Interview'There must be no tolerance for antisemitism'

While US Jews say they don’t feel safe on campus, German academics show up for Israel

Max Plank Society president Patrick Cramer explains why it was important for his organization not to cancel its planned trip to Israel when so many others did after October 7

Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Members of Max Planck Society delegation with presidents and vice presidents of Israeli universities at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, November 28, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
Members of Max Planck Society delegation with presidents and vice presidents of Israeli universities at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, November 28, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

As some United States universities are in the spotlight for allowing overtly antisemitic behavior on campus and many international academics are shunning their Israeli counterparts, one German institution is showing up for Israel.

The Max Planck Society chose not to cancel a planned visit to Israel in late November to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Minerva Foundation‘s fellowship program, which has enabled the exchange between Germany and Israel of more than 2,000 young researchers.

According to Max Planck Society president Prof. Patrick Cramer, it was not enough to merely send messages of support after war broke out between Israel and Hamas following the terror group’s savage October 7 assault on southern Israel in which 1,200 people, mainly civilians, were slaughtered and 240 taken hostage.

“We wanted [to come in person] to tell our colleagues that they are not alone. The main message is that we see their suffering and we want to tell them that,” Cramer said.

Cramer and four of his colleagues from the Max Planck Society and its subsidiary Minerva Foundation met for dinner in Jerusalem on November 28 with more than 40 presidents and vice presidents of Israeli universities, research institutes and scientific associations.

In speeches and informal conversations, the Israelis expressed their sincere appreciation for the solidarity shown by the Munich-headquartered society, Germany’s leading non-university research organization comprised of 85 different institutes.

Prof. Patrick Cramer, president of the Max Planck Society. (Courtesy)

“I’ve received support from German officials and scientists, but your being here is different. You are the first [foreign] research institution or organization to have come to Israel since October 7,” said Bar-Ilan President Prof. Arie Zaban in a speech addressed to the German scientists.

“You are exhibiting a clear morality and you are standing with us. Please help us continue our science here in Israel in terms of collaborations, exchanges, grants, and securing EU funding,” he said.

The Germans’ visit provided the Israelis an opportunity to discuss the challenges of the last two months. Cramer had already recognized one of them — the call-up of Israeli researchers to reserve military duty — in an official statement issued on October 11 by his society.

Weizmann Institute president Prof. Alon Chen noted that because of this, and the fact that foreign research institutes and universities — including the Max Planck Society — immediately pulled their students and postdocs out of Israel, the country’s research labs have been functioning at half-capacity.

Cramer told The Times of Israel that some of his Israeli colleagues shared that since the war broke out, they have been shunned by international collaborators, conference organizers and important research publications. He said he finds that unacceptable.

From left: Max Planck Society president Patrick Cramer, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute director Shai Lavi, Minerva Foundation head Lou Bohlen, and Ben-Gurion University president Daniel Chamovitz read a recently declassified 1960 letter from Abba Ebban to David Ben-Gurion about the potential for scientific collaboration between Israel and Germany. Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, November 28, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

“I have already spoken with my colleagues at Weizmann and offered to host in Berlin a conference that they had planned to hold in Israel. We would provide the space, but the Israeli scientists would run the event as intended,” Cramer said.

“Everyone can meet in a safe space they can travel to. It would be a way of providing our Israeli colleagues a bit of a sense of being able to continue their professional lives as usual in these difficult times,” he said.

While acknowledging the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population that would result from the war, the official statement issued by the Max Planck Society was unequivocal in its strong condemnation of the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel.

Unlike leaders of universities in the United States who could not clearly state that calling for the genocide of the Jews is dangerous or constitutes harassment, Cramer said he is resolute in his stance against antisemitism.

“In democracies, you can criticize political decisions, a political party, or a government. This criticism is often required. But there must be no tolerance for antisemitism and we are making that clear,” Cramer told The Times of Israel.

This firm rejection of antisemitism is critical, especially given the history of the Max Plank Society’s predecessor, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society,  which employed Nazi sympathizers and collaborators in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of its Jewish members — including leading scientists like Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner — were forced to flee Germany before World War II.

Max Planck Society delegation honors memory of the society’s victims of Nazi atrocities at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, November 23. (Courtesy of Max Planck Society)

While in Jerusalem, Cramer and his associates visited Yad Vashem and laid a wreath in memory of Kaiser Wilhelm Society members Fritz Epstein and Fritz Duschinsky, who were murdered at Auschwitz, and Marie Wreschner, who killed herself to avoid deportation.

Weizmann Institute’s Chen told The Times of Israel that the German scientific community has been exemplary in standing up for Israel and against antisemitism.

“The support of the German scientists and the German government is unparalleled compared to what we see now in the US,” Chen said.

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