U50 conference examines solutions to the Middle East conflict

York University, with the support of Queen’s University and the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), is hosting a conference titled Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace. The conference, which began yesterday, runs through tomorrow and will explore a number of different models of statehood and solutions for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The goal of the gathering is to determine, within a rigorous academic setting, how to resolve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a manner that respects the rights of both Israelis/Jews and Palestinians.

A global contingent of 225, which includes many of the world’s leading academics from different sides of the debate, have travelled to York’s Glendon campus to meet and discuss this theme. Their challenge will be to examine and discuss the numerous models for peace including one- and two-state models, as well as models in-between and beyond.

Organized by Osgoode Hall Law School Professors Susan Drummond (right) and Bruce Ryder (left) in conjunction with Queen’s University law Professor Sharryn Aiken (below, right) and Osgoode PhD candidate Mazen Masri, the central goal of the conference is to focus a scholarly lens on a wide range of issues pertaining to state models and the promise they offer for a just and viable settlement of the conflict. These include, among other relevant topics, possible federal and parallel state models, democracy and constitutional design, immigration and refugee return policies, resource allocation, gender and nationalism, and the role of religion. Mindful of the fraught context in which debates relating to Israel/Palestine unfold, this conference aims to open up a measured and thoughtful conversation on the range of possible paths out of the current impasse.

"In light of US President Barack Obama’s speech [in Cairo on June 4] renewing the call for a two-state solution that equally respects the rights to self-determination of Israelis/Jews and Palestinians, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech in response, the conference is particularly timely," says Ryder. "The response to this conference has been overwhelming. We had to close off registrations because we reached our capacity. The goal of this conference is to promote scholarly inquiry into a range of models and possible solutions to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict." 

Among those attending the conference are a number of prominent scholars with expertise on the Middle East, including: Chaim Gans, professor of law at Tel Aviv University; George Bisharat, professor at the Hastings College of Law, University of California; Sammy Smooha, professor of sociology at the University of Haifa and dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences; David Kretzmer, professor, Faculty of Law, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Ian Lustick, Bess W. Heyman Chair in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania; Dan Rabinowitz, professor of anthropology at Tel Aviv University and Central European University; Leila Farsakh, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Marc Ellis, director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at Baylor University; Nadim Rouhana, professor of international recognition and conflict studies at Tufts University; Gershon Shafir, director of the Institute for International, Comparative & Area Studies at University of California, San Diego; Jennifer Todd, director of the Institute for British-Irish Studies, University College Dublin; and Ali Abunimah, Fellow of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, and many others.

Ryder says that all of the conference proceedings, including keynote speeches, presentations, plenary sessions and panel discussions, will be recorded and made available as soon as possible on the Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace Web site. "A collection of the best papers will also be published in a book. Our hope is that the open availability of the conference recordings on the Web site and the published collection of scholarly papers will contribute to the dialogue about the most promising paths to peace," says Ryder.

Yesterday’s events began late in the afternoon with an opening keynote titled, "Past Injustice, Agonistic Encounter, and the Construction of Community Among Those Who Have Nothing in Common", delivered by 2009 Trudeau Fellow and University of Victoria Professor Jeremy Webber.

The Canada Research Chair in Law & Society at UVic, Webber is a former professor of law at McGill University and at the University of Sydney in Australia. He is now chair of the Consortium on Democratic Constitutionalism, an interdisciplinary and international group of legal, political and social theorists, created to promote scholarly exchange and collaboration on questions of constitutional theory, design and practice. In his address, Webber reflected on the need for openness when considering a variety of solutions to the conflict.

Right: Jeremy Webber

“In arguments about how societies should deal with social conflict,” said Webber, “we often proceed as though there must be a just solution.” But, he asked, “are there conflicts – tragic, rancorous conflicts – where the interests of the parties are structured in such a way that there is no just solution? Where the set of potentially just solutions is empty? Where we cannot respond to one instance of injustice without creating another serious injustice?”

In a situation like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where both parties feel profoundly attached to the land and where there appears to be merit in the appeal of each to considerations of justice, how do we respond? asked Webber. Choosing just one side at the expense of the other, Webber argued, is “extraordinarily dangerous. It substantially undermines one’s ability to interact with the other party on a basis other than sheer force.” Webber argued that a more promising approach begins with a simple yet important acknowledgement of the others’ experiences grounded in the investigation and exposure of past events. Then, rather than trying to reconcile competing claims of justice, he suggested, “there may be more potential for common ground when it comes to claims to injustice.” In Webber’s view: “Focusing on injustice keeps us closer to individuals’ moral experience” and “may suggest how parties can understand at least some of the others’ claims even if they are far apart in their conceptions of justice.” Webber observed that Israelis and Palestinians already live in close proximity and they must find a way to develop institutions of development for a shared society. He concluded by saying how much he looked forward to hearing conference participants’ wisdom on all these questions.

The conference begins in earnest today, and over the next 48 hours delegates will participate in three plenary discussions and numerous concurrent panels that will examine both sides of the debate surrounding the conflict. The first plenary session today is titled, "Is a Two-State Model Just and Viable?", and features papers by University of Massachusetts Professor Leila Farsakh, Tel Aviv University Professor Chaim Gans and University of Haifa Professor Sammy Smooha. It will be followed by a plenary titled "Is a One-State Model Just and Viable?", featuring papers by Ali Abunimah, Tel Aviv University Professor Dan Rabinowitz and Baylor University Professor Marc Ellis. It will be followed by a series of concurrent panels.

On Wednesday, the morning plenary is titled "Beyond the One-State vs. Two-States Debate" and features presentations by former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and founder of the West Bank Data Project Meron Benvenisti, University of Denver Professor Micheline Ishay, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor David Kretzmer and Tufts University Professor Nadim Rouhana. It will be followed once again by a series of concurrent panels. For a full conference program, biographies of the speakers, and descriptions of each of the plenary and concurrent panel sessions, including paper abstracts, click here.

Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace is co-sponsored by Queen’s University and York University, and is an official U50 initiative, part of a calendar of almost 100 events and initiatives for York University’s 50th anniversary.

The conference is funded by a grant from SSHRC with support from the following departments, Faculties and offices at York University: Osgoode Hall Law School; Faculty of Graduate Studies; Office of the Vice-President Academic & Provost; Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation; U50 Planning Committee; and the Jack & Mae Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security. The conference is also supported by the following departments, divisions and Faculties at Queen’s University: Office of Research Services, Office of the Principal and Office of the Associate Vice-Principal Academic & International. 

For more information, visit the Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace Web site.