Review of the year by the OIB Director, Prof Dr Jens Hanssen

Every year, the Director of the Orient-Institut in Beirut has the opportunity to look back on the past year and present the institute's academic activities. This is my first annual review. Such a review should cover the past year and be completed shortly after the end of the year. This is not the case here, as we find ourselves in an extraordinary situation in which many people whose lives, whose past and whose future are very important to us, are facing existential threats.

It is not that we did not organise and hold any outstanding events last year. The comprehensive Annual Report 2023, which my colleagues Drs Thomas Würtz, Sarah el-Bulbeisi and Sami Khatib have now presented, speaks for itself. In these times, however, it is very difficult for me to limit myself to the academic achievements of the OIB. It is impossible to ignore the facts that since the Hamas massacres of 7 and 8 October last year, Israel has been carrying out an unprecedented military offensive on the Gaza Strip in the name of self-defence and that, according to UN experts as well as the International Court of Justice, Israel has breached all limits of proportionality set by international law. If and how Israel is legally committing genocide on the Palestinian people will ultimately be determined by a decision of the International Court of Justice.

Due to the shared history that has separated Israel and Lebanon for decades, Lebanon has also been in the sights of Israeli war planning from the very beginning. According to newspaper reports, a pre-emptive attack on Lebanon immediately after 7 October was only averted for the time being through the mediation of US President Biden. Since then, Lebanon has feared an Israeli attack.

What did this mean for us in concrete terms last year? On the advice of the German Foreign Office, the German researchers left the country in mid-October last year. Other staff members came to the office from time to time, the rest worked remotely. There were and are evacuation and emergency plans to fall back on.

At the end of November, all researchers returned to continue the institute's operations as 'normally' as possible. We also reopened the library for staff and affiliated researchers. However, we have cancelled public events on site. Instead, we have decided to organise larger events with partners in Germany and other countries. Our conferences in 2024 will take place in Berlin, Munich, Kassel and Princeton, in cooperation with other Max Weber Institutes also in Istanbul and Delhi or in our own branch office in Cairo.

The OIB has many years of experience of working under difficult conditions. My predecessor had to lead the institute under extreme conditions, too: the financial and economic collapse of Lebanon, the popular uprising against corruption and sectarianism, the harbour explosion that destroyed large parts of the city and cost over two hundred lives, and the Covid pandemic.

In this context, it is important for me to talk about the Institute's historical experiences, because our institutional memory is very much alive. In these times, the experiences, memories and history of the Institute keep coming back to the minds of my colleagues. They are also a topic at our regular meetings, where all employees have the opportunity to catch up and exchange ideas three times a week.

Our institute used to belong to the German Oriental Society which was founded in 1845. The „DMG“ bought the Villa Farajallah in 1963, where our magnificent library with over 145,000 titles has been accessible to registered researchers ever since. Since 2002, our work here has continued to grow under the umbrella of the Max Weber Foundation. Our work in Lebanon has a long and rich history. We are guests in this country, certainly, and yet we feel deeply connected and integrated. And that is exactly what is currently at stake.

During the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, OIB staff risked their lives to keep the institute running, even after they were left on their own when the Germans were suddenly forced to leave the country in 1987. Throughout the war, OIB was located near the Green Line that divided Beirut into East and West. Nevertheless, my predecessors Bachmann, Haarmann, Rotter and Heinen managed the institute with the greatest possible consideration for all sensitivities and legal idiosyncrasies in the country. The memory of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 is also still omnipresent at the Institute. The bombs fell so suddenly, including on the southern suburbs of Beirut and on the airport, that some German OIB employees were evacuated quickly - and by land.

For over sixty years, OIB has stood for a continuity that is highly valued in the country. Our Lebanese colleagues inside and outside the institute reflect how much they appreciate the fact that, despite all the political constraints, the OIB has helped to ensure that Beirut has remained the academic centre of the Arab world. In this city, where the histories of the entire region and the great powers intersect, research is conducted as freely, critically and pluralistically as states of war and military occupation allow. And we are determined to preserve and defend the practice of academic freedom under these circumstances.

For these reasons it is gratifying to report how great the interest in cooperation and joint OIB events in Lebanon and beyond continues to be. In January 2024, we joined forces with „Der Divan - das arabische Kulturhaus“ in Berlin and, together with our partners in Princeton, organised the first of three conferences on the topic of „Global Weimar/Global Nahda.“ In March, we welcomed our new and very lively cohort of seven pre- and postdoctoral researchers from Germany, Lebanon and the United States to the Institute. For them, we launched a theory and methods seminar and a colloquium on Lebanese and Syrian studies, led by Dr Zeina Halabi and Dr Carol Hakim respectively.

Unfortunately, we had to postpone our long-awaited conference “Crisis, Memory & Critique.” In the meantime, we have teamed up with Prof. Ulrike Freitag to jointly organise Middle East lectures at the Freie Universität Berlin, including one with Prof. Avi Shlaim on 21 May. We are also developing a Kant@300 lecture series, which will conclude in April 2025 with a public lecture by Prof  Andrea Esser (Jena University) In Cairo. We are particularly proud to carry out research- and event collaborations with partners in Lebanon, such as the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS), the Institute of Palestine Studies (IPS), UMAM Documentation and Research Centre, the Finnish Institute in the Middle East (FIME) and the Lebanese Association for Ottoman Studies, as well as with international partners, such as the new Merian Centre at the Université de Tunis (MECAM), Princeton University, and the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

The OIB has also become an indispensable part of a global Max Weber Foundation’s network that stretches from Tokyo to Washington, Paris and Moscow. Collaboration between the institutes is growing, and the three locations in the ‚global South‘ (Beirut, Istanbul, Delhi) are valued as critical workshops for academic self-reflection.

This past year, I have become aware just how much more is at stake as head of a German institute abroad than as a full professor in Canada, especially regarding the role as independent social critic. Immanuel Kant's classic “What is Enlightenment?” is more relevant today than ever. While rereading it, I realised that despite all the necessary restrictions at a publicly funded institute, tests of political conviction fundamentally contradict the Kantian principle of the public use of reason. As researchers, we are committed to this public use. I quote:

The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; the private use of reason may, however, often be very narrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment. By the public use of one's own reason I understand the use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world. I call the private use of reason that which a person may make in a civic post or office that has been entrusted to him.

In this balancing act between “office and literate world,” I see my vocation as intellectual “bridge-builder,” between promoting critical dialogue with colleagues in the region and criticising public perception in Germany and the world. In this respect, the OIB's burden is to grasp contradictory realities independently and bifocally, because the Middle East conflict is itself such a reality full of contradictions, in Lebanon, the region, in Germany and also the wider world.

It is true that post-war Germany has a historical responsibility towards the victims of the Holocaust. This responsibility gives rise to Germany’s particular relationship with the state of Israel and its citizens. How this responsibility is organised politically and what conclusions are drawn from it, especially with regard to the Gaza war and the war crimes committed in it, is the subject of necessary debates. These debates also reach the OIB. We cannot and will not duck our share of responsibility. 

The history of Palestine has been intertwined with that of Germany since the origins of the DMG in the late Ottoman period. However, most of the Palestinians living in Germany today fled Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 or are their descendants. As our Research Associate Sarah el-Bulbeisi explains in her book Taboo, Trauma and Identity (2020), Palestinians lead an existence between statelessness, residency-limbo and work-ban, collective punishment, shame and self-denial.

The Palestinians still lack social recognition in Germany. The German debate about the current Gaza war also shows that there is a dearth of expertise in public discourse about Palestine. Scientific debate could help here: By creating an academic space that would make it possible to tell the history of the Palestinians and analyze it on their own terms. If a group of far-sighted people had the courage to found an Institute for Palestine Studies in Germany, a scholarly hub where - in accordance with the Basic Law and on the basis of principles of international law - researchers work together collegially and conduct research on Palestine according to international scientific standards, then this would be a gain for society as a whole.

So let us try to be confident that the survivors of the war on Gaza and ongoing military and settler violence will finally receive the rights to which they are legally entitled. Let us have the courage to imagine a better future in which all people in the region can live in peace and justice.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all OIB staff for their work and the incredible team spirit of the last few months: Our Deputy Director Thomas Würtz, who has assumed the duties of Director as Interim Director until I officially took office on July 1; our Assistant Directors Caroline Kinj and Hussein Hussein; our Research Assistants Sarah el-Bulbeisi, Fatih Ermiš, Ahmed Abd el-Salam, Christian Thuselt, Carol Hakim, Sami Khatib, Nadia von Maltzahn, Zeina Halabi and Yasmin Amin; our librarians Peter Pökel, Dina Banna, Fatima Shaheen, Nasma Tayara; our administrative management around Angelika Sadek and Nirvana Ghandour; the IT specialists David Kattan and Patrick Mzaaber; the editorial team Barraq Zakaria and Micheline Kachar Hani; and, last but not least, the housekeeping staff Mohammad Siala, Rabia Omeirat, Ali Wehbe and Walid Bitar. And I thank my wife, from the bottom of my heart, especially for always finding a way and never giving up faith in humanity.

Thank you so much for your support and dedication to your research and keeping the institute afloat, for tackling difficult issues together, for laughing together, for having the courage to disagree, for giving us a sense of purpose as a team and for us as an institute. As difficult as the times ahead may be, I am confident and full of anticipation for the productive co-operations and challenges that the coming years will bring for us.