The Evolution of MELSS
Yale Law School’s Middle East Legal Studies Seminar held its tenth annual meeting in Athens, Greece, from January 18–21, 2007. The seminar brought together scholars, students, jurists, and practicing lawyers for high-level discussions of legal issues relevant to the Middle East.
When the seminar was started by Yale Law School Professors Anthony Kronman ’75 and Owen Fiss in 1998, it was unusual for such a diverse group of Middle Eastern scholars to gather, let alone discuss potentially volatile legal issues. Over time, the group has coalesced around shared experiences and common ideas about the importance of law in the region. From only a few members, the group (which maintains its intimacy and focus by invitation-only membership) has grown to over sixty. Participants from many Arab states (including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories), Israel, and Turkey attend. Members from countries traditionally in conflict have formed enduring friendships and have engaged in fruitful academic collaboration.
Each seminar is focused around a general theme and consists of panels that examine its significance in Middle Eastern legal life. The 2007 conference, on “Citizenship, Membership, and National Identity,” opened with a panel questioning the meaning and relevance of citizenship. Over the course of the weekend, panelists discussed the relationship between citizenship and religion, the effect of migration on citizenship, the challenge of competing allegiances, and recent transformations of international politics. The panels also served as a forum for dialogue on other topics of interest, including the role of third parties in reform efforts and emerging international standards for the rule of law. The participants, many of whom are actively involved in reforming or shaping legal institutions at home, left Athens with enriched perspectives on these issues and a readiness to apply them to their own work.
In addition to the focused panels, the seminar channels the expertise and experiences of its members into lunchtime discussions on current Middle East events. Such discussions explored the war in Iraq as well as the July 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Seminar participants were able to engage with these topics through the unique perspectives of Iraqi, Lebanese, and Israeli members with varying views.
“A unique part of the experience of attending the seminar each year is the opportunity to process events as they happen alongside colleagues who are influential in shaping those current events throughout the region,” remarked Asli Bali ’99, a Ribicoff Fellow at Yale Law School and regular participant in the seminar over the past ten years.
The next step for the seminar is the creation of the Journal of Middle East Legal Studies, a forum for publication of the work of the seminar as well as that of other Middle East legal scholars. Anver Emon ’04 LL.M., Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Toronto and a J.S.D. student at Yale Law School, is spearheading the journal effort.
As the seminar has evolved, so too has the role of Yale Law School students within it. A number of this year’s presenters first became involved in the seminar as students. The seminar serves as a formative experience for these young scholars. They learn how legal academia functions and simultaneously forge relationships with academics throughout the world. On their way to becoming scholars, students and young alumni use the seminar as an opportunity to present their work to some of the foremost minds in Middle East legal academia, and thereby hone their arguments through open discussion.
“As student attendees, we were inspired to see the number of former students among the panelists,” said Gabe Rosenberg ’08. “Participating in the conference has been a great opportunity to learn about scholarly legal life.”
The student participants in MELSS have also continued the conversation back on campus at the Law School through the Middle East Legal Forum, a student group that engages with similar topics. The forum brings speakers to campus, some of whom are also members of MELSS, to discuss legal issues affecting the Middle East. In addition, the forum developed a reading group on the Middle East that students took for credit.
“It was extremely rewarding to connect with so many prominent figures in Middle Eastern law, politics, and academia over the course of the MELSS conference,” said Alicyn Cooley ’08. “The goal of the forum is to continue to develop these relationships and to bring MELSS participants to the Law School to convey their invaluable perspectives to a wider audience.”
While MELSS has held many successful conferences, its work and the challenges facing it have only just begun. For example, political turmoil has made it increasingly difficult for the group to meet in the Middle East. MELSS has used such obstacles as a lens through which to view the ever-changing political and legal climate in the Middle East. This strength is a testament to the group’s forward-looking perspective.
“The seminar still occupies the unique territory it held ten years ago,” noted Sterling Professor of Law Owen Fiss. “We continue to work together constructively to find shared thoughts and goals with scholars from regions throughout the Middle East.”