BYU law school launches a new Jerusalem initiative with lofty aims

New program will allow students to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from afar and up close in hopes of making the world a better place.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Brigham Young University's Jerusalem Center, shown in 2006, will welcome BYU law students next year to study the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Brigham Young University law students soon will have a new way to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — from within the Middle East itself.

BYU Law’s Jerusalem initiative will launch in late April and early May, the school announced Wednesday, in conjunction with the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.

And for the 12 students selected to attend the three-week program, the experience will be funded entirely by generous donors, BYU Law Dean D. Gordon Smith said. Participation will be open to second- and third-year law students with an interest in international law and conflict resolution.

Before the trip, the students will undertake a semesterlong preparatory course to ensure they understand the historical, religious and cultural sensitivities in the region.

The program, Smith said, is seeking students who are “serious, mature [and] dedicated.”

He’s not worried about finding qualified applicants, though. “We’ll have a lot more than 12 [students] who would be terrific.”

Why Jerusalem?

Smith said BYU is a global law school. Many of its students, for instance, speak second languages and have lived outside the United States. That’s why it desires programs that will support students interested in international law and conflict resolution.

Smith said BYU Law regularly sends students to the BYU Barlow Center in Washington, D.C., and the BYU London Centre, but the school wanted to take advantage of all possible resources.

Talks about the Jerusalem initiative began several years ago, Smith said, but didn’t solidify until BYU law professors Ben Cook and Eric Jensen developed a curriculum.

Jensen, who teaches international law, said the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is “steeped in millennia of history,” but the current fight has its roots in World War II. After the genocide of the Jewish people, Jensen said, the United Nations gave the land now known as Israel to the Jews to establish a homeland. In doing so, Jensen said, they “dispossessed” the Palestinians who were living there.

Thus “began a series of conflicts that happened over the last half of the 20th century,” he said, “between Israelis and Palestinians over who should control [this] area.”

Israel exists as a product of international law, Jensen said, and therefore international law is one of the key tools to try to resolve the conflict.

The law professor said students will engage in mock negotiations over issues such as human rights, freedom of movement and property ownership.

“The most important thing they will get [from this program] is a very practical, a very real application of international law and conflict resolution,” Jensen said. “It is one thing to study those topics sitting in a sterile classroom in Provo, Utah. It’s another thing to be actually on the ground where this conflict exists.”

‘Aggressively neutral’

Though students will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the principles they learn in Jerusalem can be applied everywhere.

They could use the same skills, for instance, to explore the current conflict in Afghanistan. The hope, Jensen said, is that students will come away from the program prepared to work on disputes around the globe.

Cook, who teaches international conflict resolution, said the initiative will bring in experts from all sides of the issue so students can develop nuanced views. He hopes students will leave with the knowledge that they can contribute to making the world a better place.

“If we focus too narrowly on our own environment,” he said, “we miss out on valuable opportunities [to] learn from other peoples and cultures.”

Smith emphasized that BYU Law will be “aggressively neutral” when it comes to exploring an issue as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian clash.

“We’re not there for the purpose of choosing a side or promoting a particular outcome,” Smith said. “We’re there to learn and understand.”

He added that safety is a “constant concern” in Jerusalem, but the BYU Jerusalem Center has been hosting students for decades and has proper protocols in place.

The 125,000-square-foot, eight-level building on Mount Scopus, overlooking the Mount of Olives, had planned to welcome back students this fall after a pandemic-related shutdown. But the recent COVID-19 surge has prompted the center to delay its reopening until winter semester, according to its website.

The Jerusalem initiative is expected to become an annual event, and Smith hopes in coming years that more faculty and students can get involved.

“If we can be training our students to navigate situations like this,” the dean said, “I think they’re going to have pretty fruitful professional careers.”