The Minerva Center Delegation to Northern Ireland: A Fresh Perspective on the Israeli-Arab Conflict

The Minerva Center Delegation to Northern Ireland: A Fresh Perspective on the Israeli-Arab Conflict


For several years the Minerva Center has organized student study tours to areas of conflict where mechanisms for transitional justice have been introduced. The students enjoy an unforgettable experience and observe at first hand the unique ways different countries have found to cope with post-conflict situations and to advance human rights and the rule of law. The study trips are held with the help of generous support from the Gal Foundation in New York.


The Hebrew University’s Minerva Center for Human Rights runs a variety of academic programs that expose students to different human rights issues. Since 2009 the Center has organized student delegations that undertake study tours on the subject of transitional justice in countries that have experienced conflict and introduced various mechanisms for coping with its aftermath. The students engage in an intensive semester program focusing on a country that has introduced transitional justice. The highpoint of the program is a visit to the country, providing an unforgettable encounter with the way in which it is working to ensure a future for its citizens that includes respect for human rights. During the first three years of the program, the delegations examined the issue of transitional justice through the example of Rwanda. Last year for the first time the students visited Northern Ireland, and a second visit is planned for this year.


Transitional justice refers to the efforts by different countries and societies to confront past injustices characterized by the protracted and serious violation of human rights. These countries have experienced civil war, oppressive regimes, and in some cases genocide, and are now moving into an era of reconciliation and rehabilitation in order to ensure a future of respect for human rights and the rule of law. The Faculty of Law’s Transitional Justice Program – the only one of its kind in Israel – includes research, conferences and workshops, guest visitors from Israel and abroad, and student scholarships and internships. The program, which includes a variety of courses for undergraduates and masters students, is supported by grants and donations from Israeli and foreign sources. The Gal Foundation in New York in particular has provided crucial support over the years.


The Faculty of Law offers its students a range of courses in this field, including the Transitional Justice Workshop, which focuses on Northern Ireland as a test case. The workshop is led by Dr. Ron Dudai, who has served as research fellow at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa, and at SOAS in the University of London, and wrote his doctorate thesis at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland – and today is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University's prestigious Martin Buber Society of Fellows.


The group at the University of Ulster's Transitional Justice Institute (standing in the center: Dr. Ron Dudai, Attorney Danny Evron and law faculty student Michal Klein)


The workshop aims to examine and analyze the concepts and foundations of transitional justice in the context of conflict resolution, focusing on the test case of Northern Ireland. The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland were the most prominent and bloody conflict in Western Europe during the period following the Second World War. The process that led to the end of the conflict is considered to have been largely successful, though tensions remain. As part of this process a wide range initiatives and institutions were introduced to apply transitional justice. Among other aspects, the workshop examines comparative aspects. The Minerva Center believes that concepts, methods, and mechanisms for transitional justice used in particular places may help in bringing an end to conflicts in other parts of the world – including our own. 


Ten students from diverse academic backgrounds are selected for the workshop. Almost all the participants have some previous involvement in human rights, conflict resolution, peace building, international law, international relations, or other fields that touch on transitional justice. The highpoint of the seminar is a seven-day study tour of Northern Ireland that exposes the students to the complex issues and the mechanisms for transitional justice that have been established there. 


Attorney Danny Evron, the Executive Director of the Minerva Center for Human Rights, explains that Northern Ireland is an appropriate choice as a case study since the character and complexity of the conflict there is in many ways similar to the Israeli situation. Northern Ireland saw a bloody civil war between Catholics and Protestants that continued over several decades and included extreme acts of terror against civilians. “The issue is even more fascinating,” Evron adds, “since academia and civil society play a central and leading role in the positive process that is taking place there.”



A tour of key neighborhoods in the conflict led by Prof. Peter Shirlow of Queens University Belfast


The Minerva Center believes in the tremendous importance and potential of studying a different place in order to gain a fresh and critical perspective on the place where we live. According to Evron, “In our own conflict, we take things for granted. We tend to make assumptions without being aware of them, everything is very personal and familiar. The workshop enables the students to study in a deep and intensive manner the complexities of the situation in a place that is completely new to them. The students thus come to the tour after having accumulated extensive knowledge in the field, and this allows them to examine what they see on a deeper level. The tour includes meetings, workshops, and visits to various sites accompanied by politicians, civil society organizations, academics, leaders, former commanders and prisoners from all sides of the conflict. The timetable is very intensive and at the end of each day the students participate in a summing-up session to discuss what they saw and heard, and naturally think about these issues in the Israeli context as well.” Evron adds that “There is something very eye-opening about this process. Over the course of the visit, the students realize that the situation is colored in many shades of gray, rather than black and white, and that it’s all very complex and convoluted. Some fascinating discussions develop among the students as they attempt to see how the things they observe there could be applied to our reality in Israel. We live in a reality in which the conflict seems unsolvable. The students’ encounter with inspiring individuals gives them hope that here, too, things could be different. The visit empowers them with the feeling that each one of them can play a meaningful role in the process of reconciliation.”



A discussion with Mark Thompson, Director of "Relatives for Justice"


Michal Klein, a student at the Faculty who participated in last year’s delegation to Northern Ireland, recalls her experiences: “I have no doubts as to which were the two peak moments of the tour for me personally. The first was the encounter with five former combatants from different organizations who are active in the project From Prison to Peace. This project aims to encourage rehabilitation and promote dialogue between combatants from both sides of the divide. The second peak was the insight I gained into the meaning of peace, and the inevitable comparison between Northern Ireland and Israel, that was raised during our summarizing discussion on the last day.” Michal adds that the encounter with the combatants was very intensive and provided an opportunity to ask some difficult and even unpleasant questions. To her surprise, there was nothing uncomfortable about the replies she received. Michal explains that “the gulf between their past and present lives is impossible to fathom: Family life after some of them spent almost a decade in prison, and a militant ideology that has been replaced by the values of equality and equal opportunities. Their ability to talk to people who until 15 years ago were perceived as sworn enemies is inspiring. The course, and the tour as its highpoint, lead you toward a kind of sober realization. When you look at other people’s conflict, the borders between bad and wrong on the one hand and good and right on the other become more blurred. When it comes to our own conflict here, the fact that you are part of a particular narrative and grew up on one side of the conflict sometimes influences the way you think much more than you imagine. The picture of peace raises some serious questions: How to make peace, what peace really means, what forms and models can be used to shape it, and whether the model of Northern Ireland could be applied here.” Michal adds that the tour made her realize that a proper examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must include two levels: On the macro level, a “cold” peace based on the cessation of violence between the two sides; and on the micro level – creating individual transitional justice for each population and initiating encounters between the two populations. “Perhaps that way there will be real change.”



May 23, 1998: The Belfast Telegraph announces the results of the referendum that approved the peace agreement