"We talk about one another rather than with each other"

11 December 2018

The first holder of the Israel Professorship at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) takes up his work. Yossi David comes from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is joining the Department of Communication at Mainz University. He will be a guest professor for three years with the goal of stimulating German-Israeli exchange in the field of Communication Studies.

His office in the Georg Forster Building still feels a bit uninhabited. The shelves are empty and the walls are bare, except for a poster left behind by the previous tenant showing international newspaper clippings relating to German reunification. Professor Yossi David is completely fine with that. "It was one of the most significant events in recent decades," he says. "Anyway, I have all the important stuff here on my laptop. I don't need anything else."

Our appointment is distracting him from his work, but he manages it all with a friendly smile. David has done a good number of interviews in recent weeks. There is quite a lot of interest in him. "I'm working on a research paper," he says with a final glance at the computer screen. Then he turns away from it to tell us a bit about himself. David is still speaking in English, but he has a firm plan to learn German over the next couple of years.

Professorship sponsored by the State of Rhineland-Palatinate

Malu Dreyer, Minister President of the State of Rhineland-Palatinate, initiated the new Israel Professorship at Mainz University on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Israel. The idea was to give the topic of Israel more weight at the university. It took a little while to inject the endowment with actual content and vitality, but by the beginning of the 2018/2019 winter semester everything was in place. The new Israel Professorship in Communication Science was established at the Department of Communication under the auspices of Professor Gregor Daschmann, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Media, and Sports. On a regular three-year cycle, a communications studies specialist from Israel will be coming to JGU. Daschmann has great expectations from the ongoing exchange with internationally renowned colleagues from Israel.

It is David who is getting the whole thing going. He has been in Mainz for several weeks now. "It was really important for me to come here, even though some of my friends said to me: 'Why on earth do you want to go to Germany?' Well, I believe in dialog. We actually talk about one another a lot more than we talk with each other."

David grew up in Netivot in southern Israel, which is a popular place of pilgrimage. His family belongs to the ultra-orthodox community of the Haredi, for whom education plays a role only insofar as it serves the study of religious texts. "Groups like this have major political and economic influence in Israel, despite the fact that they have become an increasingly controversial topic of debate over the last ten years."

German-Israeli views

At the age of 18, David broke away from the Haredi. For him, their mindset was too limited. He wanted to know more. So he fled the confines of the community. "I emigrated. Or at least that's what I call it. A lot of people would criticize my choice of words here." For two years, David crammed for his high school diploma. He also completed his military service, something that the Haredi are exempted from. "I lived in a kibbutz, and I still have very close contacts with the people there." Contact with his family broke down, though. David founded an association that supported other dropouts – or émigrés – like him.

At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem he took courses in Communication Studies and Sociology. For his Master's thesis on the topic of "Communication and climate of opinion in the 2011 Israeli social protest movement" David garnered a number of awards. The groundwork for his future research was in place.

"At the core of it, I was looking at how different factors including social constructs, political mindsets, and the media influence one another," explains Professor Yossi David. "Different people might hear the same bit of news, for example, and yet each could interpret it in an entirely different way. The most important thing is not what we know, crucial is our perception of things, what we believe or don't believe. It is important that we understand how these types of mechanisms work, especially at a time when the influence of right-wing populists is growing in many countries, including Israel and Germany."

David submitted his dissertation on "Gendering Political Conflict: Gender Perceptions and Public Opinion in the Israel-Palestinian Conflict" only this year. Now he would like to get insights into the German perspective and discover how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed in Germany. "Transnational research is important and the Israel Professorship I'm now holding should make a major contribution."

Great expectations

David is already offering his first course at JGU. "It's about methodology. In the second semester we'll focus on the Israeli society." He is beginning to get to know his colleagues at the Department of Communication. "I'm interested in what is being researched here and how. Maybe we'll find a common topic where we can collaborate."

Professor Yossi David will also be looking after the JGU student exchange program with Israel. In addition, he will set new standards for the German-Israeli cooperation in terms of research being done at the Department of Communication. Indeed, a good many people are looking forward to what the first Israel Professor in Communication Science might accomplish.

But to start with, David has to manage some administrative tasks, his current research paper needs a finishing touch, and his inaugural lecture is just around the corner. "I’m trying to focus on the important things," he adds. He looks around his empty office. "When I have time maybe I'll hang a picture as well, or put some books on the shelves."