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The first visit of a Max Planck Society delegation to Israel, 1959, including Profs. Feodor Lynen, Wolfgang Gentner and Otto Hahn

The Germany-Israel Connection

It all began in Rehovot...

The first visit of a Max Planck Society delegation to Israel, 1959, including Profs. Feodor Lynen, Wolfgang Gentner and Otto Hahn

The first visit of a Max Planck Society delegation to Israel, 1959, including Profs. Feodor Lynen, Wolfgang Gentner and Otto Hahn

It all began in Rehovot on a rainy December day in 1959, when a delegation headed by Prof. Otto Hahn, Nobel laureate and President of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, arrived in Israel to visit the Weizmann Institute of Science. Hahn was joined by other pioneers of German-Israeli scientific collaboration: Director of the Max Planck Institute of Nuclear Physics Prof. Wolfgang Gentner; Nobel laureate Prof. Feodor Lynen; Prof. Gerhard Schmidt, then administrative director of the Weizmann Institute; and Prof. Amos de-Shalit, who would soon become Weizmann’s scientific director and, later, its director general. Hahn and Gentner felt immediately at home in the young Weizmann Institute, writing later that “the equipment has a standard equivalent to the best European or U.S. labs, and the scientific problems being investigated are equally up-to-date.”

In the context of the post-WWII era, the actions of these few scientists could be seen as both risky and visionary. Aided by the tireless efforts of Dr. Joseph Cohn, once Prof. Chaim Weizmann’s assistant, the Weizmann Institute became the first academic institution in Israel to accept German researchers and encourage its own young scientists to go to Germany. The results of that historic meeting and the agreement that followed were, and continue to be, synergistic. Science in both countries has been boosted, as scientists and students are exchanged between the Weizmann Institute and German institutions. Close, long-term collaborations have yielded important, even groundbreaking results, as young German scientists have taken up positions of responsibility in German academic institutions following research experience at the Weizmann Institute, and Weizmann scientists have obtained the means to carry out their research. Nor were the payoffs limited to science: Within a short period, the success of this initiative in German-Israeli relations paved the way for the establishment of formal relations between the two countries.

It took creative foresight and courage to initiate scientific relations between the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (MPG) and the Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS), but today the Minerva-Weizmann Program is the cornerstone of scientific ties between Israel and Germany. The program was set up to be managed by the MPG, a world-class, research-focused institution with a structure that closely parallels that of the WIS. The visionary German scientist Prof. Wolfgang Gentner understood that the Weizmann Institute could offer German institutions important research opportunities as well as extensive training possibilities. Over 50 years of scientific collaboration, it is these qualities, among others, that have made the program such a success.

The Weizmann Institute, like the Max Planck Society, is devoted to research excellence. Joint discoveries of Weizmann/German scientific teams have resulted in over 860 publications in the last five years; nearly half of them being collaborations with Max Planck researchers. At any point in time, one out of every three Weizmann scientists is involved in a Minerva project and 70% of Weizmann research teams are engaged in ongoing collaborations with German partners.

The special relationship between Germany and the Weizmann Institute is unmatched anywhere in the world. Many original achievements have come out of this ongoing collaboration and the free exchange of ideas between German institutions and the Weizmann Institute, where the flexible structure allows scientists the freedom to focus on their research. In addition to scientific advances in all areas of the basic sciences, several leading Weizmann Institute scientists have served as directors at Max Planck institutes, while others have been appointed external members of the Max Planck Society. Only three times in 87 years has the Harnack Medal, the highest award given for service to the Max Planck Society, been awarded to non-Germans, and two of these were Weizmann Institute scientists.

The Minerva Program serves to anchor all German-Israeli cooperative research. It is the precursor of such other programs as the Minerva Centers, DIP, GIF and BMBF. It is based on personal contacts between the Minerva committee members and Weizmann Institute scientists, and results in far more than simple research funding. The original memorandum written by Gentner and Schmidt, which became the basis of the Minerva Foundation, stated: “Just like basic research in this country [i.e., Germany], the fruits cannot immediately be exchanged for hard cash. Today, however, success in research falls to those who seek and maintain contact with leading research groups in civilized countries.” The statement of those visionary scientists is as true today as it was more than 50 years ago. This is the time to reflect on the extent to which cooperation between the Weizmann Institute and the German academe has advanced science in both countries and to cement and strengthen that partnership to face tomorrow’s challenges.




Israel BDS – building dialogue through science – aims to promote the kind of international collaboration that can lead to true understanding between people. Israel BDS stands for the free and open exchange of ideas among scientists everywhere. By reporting on the benefits of Israeli-international scientific research and the web of connections that these scientists create around the world, Israel BDS takes a vibrant approach to highlighting the global necessity of continued international scientific collaboration.