Diplomacy in the background

Was science the forerunner of politics? Dan Diner, Norbert Frei and Yfaat Weiss discuss the complex history and relationships between Israel and Germany

Facilitator: Karen Schönwälder | Transcript: Ralf Grötker

Schönwälder: Can one assume that science cooperation with the Federal Republic of Germany was a precursor of or even a substitute for diplomatic relationships in the narrowest sense?

Diner: According to public opinion, this was certainly the case. In reality, however, it was more complicated. Today, on September 10th 2015 we are invited to an anniversary here in Berlin, an official ceremony celebrating 50 years of German-Israeli research relationships. On the same day in 1952, the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Israel signed an “agreement of reparation” in Luxembourg. After 1952, the rapprochement process came to a halt again. When, in 1959, the physicist Otto Hahn, together with a delegation of the Max Planck Society, visited the Weizmann Institute of Science, the relationship once again gained momentum – first in the sciences, and afterwards also in politics. But the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Israel only established diplomatic relationships in 1965. Taking this into account, it seems as if the sciences played a real pioneering role.

Schönwälder: Did nothing at all happen between 1952 and 1959?

Diner: On the contrary! In 1956 we had the Suez crisis and the Sinai war. Great Britain, France and Israel engaged in combined military action against Egypt, albeit for very different reasons. The intervention by the USA and Soviet Union brought the operation to an end. Israel began to turn more towards European countries whose unification process was accelerated by the Suez crisis. In March 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed, thereby establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and also EURATOM, which is often forgotten. European nuclear research was strengthened, especially in France’s interest. In 1957 a secret military rapprochement between Israel and the Federal Republic followed – a cooperation that turned into a crisis in 1965, and paradoxically led to diplomatic relations. The road from here to 1959 when the German science delegation under Otto Hahn visited Israel was therefore rather short.
There were, of course, previous informal cooperations, for example, with the Technion in Haifa.

The Technion administration, however, was unaware of this. Nevertheless, as a result of the restrictions and the reparation agreement, Israel was flooded with German goods, machines, ships and trains. Along with this, German technicians and mechanics came to Israel for assembly purposes. But this was on a low, purely technical level. Otto Hahn’s visit was particularly important, because of the publicity it generated! Herein the political significance of the associated science relationships lies.

Frei: It was no accident that the American High Commissioner, John McCloy, said in 1949 at the beginning of his term of office in the newly established Federal Republic: The way Germans deal with Jewish survivors will be the “touchstone of their civilised behaviour and their genuine democratic willingness to rebuild”. Establishing contact with Israel was a political task for Chancellor Adenauer, but also a personal matter. He felt that this task was completed with the Luxembourg Reparation Agreement of 1952, for which he needed the support of the Social Democrat opposition, due to critics in his own ranks. Thereafter, the West European integration policy enjoyed first priority.

In the past political context, the 1950s were a phase of stagnation. Only at the end of the decade did critical intellectuals become increasingly noticeable ― people like Günther Grass, Martin Walser and, of course, the Frankfurt School. In the 1960s, the “coming to terms with the past” debate gained momentum. Today, this concept appears to be problematic, as it implies that it is possible to finally shut off the past, but in those days it was a real expression of critical thinking.

To prepare for our meeting, I took another look at the famous 1960 photo of Adenauer and Ben Gurion in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Most commentators interpret this as a highlight of the contact between the Federal Republic and Israel. From my point of view, this photo denotes the end rather than the beginning of a new phase – namely the end of that early history during which German-Israeli relationships were projects of patriarchs and the political elite, rather hidden for the general public. On a societal level, though, things nevertheless started happening from 1952: Individuals were already active in those days, but not on a public level, which only came about through, for example, the “Aktion Sühnezeichen” (Action Reconciliation: Service for Peace).

Yfaat Weiss: On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of German-Israeli relationships, we concentrate on the bilateral moments. This lies within the nature of the issue. However, “bilateral” implies: Here two different entities meet. This is a false picture. Especially in the field of the humanities, it is difficult to draw a clear line between what is German and what is Israeli, or rather, what is own and what is foreign. Even the language, German, has always played a significant role in Israel. It started on the eve of the First World War. The language debate in connection with the formation of the Technion in Haifa is well known. At that time, the debate was whether the Hebrew language could prevail, or whether, for science and research purposes, other European languages, especially German, should be used. In the early years, German was actually a dominant language, but it was replaced by Hebrew at the Technion. Already in those days, long before 1933, there was some resentment towards the German language.

Later, during the Nazi times, many scientists fled from Germany to Palestine. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which enabled Germany to remove Jewish officials – thus also professors – from the civil service was already passed in Germany in 1933. Many of scientists expelled from Germany already had enviable careers behind them. In addition to their specialist knowledge, they also brought German institutional traditions as well as the language to their new homeland. Consequently, there was a certain continuity between the German and the emerging science culture in the former Palestine.

In the post-war period, comprehensive libraries and collections, previously owned by Jews in Germany and plundered during the times of National Socialism, arrived in Israel by means of restitution. Almost all these libraries and collections became part of the national library in Jerusalem and, thus, the foundation of humanities research in Israel. Here too, it resulted in an integration of the German, or rather, a German-Jewish culture.

The German language, although not taught at the Hebrew University since 1934, was always present. Up to 1948, 50% of the professors at the Hebrew University were educated at German universities prior to 1933. Only in the recent past a generation of scientists is growing up and appointed to professorships who have to learn German. Incidentally, the Orientalists already demanded German as a tuition language in 1952, because a large part of the research literature was still in German in those days.

Schönwälder: How can it be that there are scientists in Israel who wish to cooperate with the people and institutions responsible for their expulsion from academic life during the Nazi regime? Was it easier in the natural science, despite their involvement in armament and crimes, than in the humanities, where the official establishment of science relationships started much later?

Diner: The initial cooperation took place in the theoretical physics field and in pure basic research in other natural science subjects. The decidedly theoretical focus was supposed to prevent technicians and other staff from having contact with the operations at the Weizmann Institute. In the humanities, absolute silence prevailed. The humanities had a very specific problem: Almost all the Israeli humanities scholars had a German-speaking background, originating, if not from Germany, from Czechoslovakia or other East European universities where German was highly regarded as an academic language. In those days, as a cosmopolitan academic language, German was, in certain respects, definitely also a Jewish language. After 1945, the attitude towards the German language changed. It was perceived as a much hated command language. One just didn’t want to hear German anymore. The Israeli academics only spoke German privately. The private libraries were, however, full of German books and literature. This was obvious, but publicly not legitimate. It was, therefore, very difficult to take up real, open and official academic contacts in the humanities.

And yet, German was present, even if it was very theme-specific. Two areas can be identified: Holocaust research and research on the German labour movement. The latter was very relevant in the 1970s. The example of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s support of PhD students illustrates this. The German labour movement’s tradition has also had a very deep impact. Fritz Naphtali, the theoretician of the German trade union movement and of the economic democracy in Weimar, was agricultural minister in Israel under the name Perez Naphtali in the 1950s. He represented this tradition and introduced it to Israel in the post-war years. Almost all Israeli historians of the older generation were supported by institutions like the Ebert Foundation, i.e. political research funding institutions, during their careers. They mainly wrote their major works in German. These institutions, and not the big national and public science funding institutions, supplied the fertile ground for the German humanities’ later success in Israel.

All this, however, happened in a rather covert and isolated context. At conferences in the 1980s and 1990s, academic questions were still discussed in English, although most, actually all the participants were competent German speakers. This has only changed in recent years. Today, German is accepted.

All in all, one must not forget: Israel is also a piece torn out of Central Europe. And this torn-out piece searches for its counterpart. In this respect, the German-Israeli science relationships are of a special density and intensity even if those practising it currently are not always aware of it.


Karen Schönwälder is head of the research group at the Max Planck Institute for the study of religious and ethnic diversity. She has been professor at the Georg August University Göttingen since 2011.

Dan Diner is a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and professor at the Historical Seminar Leipzig University.

Norbert Frei is professor of recent and modern history at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena. He heads the Jena Center for 20th Century History.

Yfaat Weiss is director of the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center. She was head of the history faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 2008 to 2011.