Scientific Cooperation, State Conflict


The Role of Scientists in mitigating international discord

Ambassador Hanan Bar-On,  Advisor to the President, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel
Edited by Allison L. C. de Cerreño and Alexander Keynan And published at the ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES Volume 866 The Role of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Normalizing Israeli-German Relations


To say that since the Holocaust, relations of Israel's Jewish population with Germany cannot be but problematic is to state the obvious, yet the depth of the abyss that prevailed in the 1940s, '50s and early '60s is even now, in 1998, difficult to imagine. Neither diplomatic nor cultural ties existed between the two countries before 1965. All Israeli passports were marked "valid for all countries with the exclusion of Germany."(1) Visits by Israeli nationals to Germany, with the exception of officials, were unheard of and German tourists or visitors did not come to Israel, even despite the reparations agreement between the two states that was concluded in Luxembourg in 1952.
In the late '40s and '50s public attitudes in both countries to the horrors of the war and the Holocaust were ambivalent to say the least. For nearly all Israelis, as for Jews throughout the world, Germany was akin to a "black hole," a place not to be approached and certainly not to be visited - and for many Germans, if certainly not for all, the crimes of the Nazi period were a subject best forgotten.
Yet the leaders of both countries, Prime Minister Ben Gurion and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer knew very well that within the postwar reality neither country could ignore the other entirely. Ben Gurion was convinced that there was a vast difference between the Germany that started to emerge from its total defeat and the Nazi era - and Adenauer, motivated by his own moral convictions knew very well that without confronting the horrors of the past, Germany's re-emergence was nearly unthinkable.
It is against this background that the reparations agreement was negotiated and concluded. For Israel's government this was one of the most difficult and important decisions it had to make. For Adenauer and many of his colleagues, it represented an inevitable step in their attempts not only to make some amends for the past, but also in their effort to regain acceptance within the civilized world.
The importance that Adenauer ascribed to the agreement can be gathered from his recollection of his first conversation in London with the President of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldman: "Of all the important conversations that I ever had, this was emotionally the most difficult and politically most likely the most important."(2) Similar sentiments can be found in Ben Gurion's writings.
While the importance of the agreement was clear to Ben Gurion and Adenauer and both were convinced that the time would come when full diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel would be established, both governments believed the time was not yet ripe. For Israel and world Jewry such relations might have been interpreted as signaling "normalization" of attitudes towards Germany, and for this neither Israel nor Jews throughout the world could have been ready, a mere seven years after the end of the war.
The 1952 London and Luxembourg negotiations foresaw both payments by Ger-many to the victims of the Holocaust and financial aid to Israel in its task of resettling the stream of refugees that had doubled Israel's population since the declaration of Israel's independence in 1948.
Despite the signature of this agreement by both governments, and its endorsement by their two heads, it encountered considerable difficulties in its ratification by both the German and Israeli parliaments. Adenauer had to rely on the votes of the opposition in order to gain approval(3) of the agreement and Ben Gurion faced not only an uproar in the Knesset (Israel's parliament), but also violent demonstrations, organized in the main by the right-wing opposition, that nearly stormed the Parliament building. In Israel the expression "pact with the devil" was used by many to characterize the agreement with Germany. Even after it was finally ratified, the Knesset added a caveat to the legislation which prohibited the establishment of cultural relations with Germany. A large part of Israel's public and media, very much under the traumatic influence of the Eichmann trial, continued to oppose cultural contacts with Germany despite the existence of what were considered mere "official" relations. The government, very much on the insistence of Abba Eban, at the time Minister of Education and President of the Weizmann Institute, managed to insert a condition into the sweeping legislation that prohibited cultural relations, by al-lowing the government to permit such in exceptional circumstances. In subsequent years, and in particular in 1957, Ben Gurion made a number of attempts to persuade the Knesset to agree to the establishment of diplomatic relations, but to no avail.
In Germany, attitudes were similar. There was considerable political reluctance to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The "Hallstein doctrine," according to which the Federal Republic would automatically break relations with any country that recognized the German Democratic Republic, was at that time still one of the cornerstones of Bonn's foreign policy. The apprehension that should Germany decide to establish full relations with Israel, the recognition of the GDR by not a few of the Arab states would be nearly inevitable, made Bonn much less receptive to any idea of normalizing its relations with Jerusalem. It took a severe crisis, caused by the reported presence of German missile experts and scientists in Egypt, which finally led the Erhard government in 1965 to agree, even if rather reluctantly, to the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.
It is against this emotion-laden background that one has to measure the daring of the first cautious steps to try and forge professional ties between the two countries, steps that were initiated by two scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS) in Rehovot. This beginning-and its consequence - is the subject of this short chapter.


In the second half of the 1950s members of Israel's scientific community represented one of the few sectors of Israeli society that often found themselves in physical proximity with German nationals. Scientists from both countries attended international conferences and worked in international scientific institutions. Yet even in these meetings most Israelis refused contacts and most Germans hesitated to approach Israelis. One should not forget that at the time nearly all German scientists were still of an age when in any conversation the question of their past during the Nazi period was bound to come up, just as nearly every Israeli could not but be asked whether he or she was personally seared by the Holocaust.
Quite apart from the prevailing political and emotional climate, there can be little doubt that this question of "age" was one of the major stumbling blocks in the establishment of even cursory human contacts between Israeli and German scientists. Under those circumstances only very few, and only on an individual basis, could try and probe whether a different approach might at all be possible. The first to attempt this was Gerhard Schmidt, a chemist at the Weizmann Institute and chairman of the institute's Scientific Council. Schmidt, who was impressed by the social and political changes that had taken place in Germany, began conversations with a prominent Ger-man colleague, Wolfgang Gentner, in late 1956.
These very private conversations, which did not become public for some time, were followed in 1957 by a bolder approach, when Amos de Shalit, a physicist, at the time chairman of the Department of Theoretical Physics at the Weizmann Institute and later the Institute's scientific director, met also with Wolfgang Gentner, who by then was a director of CERN in Geneva. de Shalit raised with Gentner the possibility of cooperation between Israeli scientists and their German counterparts under the strict proviso that such German scientists would either have a clear anti-Nazi past or belong to the younger German generation. The more concrete question that he raised was whether there was at all a possibility of cooperation between German re-search institutions and the Weizmann Institute.
Gentner was fascinated by the idea. Apart from his obvious interest in science, he was conscious of the difficulties faced by German researchers to regain the respect of the international scientific community and he believed that ties with Israeli scientists would have an important bearing on the future course of German science.
De Shalit's motives in taking the initiative are more difficult to fathom. He died young and so left no personal recollections that could give us a full answer to this question. The most likely and believable explanation is what one of de Shalit's closest scientific colleagues, Shneur Lipson of the Weizmann Institute and at the time chairman of its Scientific Council, said of both de Shalit and Gentner:
I believe both were humanists who realized that although history could not be ignored, we must, in awareness of our common destiny as human beings, try over and over again to find paths that can lead to understanding. Precisely because of their common cause, scientists must cooperate, even beyond the scope of personal and national tragedies. Both sides realized that basic research, in particular, offered such an opportunity for cooperation.(4)
In other words the very small group of Weizmann scientists - de Shalit, Schmidt, and some of their closest collaborators - were motivated by the conviction that science cannot content itself with research only, but because of its very nature might serve as a bridge, even over as deep an abyss as the Third Reich has left in its wake(5). But, as with so many visions, the question that posed itself was how to translate into practice the very tentative ideas generated in the de Shalit-Gentner conversations.


Three conditions were necessary to achieve this goat-encouragement by their respective institutions, political support, and eventually financial support. As can be imagined, agreement to the initiative by the WIS faculty could not but be problematic. From the very outset de Shalit could count on the discreet support of the management of WIS, yet by itself this was not sufficient.
Into this picture entered another personality, Dr. Joseph Cohn, Prof. Chaim Weizmann's former political secretary. He had become the European representative of the Weizmann Institute in the mid-1950s and had located his offices in Zurich. Of Ger-man-Jewish origin, he was convinced from the very outset of his European mission that ways must be found to bring the younger German and Israeli generations into contact. He believed that one of the more promising avenues towards this was cooperation in the basic sciences.
In the wake of the de Shalit conversations, Cohn met in 1958 with Wolfgang Gentner in Geneva. Both were in agreement as to the aim, but both concluded that any attempt to develop relations between Israeli and German scientists would need political backing at the highest level-which meant in practical terms that Adenauer and Ben Gurion would personally have to support such an initiative.
Cohn left the Israeli angle to his colleagues, Amos de Shalit, Meyer Weisgal and Abba Eban, then WIS President and Minister of Education, while he concentrated on trying to interest Adenauer in the project. To that end, Cohn approached an old acquaintance, the American industrialist Dannie Heineman, who was a most colorful personality. Born in North Carolina, Heineman had studied during the 1880s in Ger-many, where he had remained, becoming one of the founders of the AEG, and later of the Belgian power utility. He also pioneered the first electricity corporations in China and Mexico. At the beginning of the century he had befriended Adenauer and stayed in close touch with him over the years. After the Nazis removed Adenauer from his post as mayor of Cologne in 1933, Heineman aided him financially. As Adenauer later remarked in his memoirs: "As mayor of Cologne, I had many friends. Heineman and Prof. Kraus [both Jewish], were the only ones who offered to help me when I was removed from office."(6)
At the beginning of 1959 Heineman wrote to Adenauer, asking him to receive Cohn. The meeting with Adenauer took place in March 1959. Despite some initial skepticism on Adenauer's part, Cohn succeeded in obtaining the Chancellor's support for opening contacts between the younger generations of German and Israeli scientists. The meeting opened doors for Cohn both in German officialdom and economic life and enabled him to pursue the ideas generated by de Shalit, Schmidt, Gentner, and himself.
In the protracted contacts and negotiations that followed, several avenues for possible cooperation were discussed. The most important of these was the possibility of establishing relations between the Max-Planck-Society (MPG) and the Weizmann Institute. Gentner, with the backing of a minister of the federal government, arranged for a meeting between Cohn and the President of the MPG, Otto Hahn, during which possible cooperation between the two institutes was agreed upon in principle and in which, even more importantly, Hahn accepted Cohn's invitation to visit Israel.
In December 1959 an MPG delegation, headed by Hahn, with Gentner and Feodor Lynen as members, visited Israel for 10 days as guests of the WIS. The visit was an unexpected success. The Germans, rather apprehensive at the beginning, were surprised by the relatively relaxed atmosphere they met at the WIS. For the Israelis, despite the natural reserve that greeted the first non-governmental delegation to visit the country, the fact that the past history of all the three members of the MPG delegation was untainted as well as the fact of their scientific eminence eased personal contacts. The Germans were also surprised by the level of scientific expertise they found in Israel, and they concluded that scientific cooperation between the WIS and MPG could be of considerable value for both sides, a conclusion that was strongly echoed in their reports on the visit.
The more concrete result of the visit was a joint memorandum, based on the de Shalit-Gentner discussions and written by Gentner and Schmidt, that suggested a three-pronged program of cooperation between the two institutes including: (1) the exchange of scientists between the MPG and WIS; (2) the commissioning of re-search at WIS by German industry; and (3) support of cooperative research projects by MPG at the WIS, research that would be of mutual interest to the scientists of both institutions. As such activities would need financial support, and the WIS had no funds available, the memorandum suggested that the budgetary support necessary would become the task of a special MPG fund to be established.
As can be imagined, the implementation of such rather far-reaching suggestions still had to overcome considerable obstacles. On the one hand, by the beginning of 1960, the political climate seemed to be favorable, at least as far as the two heads of government were concerned. For Adenauer the rapprochement with Israel was one of his more cherished political and personal aims.(7) For Ben Gurion, who had been kept abreast by de Shalit of Cohn's activities and contacts in Germany, the normalization of relations with Germany was of considerable importance both in his foreign as well as in his internal policies. Moreover the two men were scheduled to meet in the spring of 1960 in New York, a fact that increased Adenauer's interest in being able to present "a token of good-will" to Ben Gurion on that occasion.
Cohn, who knew of the scheduled meeting, met Adenauer early that year and re-ported to him both on the Hahn visit, the Gentner-Schmidt memorandum, and the budgetary problems that its implementation would encounter. Adenauer agreed with the thrust of the memorandum and promised to provide 3 million DM to the project, to be disbursed by the German Foreign Office. He then instructed the German Foreign Minister, Heinrich von Brentano, to inform the Government of Israel that the Federal Government "would be particularly pleased to help the Weizmann Institute."(8)
Theoretically this should have been sufficient to implement the planned cooperation, yet considerable difficulties still arose both in Germany and in Israel. At the WIS the opposition of many scientists to cooperate with Germany was considerably stronger than de Shalit and his colleagues had reckoned. The Institute's scientific council, whose agreement was necessary, was unable to reach a consensus on the desirability of the proposed cooperation, and this despite de Shalit's report on Ben Gurion's backing of the initiative. After a number of rather stormy sessions a compromise with the faculty members who opposed cooperation was reached, al-lowing those opposed not to participate in any cooperative venture with German scientists.
For a number of years this modus vivendi created within the WIS a rather awkward compartmentalization, which was only gradually overcome. Yet the backing of the proposed agreement by the leadership of the Institute and, probably more importantly, its scientific achievements, overcame in time the lingering doubts and hesitations of most, if not all, of the Institute's faculty.
Doubts also developed within the MPG in Germany. Apprehensive of becoming "an instrument of German foreign policy," the MPG authorities were uneasy with the involvement of German governmental funds. Also, some statutory difficulties arose, as the MPG was limited in accordance with its statutes "to the support of its own institutions:('9) The problem was not whether cooperation with Israeli scientists and the WIS was desirable (this had already been answered in the affirmative), but whether the suggested modalities conformed with the statutes of the society. On this point, the MPG had grave doubts.
An interim solution to this particular problem was found when the German government transferred the initial funds directly to the WIS. By 1961 a more permanent solution was found when the MPG created, initially for different purposes, a separate entity, the Minerva Foundation, which ever since has become the MPG'S major vehicle for cooperation with the WIS and Israeli science.


Actual cooperation started very cautiously. The political atmosphere was once again not overly conducive. The Eichmann trial had begun, and with it not only the memories but also the reality of the Holocaust surfaced again into the public consciousness of Israel. In both countries, but particularly in Israel, emotions ran high, a situation that did not facilitate the actual start of the cooperative venture between MPG and WIS. Yet a beginning was made - two eminent biochemists, Feodor Lynen and Efraim Katzir, exchanged visits. In 1962 the MPG institute of immunobiology started to cooperate with their colleagues at the WIS. Two MPG theoretical physicists were invited to Rehovot. Research cooperation started in developmental biology, and early in 1963 the first two MPG scientists came to the WIS for a year.
Gentner, who had taken charge of the program, personally chose the scientists scheduled to go to Israel. He remarked at the time that "those who do not possess the necessary tact and understanding, as well as the willingness to accept even unjust reproach, should best be held back." He correctly foresaw that it might take only one short, thoughtless remark to jeopardize the entire venture.
Gentner chose well and the first two young German physicists who came to Rehovot for a longer period were eminently suited to serve as ice-breakers." To quote the recollections of one of them, the late Professor Lorenz Krueger:
I reached Israel after a long trip... it was a different Israel then. I will frankly confess that, being young and inexperienced and being German, I felt distinctly uneasy. But one hour or two later, I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome at the Weizmann Institute, extended to me by Amos de Shalit ... . Many more conversations and discussions were to follow ... . From the very first days of my stay, strangely enough, I did not feel like a stranger. I was accepted not only as a fellow physicist, but also as a fellow human being. I learnt an impressive lot of physics, and I was never lonely.
To say this, is of course, not to deny that there were the heavy shadows of the dark past and that the road to a common future was not cleared from serious obstacles. The winter of 1961-62 brought the end of the Eichmann trial. At about the same lime, the Israeli government proposed a catalogue of rules concerning the contact with West Germany; rules that were approved by the Knesset in January 1962. Among other things, they determined that German firms, German artists and German money for the support of scholars and scientists should not he accepted; conversely, Israelis were not allowed to study or work in Germany, except by special permission of the government. In accordance with this official move, the Jerusalem Post, in mid-February of 1962, reported about the foreign visitors and funds of the Weizmann Institute but, wisely, omitted any information about the Max Planck Society and its, by then, two fellows: my companion Cornelius Noak and myself.
The divergence between public resolutions and a new human reality became the topic of several conversations I had with Israelis ,.. - In spite of the horrible past that had motivated, if not necessitated, the move of the Knesset, ... a new Stan was desirable and ....remained possible. The critical situation required independent and future-oriented minds like ... Joseph Cohn, de-Shalit and their friends, [They] generously re-solved my pessimism ... . Yet at that time, nobody was in a position to say when, if ever, young Israeli scientists would reciprocate German visits to Israel,
As you know, in subsequent years, this asymmetry happily disappeared sooner than anyone expected. In the initial phase, however, it was there1 and it was, in obvious ways, related to another asymmetry: that of age ... , Most people, when I was introduced to them as a German, first made a quick estimate of my age. Only then did they allow further relations ... which invariably became very friendly, embellished by the wonderful hospitality of this country.
Even more remarkable those relations became quite normal, everyday human ones. My new friends opened up the country for me ... (10)
By 1964, despite the not always smooth start, the cooperation between the Weizmann Institute and the Max-Planck-Society, or formally the Minerva Foundation, backed by the German Federal Government, was formalized in an official agreement which laid down the modalities and financial support of the cooperation.


The purpose of this chapter is not to try and recapitulate the achievements, scientific and human, of the scientific cooperation between Israel and Germany, but rather to point to the pioneering effort that scientists played in trying to bridge the abyss created by the Holocaust. Suffice it to say that today Germany has become, after the United States, Israel's most important scientific partner and that not only have hundreds of researchers, most of them sponsored by "Minerva", from both countries visited and studied in both Israel and Germany, but also that innumerable cooperative research projects have and are taking place.
That science and research have immeasurably benefited is a fact that can be demonstrated by the numerous joint research publications that have appeared over the years. There can also be no doubt that the friendships that have developed over the years between Israeli and German scientists and institutions, whether the WIS, the d MPG, or any of the numerous other research institutions in both countries, have given substance to the hope that science can indeed be helpful in forging human ties. While the political impact of this cooperation is much more difficult to judge, there can be little doubt that the fact that the scientific communities of both countries, and in particular the Weizmann Institute, tried to find ways and means to forge some kind of relations at a time when the two countries did not have diplomatic relations eased the political climate in which both governments had to operate.
Yet, beyond all other considerations, there still remains the question: Why, against all odds, did a very small group of Israeli and German scientists engage in an endeavor that must have seemed at the time both daunting and daring? Whether a clear-cut answer exists is doubtful, yet it most likely lies in the very nature of science itself. I have tried before to sum this up as follows:
Since the very tentative beginnings in the nineteen fifties scientific cooperation between the two countries has developed to such an extent that today Germany is, after the United States, Israel's most important scientific partner. By the very nature, this co-operation embraces today not only many fields, but also numerous institutions and personalities. I have only described the institutionalized parts of it. Yet to this must be added all those contacts that have, thanks to acts or governments, developed between scientists and researchers on an individual basis. Departments and facilities in both countries maintain intensive professional and personal ties. We should be grateful that we cannot either enumerate or classify them. Whilst this is not a bridge over the abyss 0f the past, it does constitute to my mind a bridge to the future, Yet in evaluating the achievements of nearly four decades one should not forget that these ties are not between equal communities. Germany's scientific community is today once again one of the largest and most important ... whilst Israel's is one of the small, even if a .., productive one. So the question may well be asked how come that both sides have found these relations as productive as they did?
One cannot ascribe this purely to the politics and to the past. I would imagine that a great deal is due to the very nature of science and research and to the intellectual curiosity of those who are engaged in it. Governments and institutions can sponsor, and in the best of cases, stimulate cooperation through material inducements and agreements, but they cannot prescribe true cooperation between people. Many have talked about German-Jewish symbiosis. I personally always had doubts whether such a phenomenon ever really existed. I believe that there was an attempt by Jews to reach symbiosis with German culture yet, except in science, this attempt was mostly rejected.
One must ask oneself why science and not other fields of culture. I am not certain that there is a definite answer, yet it would appear that science and research are carried out by individuals equal in their striving. True science does not suffer inequality gladly. Whatever the material endowments of this or that laboratory might lie, the scientist is his fellows equal, if only his knowledge and talent are sufficient, because the subject with which he or she deals is permanent. The poet Joseph Brodsky, in speaking of the attitude of literature towards authority said once: it is essentially the reaction of the permanent - better yet, the infinite - against the temporary, against the finite. Whilst science does not stand by its very nature in opposition to authority, it seems to me that there is more than a grain of truth in his definition that is also applicable to science. Because it is the striving for understanding of the infinite which motivates the scientist, it leads him to seek the infinite. In this search there can only be equals and therefore a symbiosis is conceivable despite the abyss of the past."(11)
Forty years have passed since the events described in this brief chapter. Most of the principal actors are no longer with us. Looking back, it is clear that justice cannot be done to the problems and agonies that this "band of the few" encountered in their attempts to find ways and means to bridge the abyss that made contacts between Ger-mans and Israelis nearly impossible. The achievements of the past four decades bear witness not only to their daring, but probably more than anything else, to their nearly instinctive understanding of the role that scientific and research communities are capable of playing in the vast field of human and political understanding.


1. The text reads "ce passeport est valable: pour tous les pays a l'exception de l' Allemagne." See Avi Primor " Ausnahme Deutschlands (Bonn and Berlin; Ull-stein, 1997), title page.
2. Hans-Peter Schwarz, Adenauer (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1986), p.897.
3. Eighty-three members of Parliament, in the main from the ranks of the governing coalition, voted against ratification.
4. Dietmark Nickel, It Began in Rehovot (Zurich: Modell Berichtaus Rehovot, 1993), p. 22.
5. Wolfgang Fruehwaqld, "Von der Wissenschaft werden Visonen erwartet," Forschung 2.3(1997): 3.
6. For a more thorough discussion of Adenauer's relations with Heinemann see Schwarz, Adenauer;
7. Schwarz, Adenauer, p.897.
8. Michael Wolffsohn, Ewige Schuld (Munich: Piper, 1988), pp.31 and 117.
9. Nickel, It began in Rehovot, p.29.
10. Ibid, p.33.
11. Hanan Bar-On, "Scientific and Economic Cooperation," in The Unlikely Partner-ship: Germany and Israel, Howard M. Sachar, ed. (Washington, D.C.; Friedrich--Ebert-Stiftung, 1997), pp.93-95.