Since its founding in 1977, the Bertelsmann Stiftung has devoted considerable effort to facilitating German-Israeli relations. This long-term cooperation was built on the close friendship cultivated between Liz and Reinhard Mohn with then-Mayor of Jerusalem, the legendary Teddy Kollek.
Initiated in 2000, the German-Israeli Young Leaders Exchange was launched after Reinhard Mohn observed in the 1990s that, despite countless points of contact, the perceptions both young Israelis and Germans had of each other were still shaped by skepticism and misconceptions. As was characteristic of the Stiftung’s founder, Mohn then set out to find a solution. The resulting analysis of cultural exchange programs pointed to three essential aspects of intercultural learning: First, people must be able to meet and discuss eye-to-eye, which involves establishing joint programs held both in Israel and Germany. Second, dialogue must be built on identifying and focusing on common issues while looking to the future. Third, the long-term sustainability of relations must be cultivated through networking and alumni work.
The inaugural German-Israeli Young Leaders Exchange event, which took place in Germany on November 3-11, 2000, had as its theme a “Digital Economy.“ Many of the issues addressed at the time have continued relevance for us today: "Information Technology and Biotechnology," "Digital Economy and Social Change," "Internet and Political Extremism – Regulation vs. Freedom of Speech," "The Future Role of Private Equity in Building New Businesses," "E-Transforming the Company – Strategies for Success in the Net Economy," and "New Economy – Old Europe?”.
More than 400 experts and leaders from both countries – hailing from fields as diverse as politics, media, business, civil society, education and culture – have participated in the 17 cycles of the exchange program that have been held since 2000.
The strategy of providing participants in the German-Israeli Young Leaders Exchange content-driven opportunities to engage with each other has proved a resounding success. One marker of this success is that entrepreneurship and innovation have become central issues repeatedly addressed by the exchange program.
The program is achieving its key objective of fostering dialogue and cooperation between young leaders in both countries that are focused on achieving shared benefits in the future. An impressive 98 percent of participants stated in a recent survey that the program has expanded their knowledge of the other country. Some 96 percent of participants report having gained a deeper understanding of their dialogue partner, and 88 percent report having reflected intensively on their own values and beliefs.
The program thus demonstrates what Liz Mohn has emphasized: "In order to discover common ground, we need personal encounters and an open dialogue characterized by genuine interest. Because understanding grows out of getting to know each other. And from understanding comes trust and friendship.”
The German-Israeli Young Leaders Exchange network has been the source of countless cooperation efforts led by participants who met through the program. The program’s networking events have also provided the broad swathe of participants from all walks of German and Israeli life to engage on issues addressed by the Bertelsmann Stiftung with relevance for both societies.