Why didn't Einstein immigrate to Israel?

"Research knows no borders"

Mr Ben-Sasson, you were a guest at the Free University of Berlin for a few weeks in the winter and summer semesters. What are you doing here?
At the "Einstein Center Chronoi" in Dahlem, I am working on time in an interdisciplinary research group.

What does it mean exactly?
I'll give you an example. When someone writes a chronicle of the conquests of Islam in the 7th century, it arouses feelings of messianism or hope for the end times in some. A person who expresses himself not only wants to deal with the events of the time that he sees, but wants to say that in his eyes they mean the end of days. So it is about two systems of time. Another example: The Jewish scholar Maimonides writes that everything that is written about sacrifices has to do with earlier times, but that we are in a different age. So he uses the concept of time to express a relationship to things that were once absolute truth and to give them the status of a relative truth.

Who are the German researchers?
Christoph Markschies and Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum lead the group, and there are about ten to 15 other members all over the world. The research project is scheduled to run for seven years.

So this is not your last time here.
I really hope so. But I have to shovel free time, because I teach in Jerusalem every semester, and as Chancellor I am responsible for the university's relations with other institutions and donors.



"Germany is our neighbor - also when it comes to research methods."

Since 1957, the relationship between the HU Jerusalem and the Free University of Berlin has grown closer and closer. A »strategic partnership« has existed since 2011. In 2015, an agreement on a joint doctoral program was signed. How many graduates are there?
Certainly not hundreds. But for the Hebrew University, this cooperation is also a strategic issue, because in the Middle East it is not always easy for us Israelis to establish academic connections. So, geographically speaking, Germany is our neighbor, but also in terms of research methods. When we rearranged the archives of the Hebrew University since the 1930s, we found that a considerable part of the disciplines were created here in Germany and that the people who were displaced and came to Jerusalem had not only taken over the courses but also the way they set up departments. Our relationship with Germany is close. And as time passes, it becomes clearer that it is deeply rooted in the past, but turned towards the future.

Does this also help the Hebrew University financially? The lecturers used to go on strike regularly ...
We haven't had a strike in ten years. The university is in better economic order than it used to be, because three years ago we signed an agreement with the government and we are being helped with grants.

You teach in the "History of the Jewish People" department. At your university there is also a general department for "history". What sense does this separation still make?
We have now founded a joint school for history. There is a "History of the World" course there, which is also where the ideas for Yuval Noah Harari's books came about. Students of Jewish history today are required to attend lectures on general history and vice versa. It is also possible that we will merge the two departments at some point.

“The kippah has become a symbol. But Jewish identity should not be expressed through a 'flag'. "

You have certainly followed the discussion about the kippah in Germany. As a religious Jew, what do you think of this?
A few years ago, when I was in Germany, it was much more pleasant to go on the street with a kippah anywhere and anytime. Now I hear the warnings that in some places it is better to wear a hat. In Dahlem I have absolutely no problem with my kippah. In Wilmersdorf and some areas in Mitte either. I have alternatives in other places where I feel less comfortable. You tend to wear a wool hat in winter and a sun hat in summer anyway. Once I took the train to a German city and there was a demonstration on that very day. I got out and saw that everyone was wearing a kippah. At first I didn't understand what it was all about. After that I was happy about the solidarity. But in my opinion that is not the central point. Most Jews in Germany do not wear a kippah in public. Incidentally, Orthodox German Jews who immigrated to Israel did not wear kippah in public in the past, out of respect for the majority. Today the kippah has become a symbol. But I hope that the Jewish identity is not expressed through openly walking around with the kippah, that is, with a "flag", but rather through the patience to listen to other people.

The Israel boycott movement BDS is active at many universities around the world. What do you get out of it?
Personally, I never had any problems, but in university I had to deal with them on various levels. In the humanities, it is sometimes common to seek the opinions of five academics around the world in an appointment process. And it can be difficult to find five on the first day because there are people who don't want to send an answer to Israel.

In which countries have you seen this phenomenon?
Especially in Central Europe and the USA. That never happened to us in Asia, nor usually in Italy. By the way, when I was the chairman of the Council of Universities in Israel, we took the initiative to invite people to Israel so that they could have the opportunity to review their worldview. I was very pleased about the declaration of the Bundestag on BDS. Anyone who believes that the State of Israel has a right to exist, to live, to be productive and to give something to the world must oppose BDS. This is not about a "small" boycott, but about existential issues.

"I was very pleased about the declaration of the Bundestag on BDS."

So BDS is not really a problem for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem ...
No. In England, where the BDS movement began, it tended to involve small to medium-sized universities. We are in daily contact with the venerable and leading universities in the world, such as Oxbridge, University College or King’s College London. There are also the people who write against BDS. Not because they belong to one religion or the other. But because they understand that there are no limits to research.

You are not only a scientist, but from 2006 to 2009 you were also a member of the Knesset for the Kadima party. How do you see the current situation in Israel?
The spring election campaign was verbally very violent. Certain people have escalated the arguments as much as possible in an attempt to create identities and force people to vote for them. This kind of polarization brought the conversations down to such a low level that it was no longer about content. I very much regret that the same process continued with the formation of the government, and I regret even more that there will be another election in September. If this becomes such an election campaign again, then I fear that we will come to such polarization and hatred that the wounds can no longer be healed.

In your opinion, should ultra-Orthodox Jews also do military service?
In my opinion, all Israelis must be recruited. Everyone should at least have the opportunity to make a contribution, that can also be community service. It is about equal treatment before the law, but also about the commandment "Lo Taamod Al Dam Reecha" ("Do not benefit from the blood of your fellow man"). This is one of the clearest instructions in the Torah. From a religious point of view, it is no less correct to keep the Shabbat than to insist that everyone contribute.

After your time in the Knesset, you returned to university. Tired of politics?
No, I only ran for one legislative period from the start. It lasted three and a half years, not four, because Ehud Olmert resigned prematurely as head of government. I regretted that very much because - with support from Germany - I had written a constitution for Israel that is very similar to the German Basic Law. At that time I sat a lot in the Bundestag and in Karlsruhe and also met with the former Federal President Roman Herzog. If we had had half a year more, we could have voted on it in the Knesset. I was also the chairman of the Legislative Committee and we passed a lot of laws, reformed and changed a lot in Israel. It was a fascinating experience for me. I came to the Knesset as a Zionist and was even more Zionist than before. I believe in Israeli politics and in the majority of Israeli politicians. They are loyal and professional people, each in their own way. I then returned to the Department of History of the Jewish People and later became rector and then chancellor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"The Israeli student is a conversation partner, the German student tends to listen."

How many students does the university have?
About 24,000.

Compare the feeling of being in Dahlem with Mount Scopus in Jerusalem ...
In Berlin there are no fences and no security checks at the entrance. And there are big differences between Israeli and German students - in terms of age, but also in terms of maturity. The Israeli student is older and has typically served three years of military service. And he doesn't give the lecturer any rest, he is much more involved in learning, he keeps asking questions. The Israeli student is a conversation partner for his teacher, the German student tends to listen.

As a student at Hebrew University, I heard the joke, “What is the difference between Israeli and American students? The lecturer says: 'Good morning'. The American replies: 'Good morning', the Israeli writes in the notebook: 'Good morning'. "
Oj wawoj, you've got a bad class there. It is rather like this: when the lecturer says “Good morning”, the Israeli student asks: “What, is it morning already? No more night? ”Our students are very oppositional, in a positive way. That advances science.

Students have more time in Berlin ...
Yes, in Israel almost all students have to work to earn a living. By the way, we've changed that a bit. Many undergraduate and graduate students in M.A. programs as well as PhD students now receive full scholarships.

"My wish is for Israelis and Germans to learn together, for the brains to meet."

How do you think the relationship between the Hebrew University and German universities should develop?
Berlin has acquired seven clusters of excellence from the Federal Government's Excellence Initiative and has now developed another initiative, the Berlin University Alliance. That makes it easier for us too, because so far we've had hundreds of projects with every single university, and now hopefully we can do some of it together. There are seven major master plans for Berlin, and I hope that we can get involved too. The competition is still in full swing. The funding decisions will be made by the Excellence Commission on July 19, 2019, and I hope the Berliners get a positive answer, because excellent work has been done and we have accompanied a small part of this process - through our liaison committee with German universities.

What is your vision for the future?
The longer German students stay in Israel and Israeli students in Germany, the better. But they should not only change locations, but also have friends and fellow students there who will study with them. Anyone doing a master's degree, doctorate or postdoctoral degree should have 20 or 30 friends they meet. An encounter of the brains! We will develop patents that did not exist before, learn from each other and create a global market for research and knowledge. By the way, the Free University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem also maintain a virtual campus: the German-Israeli Virtual Campus (GIVCA). My wish is that we raise a generation of people who sit and study together in the classroom - no matter where it is.

Ayala Goldmann spoke to the professor for the history of the Jewish people and chancellor of the Hebrew University.