Center for Israel Studies director is awarded the First Baron Award for Scholarly Excellence

The award is described as the Nobel Prize for the study of Jewish experience

Center for Israel Studies director is awarded the First Baron Award for Scholarly Excellence

Michael Brenner, American University’s Director of the Center for Israel Studies, received the first Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Award for Scholarly Excellence in Research on the Jewish Experience. 

Brenner’s research focuses on the State of Israel and Jewish history from the 19th to the 21st century. His multiple publications and books have been translated into 10 languages. A few of his books focus on German Jewish history in the 1920s, which he said is extremely significant today. 

“I think that this aspect of history, unfortunately, has become more relevant in the United States, than what I thought when I started to work on it initially,” Brenner said. “It shows how democracies can fail and how certain groups can be singled out and blamed for economic or political crises. Today, unfortunately, I see certain rhymes to that history.”

AU’s Center for Israel Studies was established in 1998, the first of its kind. The center has created a space to study, examine and interpret Israel’s landscape as a nation and its people. 

“At AU and CIS, we have excellent relations with many different schools and departments, allowing us to do unique interdisciplinary work,” Brenner said. “At the center, we are able to interact with both high-level scholars and politicians for collaborative research and discussion.”

The award was established in 2020 by the University of Vienna and the Knapp Family Foundation, a nonprofit that fosters diverse education in minority communities. The University of Vienna describes the award as the Nobel Prize in the study of the Jewish experience. The Baron Award recognizes and honors the achievements of researchers whose works focus on the relationship of Jewish and non-Jewish people and perceptions of Judaism in the broader societies in which they live. 

The award was named after Salo Wittmayer Baron, who is widely considered to be the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century. He is best known for his 18-volume magnum opus “A Social and Religious History of the Jews.” As the first professor to be appointed as the Chair of Jewish History at Columbia University, Baron testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, where he explained the sociohistorical context of the genocide against Jewish people. Baron’s work strove to integrate the aspects of Jewish history into the wider history of the eras and societies in which they lived. According to Brenner, his scholarship is the groundwork for understanding how Jewish people in Israel and worldwide continue to perceive themselves and others today. 

Brenner continues to serve as a professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich, where he teaches a semester every year. He had the opportunity to meet Baron during his graduate studies at Columbia University. 

“I was honored to visit him when he was 94 years old, where I got to know him. Personally, I am very touched to be the first recipient of the award that was named after him,” Brenner said. “I am also very attached to the fact that Baron and I both shared experiences of having our lives and academic careers be between Europe and the U.S.” 

In the future, Brenner hopes to study Israeli-Arab relations further and create unique global programs for the Center for Israel Studies.  

Brenner encourages non-Jewish students to participate in Jewish and Israel Studies, where students see the intersection of identities to understand other experiences.  

“Jewish studies is here for everyone,” Brenner said. “For non-Jewish students, it is an opportunity to learn about their own families’ experiences as immigrants or minorities by looking at the Jewish experience in the last 200 years. Rather than being isolationist and looking at one’s own, I think we should understand the relations between two or more groups throughout history and today.”

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