked him how he interprets Western rationale, and he replied that he is not a partner to this rationale."  Using examples to emphasize this point Yehezkeli, said he once asked Arafat about then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer to give in to 99% of his demands.  Arafat responded that Barak's offer, from his perspective, was closer to 0% than to 100% since Barak did not give in to all of his demands.  Further, he said that in 2008 the Israelis thought Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal would call an end to Operation Cast Lead after he saw the massive destruction in Gaza, but he didn’t.  And many thought that, like his father, Bashar Assad would have stopped the killing in Syria after 20,000 people lost their lives, but he didn't.  "We don't understand their way of thinking and our rationale is completely different from theirs," said Yehezkeli.

    Yehezkeli concluded by screening clips from interviews he conducted with Muslim youth -- children of immigrants -- living in a democratic society in Europe all their lives.  The youths expressed their hope that one day they would cleanse their country of idolatry and praised the accomplishments of Osama bin Laden who, they said, died a Shahid (martyr).  "This is the dream of kids in Europe who are living in democracy.  Is democracy in their DNA?" he asked.  "I'm not sure, because there is no observation of democracy as a 100 percent value inside Islam."
    Sadly, Israel is not a democratic country when it comes to issues of marriage and divorce, and in this respect Israel is more similar to neighboring Middle Eastern countries than the developed world it considers itself to be part of, said Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, of the Bar-Ilan Faculty of Law, in her lecture on Politics, Religion and Gender (In)Equality – The Case of Israel.  Prof. Halperin-Kaddari informed the audience that as she spoke lawyers representing the Bar-Ilan Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, which she directs, were in Jerusalem lobbying on behalf of an Agunah (chained woman) whose former husband has refused for the last 13 years to grant her a Jewish divorce. She also reported that the Rackman Center had spent the entire previous day at the Knesset successfully lobbying for the passage of a bill which will ensure that there are at least four women on the committee that selects judges to Israeli rabbinical courts.  The passage of this bill was the culmination of two years of work by the Rackman Center, and though there are currently no women rabbinical court judges, she said it is a great achievement that women will now take part in the selection process.  Prof. Halperin-Kaddari is an expert on the status of women in Israel who, as a member of the distinguished UN Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), has gained a comprehensive perspective of women's status all over the world, hearing reports from more than 100 countries regarding implementation of international obligations to eliminate gender discrimination.  Her strongest experience in this realm, she shared, is the similarity between the work of women in Israel fighting religious extremism and fundamentalism and that of women in the Arab world and Muslim and African countries. "We should aspire to the universal implementation of the human rights convention. Women are key players in this battle. They are the victims of the abuse of human rights and the abuse of religious law." Though women are not currently benefiting from any of these developments, they are key players in swaying change in the right direction, said Prof. Halperin-Kaddari. 

    "The unprecedented events taking place in the Arab world are admired by any decent person," said Dr. Michael Ehrlich, of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, and the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan.    Seeing oppressed people who have never tasted freedom standing through these uprisings is a moving experience, regardless of their motivation and eventual results.  "It's important to understand that they are not just struggling for an extra dollar of income. People who just want to improve their standard of living do not sacrifice their lives. They are struggling for their rights and dignity," continued Ehrlich, who served as Chairman of Amnesty International in Israel for two years.  The regimes of the Arab countries are undertaking enormous challenges to stabilize economies, improve their populations' standard of living, and improve political rights like freedom of expression and movement.  Most of them regimes are fighting for their lives and Israel is not the immediate enemy. In the short run, he said, domestic problems in Arab countries are in Israel's interest. Yet there is always the risk that a government will be tempted to attack Israel in order to achieve something at home. "In the long run I believe Israel has to stay idle. Israel has to find a way to establish a fruitful dialogue with various segments emerging in Arab societies," he said.

    "Israel in both the Declaration of Independence and the Israeli Basic Laws is defined as a Jewish and democratic state. This calls into question the relationship between the Jewish nature and the democratic nature of the state, especially the limits which apply to the Knesset on the basis of democratic considerations contesting legislation intended to promote the Jewishness of the state. I suggest first that there is a  constitutional core of Jewishness which Israeli law does not empower the governmental authority of the State to set aside, and second this core must be understood and consistent with Israel's nature as a democracy," said Prof. Ariel Bendor, in his lecture on The Constitutional Significance of the Jewishness of Israel.  Prof. Bendor is the Frank F. Church Professor at the Bar-Ilan Faculty of Law. He also heads the Center for Media and Law and is Director of the Faculty of Law Publishing House.  His major fields of interest are constitutional law, administrative law, comparative law and legal education and methodology.