Search, Science and Surprises: Broken glass and electron microscopes – The University of Tel Aviv cooperates with a variety of German partners in different fields of research from biblical archaeology to nanotechnology.

Sourasky Library - © Michal Roche-Ben Ami

Israel’s biggest university TAU is engaged in various joint research projects with Germany: The Wiener Library is home to one of the most comprehensive collections about the Holocaust, researchers at the Stephen-Roth-Institute focus on contemporary anti-Semitism and theoretical physicists call on the interdisciplinary research institute ‘Forschungszentrum Jülich’ to test their models with the German super-microscopes.

Author: Ulla Thiede/ Translation: Jennifer Bligh

Lisa Yehuda remembers vividly how she fell in love with archaeology as a young girl: her greatest joy was digging up treasures in the huge backyard of her grandparents’ house in Thuringia. Her treasures had all kinds of shapes, forms and backgrounds: a plethora of broken tableware from different centuries, gramophone discs and a bronze buckle from the Biedermeier era. Lisa followed her passion and became an archaeologist and expert for ceramics from the times of the crusaders. Now she is working in a German-Israeli project at the excavation site Apollonia, located between Herzlia and Caesara along the Israeli coastline. More specifically, this project is an example of hands-on teamwork between the Tel Aviv University (TAU) and its Institute of Archaeology along with several German Medieval experts. The joint collaboration is supported by the German research-funding organisation DFG.       

With 30 000 students, nine schools and 130 research institutes, TAU is by far the biggest among Israel’s six universities. Given their record in research and patent applications, TAU is undoubtedly ranked among other internationally renowned universities. Founded in 1956, it is intrinsically tied up with the scientific collaboration with Germany which began even before official diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1965. The Minerva Stiftung, a foundation of the German Max-Planck Society, finances four Minerva centres at the TAU. The Minerva-Institute for German History, which is linked to the Wiener Library with its comprehensive collection of original documents from the Holocaust, has been supported by the foundation for 35 years. Another financial partner is the German-Israeli Project-Cooperation (DIP), which is currently funding three DIP-research projects at the TAU.

“Let’s face it, without the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute for Archaeology there would be no biblical archaeology,“ Lisa Yehuda says. For her, Israel as location along with the quality of the institute’s archaeologists are clearly the reasons for the lasting interest of German scientists in cooperating with fellow researchers in the Holy Land. For the Apollonia project, German partners send their research requests to the DFG, whereas for other programmes (like the DIP), the initiative has to come from the Israeli side. These are the rules. Linking back to the word ‘lasting’ – this is a lasting project indeed: archaeologists have been digging in Apollonia since the 1950s. “And still, not even five percent of the city has been excavated,” Yehuda says. She wrote the concept and initiated the collaboration for the current DFG-project that started three years ago. “Our researchers focus on structural and cultural adaptations of the medieval town as well as its links to the surrounding area.”

The Minerva Contract in 1964 laid the foundations to the Israeli-German scientific cooperation. The main sponsor has been the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with its variety of funding programs, complemented by Israeli backing. 

“The Wiener Library collaborates regularly with German researchers who also join us for our international conferences,” explains Roni Stauber, Academic Director of the Wiener Library. The Wiener Library moved to Tel Aviv from London in 1980. In addition, specific projects are also sponsored by the German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), such as the conference ‘Towards Reconciliation: Confronting the Past and Accepting, Accountability in the International Arena’ in June 2015.

The history of the Wiener Library is more than just unique: its founder Alfred Wiener, a German liberal Jew, started documenting the rise of the German National Socialists and the increase of anti-Semitism as early as between the two World Wars. In 1933, he emigrated to the Netherlands and in 1939 to London. “People had no clue about the Holocaust or what was happening in Germany and Hitler’s conquered territories,” Stauber explains. Wiener supplied the governments in Washington and London with enough information about the Nazi atrocities to put a halt to it. “Wiener’s documents were used by the persecutors during the Nuremberg Trials against the Nazis,” Stauber elaborates.

Scott Ury, Head of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, encourages close links to German researchers. Students and scientists regularly meet their colleagues of the “Berlin Research Center on Anti-Semitism” of the TU Berlin. One of the main financial sources is the Ernst-und-Marianne-Pieper-Funds, which was established by a business family in Hannover. Scholarships and various research projects are also financed by the foundation Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. “This enables us to go forward with these projects,” Uri says. “At our institute you can find legal experts, literary scholars, historians and Judaism researchers. We do everything to enable them to excel in their research. Our core understanding is that we are incubators,” Ury explains.  

The German-Israeli Project Cooperation focuses on science: around 90 million Euros have been invested in German-Israeli research projects since 1997. A jury decides on four projects that are supported with an annual maximum 1.655 million Euros over a period of five years.

Rafal Dunin-Borkowsksi is the head of the Ernst Ruska-Centrum (ER-C) at the Research Center Jülich – one of the DIP projects. Scientists gain insight into the world of atoms with electron microscopes that are several metres long. Dunin-Borkowski points out that the network of people who work with electron microscopes is dense with “practically everybody knowing everybody.” The most renowned scientists travel to the ER-C to use these super microscopes.

Collaborating with their Israeli colleagues is rewarding for both sides: “The TAU researchers are extremely strong in theoretical physics,” Dunin-Borkowski says. That makes the German institution a logical partner. The topics are the ‘generation and manipulation of electron waves through nano-holograms and their use’. It is basic research that could become an important pillar for future computer technology or energy generation.

Scientist Neta Erez started her first bi-lateral project around three years ago. The biologist heads one of the 400 labs at TAU. The two financial pillars of her project are the Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology and Space (MOST) and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, where her co-researcher works on the same topic: the development of metastases of skin cancer, which usually develop in the brain and often cause death within a year’s time. “We observe interactions between the cancer cells and astrocytes in the brain that are captured or re-programmed by the tumour cells. Erez believes that this cancer won’t be curable. “However, we do have to understand the physiological mechanisms that lead to metastases and then try to block them.”

Archaeology is a never-ending task, believes Lisa Yehuda. This sentence can be applied to any form of science. Yehuda shows a handful of ceramic shards she recently excavated. While digging at Apollonia she found pieces of broken glass from all over the Mediterranean Sea – 1 000 kilometres from the North to the South and 2 000 from the East to the West. She concludes: “Isn’t that simply amazing!”