"The start-up nation’s start-up" – The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and cooperation with Germany

The cornerstone of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) was laid in 1918, three decades before the founding of the State of Israel. Today some 23,000 students are studying in the seven faculties. The university is part of a strong international network. Its most important partner for cooperation is Germany. The Federal Ministry for Education and Research funds a large number of support programs for German and Israeli scientists.

Author: Ulla Thiede/ Translation: Ruth Morris

Is a cucumber red? Or green? How do people react when they are told that it is red? For Rebecca Weil, what resembles a Dadaist attempt of getting people to scratch their heads is an extremely serious matter. In 2012, after getting her Ph.D. in social psychology in Germany, she moved to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) in order to research how we deal with false information. Weil’s long-term period in Jerusalem is financed by the Foundation Martin Buber Society of Fellows in the Humanities. Funding of this German Foundation comes from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The fund is named after the great Jewish philosopher of religion, who was one of the university’s founding fathers in 1918.

In 2015 Germany and Israel are celebrating the establishment of their diplomatic ties 50 years ago, and recollecting the subsequent prolific scientific cooperation. The 1959 visit to Israel of the first delegation of scientists, headed by Otto Hahn, president of the Max Planck Society, was of great symbolic significance. The visitors had taken up an invitation by the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, and made a quick trip to the university in Jerusalem as well. At that time no one could have imagined how intensive the contacts would become one day. Today, Germany is HUJI’s most important cooperation partner.

If today Israel is celebrated as the country of startups, then, as Menahem Ben-Sasson puts it, the Hebrew University is “the start-up of the start-up nation. Because it was a building block on the path to the founding of the Israeli State in 1948.” Ben-Sasson is the president of the HUJI, which in February 2015 established the first joint doctoral program. Its partner university is the Free University of Berlin. Doctoral candidates on this program have two supervising professors, and the universities jointly award the doctoral degree. Students can graduate in any field of study.

Ben-Sasson’s office on Mount Scopus provides a view of the university campus, which in its spaciousness is reminiscent of the campus of an American university. On the city side visitors can behold Jerusalem’s sea of houses, but to the east the eye can get lost in the Judean Desert. This is where in 1918 the foundation stones were laid for the very first Jewish university, in accordance with the resolution of the 1913 Zionist World Congress. The official opening took place in 1925 in the presence of representatives of the British mandatory power in Palestine. Two years earlier the young Nobel laureate Albert Einstein had given the first scientific lecture.

What began with the disciplines of microbiology, chemistry and Jewish Studies has today expanded into seven faculties, fourteen departments and some 90 research institutes. Altogether 23,000 students are to be found in a total of four locations: three in Jerusalem and one in Rehovot. The HUJI also has its own company, Yissum, which files the inventions of their researchers and develops products. Their sales result in an annual income for Yissum of two billion USD (1.9 billion Euros).

Initially, scientific cooperation between Germany and Israel was limited to the natural sciences because this field was considered neutral territory. Topics such as the Holocaust and German responsibility had not yet become the subject of common scientific debate. According to Jürgen Renn, things were different in the seventies. With increasing trust between the two countries, other disciplines were added. When the Minerva Foundation, a subsidiary of the Max Planck Society, opened the first Minerva Center in 1980, it did so at the university in Jerusalem. Known as the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History, since 1986 its head has been Moshe Zimmermann. The center researches German and German-Jewish history.

One element in research cooperation which helps form a bond is the fact that half of the first generation of scientists had been trained in Germany, such as Martin Buber and historian Richard Koebner. Some came to Palestine as convinced Zionists, while others fled Nazi persecution and found a new home for their work on Mount Scopus. “There’s a joke that the Hebrew University is the youngest German university,” says Ruth Fine. This Romance scholar heads the DAAD Center for German Studies at the HUJI. The university structure as reflected in the canon of subjects taught and the prominent role of research are part of the German tradition, explains Fine.

What German Jews contributed to this tradition in culture and literature is being researched by scholars at the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center which was established at the HUJI in 1990. Historian Yfaat Weiss, head of the center, reports on a large number of projects with German colleagues. “There is a whole range of reasons why we are interested in the same topic.” As an example she cites the migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union and the issue of citizenship based on ethnic criteria that until recently applied to the Federal Republic and still applies to Israel.

The Martin Buber Society of Fellows Endowment Fund at HUJI is the youngest support program in cooperation with Israel; it is financed by the BMBF and has existed since 2009. Its endowment capital comprises 20 million Euros, while its annual budget is some one million. Social psychologist Weil is one of ten grantees – five from Germany and five from Israel – who join that program every year. “The Buber Society is rather special because it enables me to undertake research over several years. The conditions are tremendous,” as she puts it.

Like the scientists at the Minerva Centers, the Buber “fellows” work on an interdisciplinary basis: “This means explaining things in a far more thorough fashion: what is done, why it is relevant and why it plays a role of some kind for anyone else,” says Weil. She sees this as a “gigantic advantage because this makes us think outside our own research topics – ‘out of the box.’”

Orit Gazit is a sociologist whose doctoral essay investigates the fate of the Maronites who fled Southern Lebanon and escaped to Israel in 2000. The Israeli scholar is now investigating nationalization tests for immigrants in the West. “The Buber grant makes it possible for me to think along new theoretical and philosophical lines,” says Gazit. This enabled her to track down the essay Der Fremde (“The Stranger”) by the German sociologist Georg Simmel and to subsequently give a presentation at a workshop.

Periodical scientific exchanges favor a sense of community among the Buber Fellows. Gazit enjoyed meeting with her German colleagues so much that she herself wants to carry out research in Germany. 'All journeys have a secret purpose, of which the traveler has no idea' as Martin Buber wrote. For the young researchers this journey has only just begun.