September   2010

"The Shiites of Saudi Arabia"

Joshua Teitelbaum`s recent article in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, which analyzes the dilemmas facing the Saudi regime in its relationship with its Shiite subjects, following the strengthening of Shiite Iran, the Moshe Dayan Center

Stability in the Face of Social Change

Gender Mixing in Saudi Arabia, Joshua Teitelbaum , the Moshe Dayan Center, Dedicated to the Memory of My Friend and Colleague Prof. Joseph Kostiner
This picture might not be considered particularly remarkable, except for one thing: It is a photograph released in May 2010 of the King of Saudi Arabia and his Crown Prince in the company of women. Saudi Arabia is known as one of the most conservative countries in the world with respect to the role of women and women’s rights. Women are forbidden to drive or travel without being accompanied by a male relative.

But Saudi Arabia is actually a society in transition. This is a very slow shift, imperceptive to the unpracticed eye but quite noticeable to those familiar with Saudi history. To be sure, the West continues to be concerned that funds from Saudi Arabian citizens are still making their way to terrorist organizations, even though it appears that the government is making efforts to halt this flow. On the other hand, Abdallah is making slow strides in reforming Saudi society, and that should please all those concerned with the stability of the Saudi regime.

In particular, the subject of women’s rights is moving front and center. According to a recent study by the Researchers’ Center for Women’s Studies in Riyadh (Markaz Bahithat li Dirasat al-Mar’a) that examined Saudi newspapers and websites in January and February 2010, 40 percent of print media articles and 58 percent of articles appearing on websites dealt with women’s issues. Although the study did not compare earlier periods, it was anecdotally clear that this was indicative of a huge jump in coverage of the subject. Activists are now gearing up for a campaign to allow women to participate in the nominally democratic but symbolically important municipal elections, slated for Fall 2011.[i]

Not Yet In The Driver’s Seat, But Headed That Way

Over the past year, the issue of gender mixing (ikhtilat) has become a hot topic in the Kingdom. It was sparked by the late September 2009 opening of the King Abdallah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is designed to be a cutting edge, coeducational research and graduate education facility – Saudi Arabia’s first. Ever since unofficially taking over the running of the country in 1995 from his ailing half-brother King Fahd, King Abdallah (officially, since 2005) has surprised many who thought he would be a very conservative leader. He slightly liberalized the press in 2000 and initiated a discussion of the status of women, a previously taboo subject.

By establishing KAUST and naming it after himself, Abdallah sent a strong signal – things were going to change for women in Saudi Arabia. Essentially, he threw down the gauntlet to the kingdom’s conservative forces, daring them to take on gender mixing at the new research facility personally sponsored and funded by the King.

The response was not long in coming. Shaykh Muhammad al-Nujaymi, chairman of the Interior Ministry’s Advisory Committee on Religious Affairs, came out against gender mixing at KAUST, adding that Muslim women would have to wear a head covering (hijab).[ii] In October 2009, Shaykh Sa`d al-Shithri, recently appointed by Abdallah to the highest religious body, the Council of Senior `Ulama, attacked gender mixing at KAUST, saying that it was not allowed in Islam. Abdallah reacted immediately, sacking him.[iii] The daily al-Watan’s liberal editor, Jamal Khashoggi, wrote that al-Shithri owed his position to Abdallah, and therefore should not speak out against “the King’s university.”

Al-Shithri’s firing was indeed a signal to all the clergy, and they were quick to toe the line. The head of the Mecca branch of the religious police ("The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice"), Shaykh Ahmad bin Qasim al-Ghamidi, gave a detailed explanation why gender mixing was permitted in Islam, based on examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (the hadith). He stressed that whoever condemned KAUST for gender mixing did not properly understand Islamic teachings, and called KAUST “that blessed university.” Those who opposed gender mixing, he concluded, hypocritically applied a different standard even in their own homes.[iv]

Other Saudi religious leaders, as well more prominent scholars from overseas, soon joined al-Ghamidi in endorsing the Saudi King’s efforts. These included probably the most well-known contemporary Islamic jurist, Qatar-based Shaykh Yusif al-Qaradawi, and the Grand Mufti of Egypt, ‘Ali al-Jum`a.[v]

But some scholars tried to demonstrate that they were not in the pocket of the Saudi royal family. Shaykh `Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, a well-known fundamentalist firebrand who does not hold an official position, issued an Islamic legal opinion (fatwa) decrying gender mixing. “As advocated by modernizers,” he declared, gender mixing was forbidden since it allowed people to see forbidden things and to conduct forbidden talk. More important was what al-Barrak had to say to those who permitted such mixing: “Whoever allows this mixing allows forbidden things, and whoever allows them is an infidel and this means defection from Islam. Either he retracts or he must be killed, because he disavows Islam and does not observe Islamic law.”[vi]

Calling someone an infidel, and thereby permitting their blood to be shed, a practice known as takfir, is old Wahhabi praxis, but is rejected by many Islamic scholars, including Saudi ones. The general trend in Wahhabism since the 1920s has actually been to support the rulers in nearly every case, and if correction was needed, it was to be done privately. Al-Barrak, however, had basically called King Abdallah an infidel.

Not surprisingly, the Saudi press exploded with calls for al-Barrak to be put on trial. Several media personalities and journalists called for an official statement outlawing such extremist decisions, which caused hatred and even terrorism. There was none. But among al-Barrak’s defenders was Shaykh Nujaymi, who had been fired for opposing gender mixing at KAUST.[vii]

The development of the Internet in the Arab world should have put Shaykh Nujaymi on notice that he could be – and was – being watched. In March, he traveled to a conference in Kuwait marking International Women’s Day. There he was caught on video engaging in gender mixing, including joking with an unveiled woman. The video went viral as numerous bloggers used it to demonstrate his hypocrisy. The schadenfreude was palpable. Moreover, a Kuwaiti website then published additional pictures of his encounters with women – some unveiled – during his visit. Al-Nujaymi was finally forced to respond , which he did by insisting that this type of gender mixing was allowed by Islam, in order to instruct misguided women.[viii]

The issue of gender mixing was not limited to KAUST. In March, Yusuf al-Ahmad, professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, called for demolishing the Grand Mosque in Mecca to allow women-only floors during the pilgrimage rituals. Again, the response was withering, emphasizing the ridiculousness of al-Ahmad’s idea.[ix]

Abdallah’s balancing act was on view in late April. During that month, the Kingdom’s chief cleric, the Grand Mufti, told al-Ghamidi, who had supported gender mixing at KAUST, to stop pronouncing on these issues. On April 25, he was fired and then immediately reinstated. It was a confusing incident, but illustrated both that the control of the conservatives was waning and that they were still a force for the King to reckon with.

This debate will continue. The King made a graphic statement about it in early May, when he and the Crown Prince posed for the above photo with about 40 Saudi women. It was as if he was saying, “take that, you who oppose progress!” Henceforth, an attack on gender mixing could be viewed as an attack on the King himself.

Saudi attitudes are slowly changing, with King Abdallah’s encouragement. Even though Saudi Arabia filters the Internet, determined people can surf the sites they wish. And the Internet, dominated by young people, is a new arena for public expression where Saudi men and women are giving vent to their feelings. But Abdallah is still performing a certain balancing act. Much of Saudi Arabia`s approach to reform is of the “two steps forward, one step back” variety. KAUST will likely remain an `ulama-free zone and a place where genders can mix. But the issue of women’s role in society is a hot topic, and even the fact that it is being discussed is in itself noteworthy. In early April, the mass circulation daily al-Riyadh published a long article exploring how the driving ban might be lifted. One suggestion was that it be done gradually, one city at a time. The fact that this was being discussed openly and at length in a major daily, and not an Internet site, illustrated how women’s rights have become a touchstone topic in Saudi society. One may conclude that the dam has broken, and the level of women’s rights is slowly rising. But the time when someone can proclaim, “Ladies, Start Your Engines,” is still a ways off.

Getting a Tail Up on Conservation?

Dr. Shai Meiri of The Department of Zoology develops advanced method for measuring lizard weight from size  

Lizards are an important indicator species for understanding the condition of specific ecosystems. Their body weight is a crucial index for evaluating species health, but lizards are seldom weighed, perhaps due in part to the recurring problem of spontaneous tail loss when lizards are in stress.

Now ecological researchers have a better way of evaluating these lizards. Dr. Shai Meiri of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Zoology has developed an improved tool for translating lizard body lengths to weights. Dr. Meiri’s new equations calculate this valuable morphological feature to estimate the weight of a lizard species in a variety of different ecosystems.

“Body shape and body size are hugely important for the understanding of multiple ecological phenomena, but there is a need for a common metric to compare a multitude of different species,” he says.

Building a lizard data bank

In a study published recently in the Journal of Zoology, Dr. Meiri evaluated hundreds of lizard species: long-bodied, legless species as well as stout, long-legged species; some that sit and wait for prey, others that are active foragers. Based on empirical evidence, such as well-established behavioral traits, he built a statistical model that could predict weights of lizards in a reliable, standardized manner, for use in the field or at the lab.

For the study, Dr. Meiri looked at a large sample of lizards –– 900 species in 28 different families –– and generated a dataset of lizard weights, using this dataset to develop formulae that derive body weights from the most commonly used size index for lizards (the length of the head and body, or “snout–vent length”). He then applied a species-level evolutionary hypothesis to examine the ecological factors that affect variation in weight–length relationships between different species.

Predicting post-disaster damage to the environment

How can this standardized metric protect our environment? “It can help answer how lizard species may react if there were major shifts in the availability of food due to climactic changes,” he says.

In the future, zoologists will be able to use Dr. Meiri’s method to better predict which communities of animals will shrink, grow or adapt to changing conditions, even after massive environmental disasters like the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Turning out film talent in Tel Aviv

The Department of Film and Television
Award-winning Israeli directors, writers and producers say they owe their success to the film school that made them "independent" and "warrior-like."
Israeli film has achieved a significant international presence in recent years. What`s less well known is that many of the award-winning directors, writers and producers are graduates of Tel Aviv University`s (TAU) Film and Television School.

Situated in a non-descript grey building on the university`s Ramat Aviv campus, where cats lurk in the basement corridors and studios are packed with what at first glance appears to be mounds of junk, academics and former students of the film school appreciate their alma mater`s encouragement of "a free spirit" combined with "discipline."

There are a number of film schools in Israel including the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Sapir College in Ashkelon, and the Ma`ale School of Television and the Arts, which is the only religious film school in the country. Founded in 1972, however, TAU`s film school is the oldest in the country, and the only one that is part of a university.

It has educated directors such as Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir); Yaron Shani, who co-directed the recent Oscar-nominated Ajami; and Eytan Fox (Walk on Water, The Bubble). Over the past four years, films made by the school have won over 100 awards, received six student Academy Award nominations and been screened at film festivals worldwide. This is aside from the numerous prizes bestowed on its alumni.

Not just technique, it`s about culture too

Reuven Hecker, who heads the film school and is also a writer, documentary filmmaker and graduate of the department, thinks that its success stems from the school`s intensive combination of theory and practice. Moreover, he believes that filmmakers must be well educated and open-minded. The benefit of being part of a university, he tells ISRAEL21c, is that in addition to the theoretical classes on film, students can study other subjects that interest them.

His colleague, award-winning director, screenwriter and graduate of the school`s first graduating class, Eitan Green, adds that "the school is not just about technique, it`s also about culture in all its aspects. Young people are exposed to the history of cinema as much as the history of art."

Shani`s decision to attend was influenced by the school`s high level of academic studies. He says that one of its strengths is its comprehensive teaching of the theory and background of film. The school also taught him the importance of film criticism, which he describes as a crucial component of his development as a filmmaker. "A filmmaker needs to understand the meaning of criticism, in order to know the meaning of a good film," he says.

Shani tells ISRAEL21c that the city of Tel Aviv itself contributes to the school`s ability to develop talent, since it`s "the most important cultural center in Israel. It attracts people who are ambitious, who want to succeed, so naturally TAU is the place to study."

Learning to be warriors

Hagai Levi endorses the role that ambition plays. Levi created In Treatment, the award-winning Israeli TV drama series which was adapted in the US to critical acclaim, winning both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. One of the scriptwriters was Folman, his former classmate.

"We were in the real world from the minute we were at the school. We had to fight for everything and think for ourselves all the time. But it gave us the right attitude for the film world," he says, "making us independent and quite warrior-like."

At the time, he continues, TV was not a realistic work option. There were no commercial or cable channels in Israel prior to 1990, so "when we were studying we probably knew that either we would have to make feature films or do nothing. So in a way the school forced us to be ambitious and persistent."

Levi, too, chose the school because of its connection to the university; the department is within the Katz Faculty of the Arts. "It was important for me to receive a broad education, not just learn how to make films," he recounts. While he says that some of the teachers were real intellectuals and not the most practical film teachers, "... we were given such perspective and I owe much to the school."

Admission is competitive, with five or six applicants for every one of the 180 to 200 places, explains Prof. Hannah Naveh, dean of the Arts Faculty. Unlike other film schools, potential applicants do not submit a film; TAU selects its students according to their grades, so that those who are can`t afford to produce their own films are not at a disadvantage.

Encouraging free spirit and discipline

Since most students enroll post-army and post-travel, they tend to be around 24 or 25 years old, says Hecker, so they bring with them some life experience. They are not forced into narrow specializations and have considerable creative freedom, but this "comes with responsibility," as they learn that the success or failure of a film rests entirely with them.

Hecker is absolutely clear about the role of his staff. Teachers are there to give students the tools to make their films, "not ours." This means that while teachers will happily provide advice and support, the students themselves must make all the final decisions. Green thinks that this encouragement of "free spirit and discipline" is another one of the reasons for the school`s success.

"I felt that I was thrown out to discover things for myself," says Shani. He acknowledges that learning to be very independent and responsible for his work prepared him to create Ajami. "The disadvantage that I felt became an advantage. As a filmmaker I was more prepared for the real game."

While the awards keep on coming, the school is neither smug nor complacent about its successes or its influence. It still faces challenges. The issue and use of new media is one that Hecker wants to tackle, as this is "the way the world is going."

While much is uncertain about the future of film, it seems clear that many of Israel`s film and TV award winners of the future will pass through this institution.

Focus on
Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People

A historical analysis by Senior Fellow Joshua Teitelbaum
, From the San Remo Conference (1920) to the Netanyahu-Abbas Talks, the Moshe Dayan Center

Research at TAU
Outsmarting Killer Bacteria

TAU develops
next generation of antibiotics to combat drug-resistant "superbugs"

Antibiotics can work miracles, knocking out common infections like bronchitis and tonsillitis. But according to the Center for Disease Control, each year 90,000 people in the U.S. die of drug-resistant "superbugs" — bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a deadly form of staph infection resistant to normal antibiotics. Although hospital patients are particularly susceptible as a result of open wounds and weakened immune systems, the bacteria can infect anyone.

Dr. Micha Fridman of Tel Aviv University`s Department of Chemistry is now developing the next generation of antibiotics designed to overcome this kind of bacteria. And the key, he says, is in the bacteria itself.

"We took the mechanism of bacterial resistance and used this mechanism itself to generate antibiotics," explains Dr. Fridman. "It`s thanks to these bacteria that we can develop a better medication." Conducted in collaboration with Prof. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Dr. Fridman`s research was highlighted recently in the journal ChemBioChem.

Fighting from within

According to Dr. Fridman, certain bacterial strains include enzymes which help the bacteria to inactivate antibiotics. When the enzymes meet with these antibiotics, they chemically alter the drug, making the antibiotic ineffective and unable to recognize its target.

Turning this powerful mechanism against the bacteria itself, the team isolated the antibiotic-inactivating enzymes from the bacteria, then integrated them into the drugs. With this alteration, the modified antibiotics proved to be effective against typically resistant bacterial strains.

At the heart of this development, says Dr. Fridman, was the chemical modification of the parent drug. Once the researchers identified how the bacteria incapacitated the antibiotics, they were able to create a drug that could block bacterial resistance while maintaining the integrity of the antibiotic.

Killing bacteria, saving lives

These new antibiotics will be a vast improvement on today`s drugs, says Dr. Fridman. When fully developed, they could be used to treat infections that are now considered difficult if not impossible to treat with current antibiotics.

Dr. Fridman says that, while the new antibiotics are a few years away from the marketplace, the ability to beat bacterial resistance will be invaluable for the future of health care.


Editor: Roy Polad


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