Basic research as a bridge
From first tentative contacts towards a stable partnership
The currently close scientific relations between Israel and Germany were by no means something to be taken for granted shortly after the end of the Second World War. Beyond the controversial Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany, there was hardly any official contact between the two countries at that time. But a group of German Max Planck scientists travelled to Israel in 1959 and paid a memorable visit to the recently founded Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Not only did this trip, which was initiated by the Israelis, pave the way to close contacts between the Max Planck Society and various scientific institutions in Israel, but also for the Minerva Foundation.
At the time, Otto Hahn, then President of the Max Planck Society used the German expression “Fühlungnahme” - cautiously putting out one's feelers - to refer to the attempt by German and Israeli researchers to rediscover any common ground, at least in the sciences, in the wake of the Holocaust. Otto Hahn, Feodor Lynen and Wolfgang Gentner accepted an official invitation to the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot in 1959. The agreed strategy for this trip was to avoid any explicit confrontation with Germany’s recent National Socialist past, avoid political and moral issues, and not to touch upon the military aspects of applied research. Instead, the participants wanted to restrict themselves to basic research.
The first German Max Planck researchers took up a research residency in Israel just two years later. The two Institutes formalized their collaboration in the first collaboration agreement, which was concluded 1964. The first Israeli guest scientists arrived at various Max Planck Institutes in 1967.
These attempts to meet and collaborate with one another were made at a time when Germany and Israel were struggling to establish broad-based political relations due to the crimes committed during the National Socialist era. In this context, basic research presented a strategically important field that both sides could nurture regardless of socio-political ruptures.
So science was able to make some contribution towards attempts to come to terms with a recent history, which, until then, had placed an insuperable wedge between Israelis and Germans, a fact that Chancellor Willy Brandt acknowledged during his visit to the Weizmann Institute in 1973 when he said: "The moment we began to be like other nations again was when professors came to work with us not only from America and Russia, France and Poland, but also from your country."
The Minerva Foundation as a flagship of collaboration
Initial encounters between Israel and the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft researchers, which were primarily focused on science, were followed by targeted and long-term project collaborations at the Weizmann Institute of Science, to which end the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft founded the Minerva Foundation as a subsidiary in the 1960s. It is still one of the flagships of German-Israeli scientific collaboration. The foundation is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and collaborates closely with all major Israeli universities and research facilities.
Active programmes at the Minerva Foundation include:
- The Minerva Weizmann Programme at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel
- The Minerva Centres Programme, which is a research programme implemented at Israeli universities and the Weizmann Institute (currently encompassing 23 Research Centres in Israel)
- Financial support of junior scientists through the Minerva Fellowship Programme which funds 70 fellowships for junior German and Israeli scientists (of which approximately 35 are granted per annum) as well as through the Minerva Short-term Fellowship Programme, which provides stipends for 30 research fellows per annum to facilitate research stays in Germany or Israel of between one and eight weeks.
- Support for junior scientists through conferences: German-Israeli Minerva Schools (2 to 3 per year)
- The development and staffing of new, innovative research areas in the form of German-Israeli Minerva-Gentner Symposia (2 to 3 per year)
The quality assurance, competitive project and research centre selection rules championed by the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, are also implemented in the Minerva programmes.