The Technion and the University of Haifa prove that collaborating across subjects and borders can be fertile ground for blossoming research

Haifa is not only home to one of the biggest harbours, but to two major universities: the Technion is the leading institute for engineering studies in Israel. It was founded in 1912 and is Israel’s oldest university. Since 1963, the University of Haifa complements the Technion’s technical range of subjects with humanities, social studies and law. For decades both universities have connected with German research institutes.

Author: Ulla Thiede / Translation: Jennifer Bligh     

Wayne Kaplan points towards the window frame in his office at the Technion. “As you can see, this is a metal frame. It consists of billions of tiny crystals and their size, shape and grain boundaries define the material.”

Kaplan’s field of research is materials science and material technology. His basic research aims to explore how crystals grow. “We do know the ‘why’: heat facilitates growth and the larger crystals merge with the smaller ones. If we only knew ‘how’, we would be able to develop much better materials.” Michael Hoffman of the Institute of Applied Biosciences at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) is Kaplan’s research partner. Their project has been supported by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF) since January 2015.

“If the chemistry between researchers is right, science is catapulted forward,” explains Kaplan. The experienced researcher serves as vice president at the Technion. In the early 1990s, while Kaplan was still working on his PhD thesis, he began to work with German scientists. He first won a research scholarship at the Max-Planck-Institute for materials science in Stuttgart and he was later supported by the Humboldt-Foundation, and the Minerva-Foundation.

“I was able to work with extremely powerful electron microscopes, something we didn’t have at the Technion back then,” Kaplan also explains that the so-called “Stuttgart Mafia” still forms a close community today. “Last May I was invited to a workshop in France and four out of twelve participants were from our ‘Stuttgart Mafia’,” he says. The network now extends to the next generation. “We enable student exchanges,” Kaplan adds.

When the „Technikum“ was founded in 1912, the „Israel Institute for Technology“ was drawing on the German name, referring to the highly acclaimed engineering institutes in Germany.

The founders were thinking ahead: Former Palestine was a poor country lacking considerable amounts of natural resources. Therefore the founders understood that they could only boost a future Jewish state if they had excellent engineers, and started supporting young generations of researchers. Today 13 000 students are at the Technion, studying the range of natural scientific-technical subjects from architecture, urban planning to aerospace technology, IT and computer sciences, medicine and biology. No less than three Technion professors were awarded the Nobel Prize.

The Technion has been closely collaborating with the RWTH Aachen University and the Research Institute Jülich since 1980, joining forces for the Umbrella-Symposia. The 29th Umbrella Symposium about ‘Life Sciences and Engineering Converge’ took place in February 2015 in Haifa. “The Umbrella conferences offer an ideal framework for identifying common research topics, linking up people and creating a positive (work) climate,” explains Kaplan. The next steps are often joint research projects, financed by the EU. The 30th Umbrella Symposium in 2016 is titled ‘from quantum matter to new materials” and will take place in Juelich, Germany.

Less than three kilometres from the Technion is Eli Salzberger’s office at the University of Haifa. Piles of books are spread across the law professor’s desk. Salzberger is the head of the Haifa Center for German and European Studies (HCGES), a joint project by the Israeli university and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Salzberger is in charge of the Minerva Center for the Rule of Law under Extreme Conditions, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research via the Minerva-Foundation.

The DAAD also supports a second Centre for German and European Studies that is linked to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “The DAAD centres in Israel are completely different from the ones in Seoul or Tokyo,” explains Salzberger. “We draw a historical link: The German and European Jews basically made Israel to the country it is today.” He is full of hope that the projects at the centres will contribute to a better understanding between Israel and Europe. “Europe after 1945 and the state of Israel share the same values, namely democracy, rule of law and human rights.”

The Haifa Center for German and European Studies offers MA courses (part-time or full time) as well as doctorates. The studies are multi-disciplinary: historians teach German history; economists the German economic system; there are literature and film courses as well as an introduction to the German legal system; and sociologists hold lectures about different aspects of society. In addition, every student has to attend intensive German classes. The course is now taught in English, previously it was Hebrew only.

For the first ten years, the University of Haifa was an offshoot of the Hebrew University. It became academically independent in 1973. Today 18 000 students are enrolled at its seven faculties, including natural sciences and mathematics. However, the university considers itself an addition to the Technion. Students have the opportunity to attain a dual degree in Law and Medicine, with the legal courses held at the University of Haifa and the medical aspects taught at the Technion.

Both universities also cooperate with the Max Wertheimer Minerva Center for Cognitive Processes and Human Performance. The Technion is proud of their four Minerva-Centers. These interdisciplinary centers for excellent research are financed by the Minerva-Foundation as long as research is ground-breaking.

Another academic bridge to Germany is the Bucerius Institute for Research of Contemporary German History and Society at the University of Haifa. It was founded in 2001 by the Zeit-Stiftung. Its academic head, the historian Amos Morris-Reich, researches German-Jewish history and the history of Anti-Semitism within Science. He specifically studies the way photography has been used for ‘scientific’ racial claims since the 19th century. The institute also explores the beginning of scientific collaboration between Israel and Germany in the 1950s. “This relation was long displayed in a rather one-dimensional way after the Holocaust,” Morris-Reich explains. “I don’t want to re-write history, but to add a few layers.” He is interested in scientists such as the geneticist Jacob Wahrman of the Hebrew University who officially refused to collaborate with researchers from the country of the perpetrators. However, Morris-Reich found out that Mr Wahrman intensely corresponded with German geneticists and biologists as early as in the year 1950.

The Bucerius Institute collaborates with German universities and institutes, grants scholarships for Ph.D. students, organises workshops and invites German politicians, authors and researchers for guest lectures. The Ph.D. student Katharina Konarek is one of the visiting research fellows at the institute. Her field of research is in what way German political foundations in Israel and the Palestinian Authorities influence Germany’s political view on the Middle East. Katharina’s German professor is at the Bundeswehr University Munich, her local historian in Haifa is Fania Oz-Salzberger. Konarek fell in love with the Israeli mentality, “here the doors are open all the time, even the professors are on a first name basis. Everything and everybody is much closer, this is pretty new to me.”