The Human Factor: Personal Networks and the Emergence of German–Israeli Cooperation in the Humanities

© Arnell Koegelenberg/ –

Guest author: Ralf Grötker, Journalistenbüro Schnittstelle

In the project “The German-Israeli Research Cooperation in the Humanities (1970-2000): Studies on Scholarship and Bilaterality”, scientists of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center at the Hebrew University Jerusalem and at the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt am Main jointly examine the origins of the German-Israeli research cooperation in the fields of history and literature.

“One of our aims is to explore the extent to which political motives interfered with scientific interests in the humanities”, explains Irene Aue-Ben-David, who coordinates the project, which started this spring, at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute Aue-Ben-David has already authored a history of science doctoral thesis on Selma Stern, the historian and co-founder of the Leo Baeck Institute. As a postdoc she has researched Constantin Brunner, the German-Jewish philosopher and literary critic. The research material, which Aue-Ben-David and other scientists study in the “The German-Israeli-Cooperation in the Humanities (1970-2000)” project, mainly comprises archive material, for example, correspondence and conference reports as well as partly planned and partly actual interviews with leading representatives of history and German studies, who had been involved in establishing the German-Israeli research cooperation at the time.

Latecomer: The Humanities

In contrast to the research cooperation in the natural sciences, which had already started in the 1950s (see: History of German-Israeli Research Cooperation), the first joint humanities project only came about in the 1970s. “We want to find the reason for this asynchronicity”, Aue-Ben-David explains.

“What we have discovered so far from examining the correspondence shows that the contacts in the natural sciences were already far more intensive in the 1970s, while the contacts in the humanities were still tentative.” One should keep in mind that Israel formulated specific guidelines for relationships with Germany in the education and culture sectors in the early 1960s. This lead to violent clashes in the parliament. Consequently, regulations were adopted that allowed only limited cooperation with Germany in this field.

Against Political Resistance

Even years later there were strong debates concerning the establishment of a division for German language and literature (which was finally institutionalized in 1977) at the Hebrew University Jerusalem. “For our research project, I conducted an interview with Alice Shalvi, a literary scholar originating from Germany, who was present at the crucial meeting to vote on establishing the division. She told me that the resistance which flared at the faculty took her totally by surprise. In her opinion, a conflict between German Jews and Jews originating from Eastern Europe also played a role in this situation. We will of course follow up such indications.”

The interviews and the analysis of the archive material gradually will create something like a historic sociogram: A display of personal networks in the sciences. Such a sociogram facilitates identifying central hubs and their direct and indirect potential influences. It also makes it easier to recognize groups of exceptionally strongly interlinked actors. The diverse relationships combining the network elements are of particular interest here.

A Historical Sociogram

The humanities in Germany had a particular interest in cooperation with Israeli researchers both on an institutional and a personal level. Aue-Ben-David reports: “The German studies scholar Albrecht Schöne from Göttingen, who advised on the development of German studies at the Hebrew University Jerusalem, hoped, for example, for feedback effects on the revision of the Nazi history of German studies as a subject in Germany. The historian Jürgen Kocka expressed similar sentiments”.

Aue-Ben-David further mentions that the interviews conducted so far indicate that generation specificity is a criterion that strongly nurtured the interests and perceptions of single scientists who were personally committed to the development of German-Israeli relations. While older generation Germans had often felt very uncertain in Israel, the point of departure for the younger generation was totally different.

From the outset, Jewish topics attracted much interest in Germany. The theological faculty of the Free University Berlin already established an Institute for Jewish studies in 1963; this was followed by institutions in Cologne (1966) and in Frankfurt am Main (1970). Even earlier, in the 1950s, numerous local initiatives lead to non-university research institutes for German-Jewish history, including the specialised library Germania Judaica in Cologne (1959) and the Institute for the History of the German Jews in Hamburg (1966).

“A huge open question in our research project is whether the establishment of the numerous research institutions with Jewish themes in Germany actually has something to do with cooperation with Israel, or whether they merely came into existence due to of the booming culture of commemoration at that time”, Jenny Hestermann of the Fritz Bauer Institute explains. While Irene Aue-Ben-David examines the influence of Germany on the Israeli humanities, Hestermann takes the opposite route: She explores the influence of German-Israeli cooperation on the humanities in Germany. Hestermann spent the last four years in Israel: As a doctoral candidate at the Technical University Berlin and at the Hebrew University Jerusalem she wrote a dissertation on German politicians’ state visits to Israel.

How Knowledge travels

Hestermann is primarily concerned with the mechanisms of knowledge transfer. In other areas, such as entrepreneurship research, the transfer of knowledge, information and practical know-how has already been a well-established research field for some time: These fields attempt to discover how knowledge ‘spills over’ from research on industry by observing regional clusters. In the humanities, very little is known of comparable effects – although “spillover” is the mechanisms which is responsible for the much sought-for impact of science upon society as well as on other academic professionals.

The project to reconstruct knowledge transfers from Israel to Germany has proved complex. While there are 12 institutes in Israel dealing with the culture and history of Germany, Germany ― in contrast to the numerous institutions for the study of Jewish religion ― has only one small institution dealing with culture and history of Israeli: The Center for Israel Studies at the University of Munich. “The transfer of persons, themes and knowledge from Germany to Israel is relatively well documented. The other way round is more difficult, as little has happened on the institutional level. At present, I am trying to reconstruct, from old course schedules and event announcements, where any seminars or doctoral lectures by visiting Israeli scientists were held in Germany. From this it might be possible to reconstruct what happened further.”

In November this year, within the framework of the combined research projects, a first colloquium is planned to be held in Jerusalem; in the summer of 2016 an even larger conference will be held in Frankfurt. In conclusion, the results of the two monographs authored by the scientists Irene Aue-Ben-David and Jenny Hestermann will be summarised.

Chronology: Cornerstones of the German-Israeli Cooperation in the Humanities

1953Reintroduction of German language tuition at the Hebrew University (German was banned after 1934)
1958First visit by Otto Hahn and Wolfgang Gentner to Israel to negotiate a natural sciences research cooperation
1959 Resolution on a cooperation with the Weizmann Institute in Rechovot funded by the Max Planck Society, starting capital 3 Million DM
1964 Establishment of the Minerva Foundation with resources from the Max Planck Society, which the BMBF supported with DM 3,65 million annually
1965 Start of diplomatic relations and the exchange of ambassadors between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany
1971 Founding of the Institute for German History at the University of Tel Aviv by Walter Grab. Initial funding by the Volkswagen Foundation
1977Establishment of the chair for German History of the Hebrew University under the leadership of George Mosse
1977Establishment of the chair of the German Language and Literature at the Hebrew University under the leadership of Stéphane Moses. Initial funding by the Volkswagen Foundation
1980 Founding of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center at the Hebrew University
1986Founding of the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development by the ministries of science of both countries, current annual budget € 211 million.
1990Founding of the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University Jerusalem under the leadership of Stéphane Moses
1991Founding of the Helmut Kohl Institute for European Studies at the Hebrew University Jerusalem
2001Founding of the Bucerius Institute for research of contemporary German history and society at the Haifa University, financed by the ZEIT Foundation
2007Founding of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Center for German Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Haifa Center for German and European Studies (HCGES)
2008Founding of the Center for Austrian and German Studies at the Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheba
2012Founding of the BMBF-funded Berlin-Brandenburg Center for Jewish Studies