First German-Israeli Research Training Group

Members of the international, interdisciplinary doctoral program “Human Rights under Pressure” do research in Berlin and Jerusalem. The official opening ceremony will be on June 26.

Jun 23, 2015

Doktoranden des Graduiertenkollegs bei einer Führung der NGO Ir Amin durch Ostjerusalem.
Doctoral students in the Human Rights under Pressure graduate program during a tour of the Israeli NGO Ir Amim through East Jerusalem. Image Credit: HR-UP

“It's not that he was lying, but only telling half-truths.” For Nir Barak, it was hardly bearable that the tour guide presented such a one-sided image of Tel Aviv to the doctoral candidates in the German-Israeli research training group. Barak, an Israeli doctoral candidate, loves his city, so he started commenting on what the guide was saying. The students from Berlin asked questions, the other Israelis chimed in, and it was not until multiple voices joined in that a rich and multifaceted picture of Tel Aviv emerged, with its Hebrew and Palestinian history, its dark sides and its challenges.

“It was an excellent demonstration of our doctoral candidates’ ability to deconstruct history,” says Klaus Hoffmann-Holland, co-head and one of the initiators of the first German-Israeli interdisciplinary research training group, Human Rights under Pressure – Ethics, Law and Politics (HR-UP), which was launched in September 2014.

Hoffmann-Holland, a professor of criminal law and vice president of Freie Universität Berlin, is proud of the first twelve doctoral candidates in the program, who met in Israel for two weeks in the fall. Tomer Broude, the Israeli co-head of the project and a law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agrees with his German colleague: “The interdisciplinary approach has definitely already proven visible and useful.”

The research training group, which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Einstein Foundation Berlin, brings together doctoral candidates from different countries and disciplines who want to explore the situation of human rights under the influence of crises, globalization, and cultural diversity. Forty candidates in all will be admitted to the program at the two sites over the three-year term, and some of them will even finish with a dual doctorate.

Each candidate has one Israeli professor and one German one as advisors and will spend four to eight months in the other country. “We are crafting an international network to enable innovative and interdisciplinary research on human rights,” says Hoffmann- Holland. The project is also part of the strategic partnership between the universities, in which Freie Universität and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem work closely together in the fields of research, teaching, and administration.

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Twelve Doctoral Candidates Work on Their Doctorates Together in the Group for Three Years

The topics of research for the doctoral candidates vary as widely as their backgrounds. They have studied subjects such as law, political science, sociology, and international relations, and their projects deal with topics such as domestic violence in the United States, polygamy in Israel, and World War I in Germany. They ask whether human rights are subject to social change, and whether they can still be preserved in extreme situations such as war, displacement, or incarceration.

These are questions that require interdisciplinary answers. “There is a famous Indian parable about seven blind men trying to describe an elephant, each touching a different part of the body. The students approach complex and challenging issues regarding the theory and practice of human rights very much in the same way,” explains Tomer Broude. “And only through the accumulation of their observations and the interactions between them can a more comprehensive understanding be achieved,” he adds.

“It just fit!” says Julia Teschlade. “I read about the program and right away, I knew what I wanted to write my dissertation on.” Teschlade, a sociologist, is studying how specific national contexts shape different countries’ legislation, with surrogacy in Israel and Germany as an example. She plans to compare the two countries, which deal very differently with the subject of reproductive medicine – something she says will not be easy, but will be exciting. Another advantage of engaging in doctoral study together as part of a research training group is that the candidates provide not only subject-specific assistance, but also moral support: “You go through the highs and lows together,” Teschlade says. The Berlin group reads texts together or gives small talks at least once a week. They communicate with their colleagues in Israel via videoconference.

Marie Walter also deliberately chose to apply for a structured doctoral program. Walter, a scholar of political science, is studying how the reform of European asylum law affects human rights. Although her dissertation does not deal with Israel directly, she says Israeli asylum law is highly interesting from a comparative standpoint; she hopes to use her time at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to work on this comparison. Walter says the working relationship with her Israeli advisor, Einat Albin, who holds a doctorate in law and has experience advising refugees, is already highly enriching.

Since the Israelis are also interested in the current debate surrounding refugees in Germany, Walter is now organizing a day to focus on migration during the two-week summer school to be held in July 2015, when the Israelis will come to Berlin to visit in turn. And just as the group visited the Yad Vashem memorial site in Israel last fall, the House of the Wannsee Conference, the Holocaust Memorial, and the Jewish Museum are now on the agenda for Berlin. At the latter, Walter will present the autobiography of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor that she wrote with him. Walter, a Frenchwoman with a German great-grandfather, views the Holocaust as part of European history. She says this is why it was very emotionally charged to meet people in Israel whose families had experienced terrible things and have to cope with trauma.

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History Should Be Narrated from Multiple Perspectives

Nir Barak, the doctoral candidate from Tel Aviv, is one of them. But German-Israeli cooperation should not be reduced to the burden of history, he says. “The significant factor is its present commitments and not the reasons that lead to it”. In his dissertation, Barak is studying how globalization and urban development affect human rights. “The people who suffer the most from environmental injustice are disadvantaged city dwellers,” he says.

He is interested in how these issues are handled in Germany, and he is looking forward to his time doing research in Berlin. And yet, to him and his family, it is by no means a matter of course for him to go to Germany. “I do have some reservations about living in Germany: My grandparents were Holocaust survivors - and there are some sensitivities in this respect.” But, he says, “It does not influence my association with Germans that were born 40 years after the war ended and it doesn't have any influence on my relationship with the German group.”

The fact that the doctoral candidates in Israel and Germany work together at the level of scholarly endeavor so respectfully as a matter of course, and that they are able to dedicate themselves to a subject as sensitive as human rights, is due in part to the sheer determination with which Klaus Hoffmann-Holland and his Israeli colleagues at the Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem pushed the project forward.

Hoffmann-Holland and Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, then dean of the law school at the Hebrew University, had the idea of starting a joint research training group back in 2008. They saw the tremendous potential that their internationally focused doctoral candidates had in terms of overcoming prejudices and doing research together on an interdisciplinary basis.

Doctoral candidate Teschlade has already reached one conclusion: “Thinking in narrow, black-and-white categories makes no sense!” She says people need to learn to live with ambivalence and constantly question supposed truths – something that also became clear in Tel Aviv. Her summary? “The fact that stories, and histories, can be told in such different ways. And that there is no one single truth, but instead just various perspectives on what that truth might be.”


This text originally appeared in German on May 23, 2015, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.


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