Path-Breaking Conference Compares Jewish and Islamic Law

April 23, 2012

From High Tech to Holy Text

Conferences explore influence of law on business, religion
Unfazed by the scope of its challenge,the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society spanned 1,700 years of legalanalysis in two spring semester conferences.

In February, “Israel Through the High-Tech Lens” tackled modern-day topics such as challenges for Israeli entrepreneurs, cross-border collaboration in the Middle East, and clean-tech growth. In April, “Legal Heterodoxy in Islamic and Jewish History” started with the 4th century to explore how religious communities have tolerated—or not tolerated—dissimilar legal opinions.

The first conference, which was co-sponsored by the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, drew about 350 corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, scholars, students, and policymakers from Israel and the United States. “We addressed a critical issue for the Bay Area tech community: the future of Israel’s high-tech sector and its deep collaboration with Silicon Valley,” institute Faculty Director Kenneth Bamberger said.

One panel discussed expanding opportunities for Israeli Arabs—who now comprise 0.5 percent of Israel’s high-tech professionals. The hurdles they face include minimal networking opportunities, limited access to capital, and simple geography. “Most Arabs live in the north, two to three hours from Tel Aviv, Israel’s business center,” noted Kheir Abdel Razek, deputy CEO of a nonprofit that promotes employment opportunities for Arab university graduates.

Cisco Systems’ Zika Abzuk described a current national initiative that encourages high-tech companies to recruit Israeli Arabs. According to Jimmy Levy, who manages Israel’s first fund toinvest in Arab companies, “Few have experience managing research and development, sales, and budgets. That makes it hard to raise capital even if they have a great idea.”

Another panel weighed strategic considerations for Israeli tech companies, including decisions involving where to incorporate. Case in point: Incorporating in Delaware brings an advanced system of corporate law and a direct mergers and acquisition process; incorporating in Israel yields a lower corporate tax rate and better investment incentives.

Innovators also need to decide whether it would be in their long-term interest to seek funding from Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist. To keep promising companies within Israel, the
office issues grants covering up to half of a firm’s technology program in return for royalty payments of 3 percent of revenues.

“The catch is that the company must go through a very complicated buyout system if it wants to move its technology and know-how out of Israel,” said Israeli high-tech lawyer Ayal Shenhav. Corporate executive Sharon Segev added, “If we can’t share the know-how among our subsidiary companies in different countries, that’s a problem.”

The Legal Heterodoxy symposium was principally funded and planned by Boalt’s Robbins Collection, an international center for comparative legal and historical studies. Additional sponsors included the institute’s Jewish Law Program and UC Berkeley’s Initiative on Muslim-Jewish Relations, Townsend Center, Jewish Studies Program, and Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.

Noah Greenfield, a graduate fellow in Jewish law at the institute, and Lena Salaymeh, a
Robbins Collection Islamic Law postdoctoral fellow in 2012–2013, played key roles in organizing the event. “In both Jewish and Islamic legal studies, sectarian and minority legal opinions remain relatively underexplored,” Greenfield said.

Scholars analyzed how monotheistic communities reconcile the notion of divine law with the reality of multiple juristic opinions, and how jurists rationalize and defend the diversity of legal opinions in their communities. 

Each panel featured an Islamic law speaker, a Jewish law speaker, and a nonlegal expert involved in comparative research on Islam and Judaism. Boalt professor and Robbins Collection director Laurent Mayali chaired a panel on orthodoxy and heresy, and Bamberger chaired anotheron minority and dissenting opinions.

“Modern scholars of Jewish and Islamic law tend to work in isolation from each other,”
Greenfield said. “We wanted to remedy this oversight and change future scholarship by showing just how productive and crucial such comparative work can be.” —Andrew Cohen