Human Rights under Pressure

Human Rights under Pressure: The Joint Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Cooperation with Freie Universitat Berlin


The Faculty recently launched a new interdisciplinary and international doctoral program focusing on the area of human rights. Our students participate in the program alongside doctoral candidates from Freie Universitat Berlin, a German “University of Excellence”. Two of the students in the program – Attorney Limor Yehuda and Attorney Rawia Aburabia – told us about their areas of research and shared some insights about this fascinating program.


- Sapir Dayan -



The joint doctorate program launched by the Faculty and the Freie Universitat Berlin is the first ever joint Israeli-German doctorate program in any academic field. The program is entitled “Human Rights under Pressure – Ethics, Law, and Politics” ( After a lengthy competitive selection process, the Einstein Foundation Berlin and the German Research Foundation DFG approved grants totalling 4.5 million Euros for the first five years of the program. The grant is intended for the formation of an international research group that will engage in joint interdisciplinary research at the Freie Universitat Berlin and at the Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Faculty of Law in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Rawia Aburabia
(photo: Gil Eitan)


The highly-prestigious program provides full funding for three years for the participating doctoral candidates, enabling them to devote their time to research. The researchers are examining aspects relating to the three most pressing contemporary challenges to human rights concepts: crises and states of emergency; multiculturalism; and globalization. The program is interdisciplinary, including doctoral students and researchers from a wide range of fields, such as law, political science, international relations, philosophy, criminology, history, sociology, comparative ethics, and education.


After a long and rigorous selection process requiring participants to be admitted both to their academic department of choice and to the program itself, seven outstanding doctoral candidates were chosen on both sides to join the first cycle of the program, and an additional six on each side have been recently selected for the second cohort, to begin their studies in October, 2015. The participants were selected from many dozens of research proposals submitted from around the globe. As part of their application, students were required to submit a detailed and coherent research plan and the approval of the plan was a key condition for admission to the program. The doctorate program is intended for the most outstanding students, but does not gauge excellence solely in terms of academic prowess. Several of the participants in the program have worked in civil society organizations and achieved excellence in their field of practice. After a long period of being engaged in practical work, they now feel the need to return to academia.


Attorney Aburabia, for example, began her career as a social worker, but felt that she lacked the tools to secure meaningful change. She went on to study law and became an attorney. After completing a Master’s degree at American University Washington DC, she worked for many years in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel as the head of programs for the Arab and Bedouin population in the Negev. She was also a member of an action group working to secure equality in laws relating to personal status.


Attorney Aburabia, how would you describe the transition from grassroots activism to academia?

“It wasn’t an easy move. I have a constant feeling that the grassroots are calling me and that I need to strike a balance between activism and academic research. In order to be a serious researcher I have to devote time to sitting down to study, read, and investigate. When I think about it, though, my research work is also motivated by activism. The subject I am working on is activist, and I guess that for me activism will always be there in the background. It’s simply a question of proportions – times when I’m a bit more or a bit less involved in activism. I can’t totally detach myself from the practical world, even when I’m engaged in academic work. This year, for example, I’m teaching a course, and that gives me an opportunity to combine theory and practice. In fact, I’m very interested in the interaction between academia and practical work. I don’t think that academia should be isolated from the field. Our academic work should yield tools that can help us secure social, political, and feminist advances.”



Limor Yehuda 
(photo: Faculty of Law website)

Tell us about your research subject.

“I’m writing about laws of personal status (marriage, divorce, and so forth) as these affect the Bedouin-Arab population in Israel from a political and legal perspective. I am attempting to argue that political perspectives influence personal status law in Israel. For example, I’m looking at what happens to women in the Sharia courts and how politics influences the law in general, and personal status law in particular. What really interests me is to examine the patriarchal and political perceptions surrounding family law in Israel, including the intricate colonialist roots of these laws.”


In your former position in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel you defended the rights of the Arab population in the Negev. But now, in your research work, you are involved in criticizing the attitude of this same population toward its female members. How do you cope with this complex reality?


“I think that anyone who believes in human rights is obliged to struggle against all forms of oppression, whether national or social. My research also criticizes the establishment for failing to do enough to protect Bedouin women and for maintaining the status quo in order to keep things quiet. I also criticize my own society and the patriarchal norms it perpetuates. Throughout my working life, I have always spoken out against national oppression while at the same time criticizing oppressive practices against women. I don’t see any contradiction; in fact, I think these are just two sides of the same coin. We need to look at the whole range of oppressions and combat them all. As a woman who is part of Bedouin society, I feel a double obligation to speak out against oppressive norms and work to combat them, since I speak on behalf of women whose voices are not heard.”


What do you hope to achieve through your research?

“I want to expose institutional and patriarchal political mechanisms of oppression and to provide Bedouin women with a voice – both in terms of revealing these mechanisms and in the literal sense of the word. I plan to interview women and ask them about their interactions with the Sharia courts, in order to present their silenced voices. I hope to make an academic contribution to discourse on the subject of Bedouin Arab women and to provide these women with a voice.”


Attorney Limor Yehuda has also returned to academia after working for many years in the human rights field. Attorney Yehuda served as a legal assistant in the team of President Aharon Barak at the Supreme Court. She later spent eight years working in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, including a period as Director of the Human Rights in the Occupied Territories Department.


Attorney Yehuda, why did you decide to return to academic life?

“After working mainly in the human rights field for a lengthy period, I felt that I needed to study various areas and investigate them more deeply. I wanted to revitalize my conceptual approaches, and doctoral studies seemed to offer a good opportunity to do just that.”


Can you tell us about your research project?

“My project focuses on the role and significance of the principle of equality in resolving ethno-national conflicts and in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My supervisors are Professor Barak Medina and Professor Yuval Shany from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Prof. Anne Peters from Freie Universitat Berlin. Law students hear a lot about the principle of equality, and I was intensely involved in this issue during my period in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Now I’m interested in examining whether this principle can be helpful in the context of conflict resolution. The principle of equality is a key foundation of our concept of justice. My hypothesis is that just as the violation of the principle of equality is one of the root causes of the conflict, so respecting equality could be a milestone on the path to its resolution. I will be considering the significance and function that equality could play in the transition from conflict to conflict resolution. We don’t usually think about peace processes and signed peace agreements as areas that are subject to the law – despite the fact that the outcome of the process is an agreement, which is ultimately a legal document. I’d like to examine whether his basic legal principle could be relevant to peace processes, and if so – to define exactly what this means and what ramifications it has in these contexts.”



Professor Tomer Broude of the Law Faculty and the Department of International Relations, serves as the Academic Director of the program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He explains that the research group includes a diverse group of students who are examining a wide range of subjects. This creates fertile ground for mutual enrichment – an essential component in this type of research, which must reach the very highest standard. Every year, around 14 new students will join the group, so that by the third year – the peak year of the project – it will comprise approximately 40 participants, divided equally between the Hebrew University and Freie Universitat Berlin.


Tomer Broude
(photo: Faculty of Law Website)


The joint aspect of the program is manifested in various ways. First, each research student has two supervisors, one from Jerusalem and one from Berlin. Since the two academic cultures are different, this should enrich the research work. Many of the professors on the Israeli side have a background of academic studies in the United States, whereas Germany maintains the long-standing and revered Continental tradition. Accordingly, the supervisors will complement each other and provide the doctoral students with different perspectives.


Second, several joint seminars will be held in Israel and Germany over the course of the year. The program began with a workshop in Israel attended by all the students, including lectures by senior academics in the field of human rights. At the end of the year, a summer school will be held in Berlin. The students will participate in training sessions on various subjects led by outstanding lecturers, including professional guidance in areas that are not always taught at university: how to publish articles; how to cope with the psychological pressure that results from the need to write a vast quantity of material over three years; how to prepare a successful presentation, and so forth. One of the goals of the program is to provide tools for students who choose to move on to areas outside academia, so that their education can provide added value wherever they find themselves.


Third, the program includes an exchange period. Each participant is required to spend between one semester and eight months at the partner institution. This will open up additional sources and enhance the participants’ ability to engage in high-quality comparative research. Although the research projects are not all comparative per se, it is always possible to find points of reference in the host country. For example, one of the projects, focuses on urban rights. In an age when humans increasingly live in cities, the question arises of the rights they enjoy in this context. Do city-dwellers enjoy ecological rights? Is there a right to urban quality of life? The doctoral student examining this area, Nir Barak, will undertake part of his work in Berlin, one of Europe’s leading metropolises, providing the potential to enrich his research. Rawia Aburabia, the doctoral student examining polygamy in Bedouin society will also be able to examine a migrant society such as Germany, including such aspects as the turning of an official blind eye to questionable practices, or family unification in the context of refugeehood and the extended family. Again, this will add a new element to the research project.


Attorney Aburabia confesses that “the life of a doctoral student is a lonely one. You have to sit down and write, and that’s a highly individual activity. This program provides doctoral students with an academic community – and not just a community, but one that brings together researchers under the umbrella heading of human rights, and whose participants have already been involved in academic and practical work in this field. This community provides opportunities to consult with colleagues, exchange ideas, and provide mutual support. Every two weeks we have a workshop where we hear lectures by leading names in the field. This broadens our horizons and provides us with a theoretical foundation for examining what is happening in the field around the world. Another advantage of the program is the community aspect. The community isn’t just a legal one. It’s multidisciplinary, and that broadens the prism still further and enables us to think about our research from other angles, and not only from the standpoint of law. In my own project, I’m trying to use different approaches to examine the phenomenon, including political explanations. Another important feature of the program is the partnership with Berlin, as an example of an international academic community. At the end of the year we will be participating in a very intensive summer school in Berlin, where we will have to explain the progress we have made in our projects and get feedback from our supervisors. I’m very pleased with the program.”


Attorney Yehuda adds: “The Faculty is providing very strong support for the doctoral students, enabling us to free ourselves of other preoccupations and devote our time to our research. The encounter with other students who have similar areas of interest and motivations is very positive. The international dimension of the program is another important and interesting feature. The most interesting aspect, and also the real challenge, is that the participants come from different disciplines. It isn’t always easy to contain all these different perspectives, but it’s certainly fascinating and enriching.”


Professor Broude, in what ways does the multidisciplinary nature of the program contribute to human rights research?

“Although the hard core of human rights research is legal, many of those who are involved in the human rights field come from other disciplines, such as political science, history, social work, education, the philosophy of human rights, and so forth. Accordingly, research on human rights must also be undertaken from within these disciplines. Legal research itself is no longer doctrinal in character. These days, legal research does not merely constitute reading court rulings and analyzing them. Modern legal research is increasingly acquiring an interdisciplinary character. Some legal academics are concerned about this and argue that we are losing the dimension of legal expertise, but in my opinion the opposite is true. You have to be very confident in your own discipline to embark on this kind of research, so first of all you need to be a strong legal academic. All the doctoral students I supervise are undertaking interdisciplinary research. The Faculty also encourages this – many of our students now are combining law studies with degrees from other departments. The same is true in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Interdisciplinary research enriches and illuminates human rights issues from different perspectives. If a candidate submitted a research proposal in the field of biology, chemistry or bioethics relating to human rights, I’d be delighted.”


Attorney Aburabia adds that “the supervisors make an enormous contribution to the research work. My own supervisor, Professor Michael Karayanni, is interested in such aspects as multiculturalism, religion, and state, and has helped me to examine my own research through these prisms. Dr. Binyamin Blum, who is a member of my supervisory committee and is an expert in the field of the history of law and colonialism, has also helped me to examine my work from that perspective. The German member of my supervisory committee is interested in feminism and feminist movements, and she will be able to help me examine personal status laws from that angle. With the help of my supervisors and the supervisory committee, I can examine my research subject as a case study reflecting a broader phenomenon. This helps me to gain insight from much wider processes in such fields as religion and state, the colonial control of minorities, or patriarchal perceptions of law.”


Professor Broude, how will you evaluate whether the program has been a success?

“First of all, in terms of the quality of the research produced by the participants. As a supervisor, your success is defined by the success of the students you supervise. I’d like to see the graduates of the program tackling the more complex aspects of the human rights field. We see the program as a melting pot for human rights scholars in Israel and around the world.


“Second, we aim to enhance the position the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a leading international institution in the field of human rights. The university already has a reputation in this field, of course, but it’s important to continue to innovate and to produce research at the highest level, including in areas that go beyond conventional paradigms of human rights and include the use of means other than law to respond to human rights problems.


“As the head of the project in Berlin, Professor Hoffmann-Holland of the Faculty of Law at the Free University of Berlin noted, our ultimate goal is to promote innovative and interdisciplinary research in human rights by creating a network of institutions and researchers.”