American University’s Michael Brenner has received the very first Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Award for Scholarly Excellence in Research on the Jewish Experience, established this year by the University of Vienna and the Knapp Family Foundation. The University of Vienna states that this prestigious award “may well be described as a Nobel Prize in the study of the Jewish experience.”
Brenner is American University’s Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and Director of AU’s Center for Israel Studies. He says he is greatly honored by this recognition. “I feel a special attachment to the person for whom this new award is named. Not only because Salo Baron was the first professor of Jewish history at any Western university, but also because as a graduate student at Columbia University thirty years ago I still got to know him personally when he was in his nineties."
A Great Legacy
The University of Vienna and the Knapp Family Foundation created the Baron Award to honor the legacy of Salo Wittmayer Baron, widely considered to be the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century. His research ranged widely geographically across centuries. He received his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Vienna and multiple doctorates from the University of Vienna. In 1930, Baron accepted the Nathan L. Miller Professor of Jewish History, Literature and Institutions at Columbia University, the first of its kind anywhere.
Mastering more than twenty languages, Baron’s seminal achievement was his eighteen-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews. The University of Vienna describes Baron’s life’s work as a mission to reevaluate what he called the "lachrymose conception" of Jewish history and consider also the successes and perseverance that marked that history. His work was of great importance beyond the world of scholarship because it lays the groundwork for how Jews in Israel and elsewhere perceive themselves and are perceived by others.
Guardians of Jewish History
While announcing the award, the University of Vienna noted that Brenner, like Salo Baron, bridges Europe and the United States in both his life and research. In addition to his positions at American University, Brenner is the Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich. He received his PhD at Columbia University, taught previously at Indiana and Brandeis Universities, and has held visiting appointments at numerous universities, including Haifa, Paris, Budapest, Stanford, Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins. Besides being a member of the Bavarian Academy of Science, of the American Academy for Jewish Research and of the Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana in Mantua, he serves as the international president of the Leo Baeck Institute. In 2015, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas presented Brenner with the German Federal Order of Merit, praising him as “a guardian of Jewish history” and an important supporter of Jewish life in Germany and worldwide.
Brenner’s research focuses on the history of the Jews from the 19th to the 21st century, including the Shoah and the State of Israel. His books have been translated into ten languages. They include In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea; A Short History of the Jews; Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History; Zionism: A Brief History; The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany; and After the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany. In addition, he has co-authored the four-volume German-Jewish History in Modern Times and edited seventeen books, among them a study of religion and state in Israel.
At American University, Brenner teaches classes including HIST-344 History of Antisemitism, HIST-443 History of Israel, and HIST-496 Israel and Europe. His colleague, Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (and Professor of History and International Relations) Max Paul Friedman, says that Brenner is “a giant — a gentle giant” — in the fields of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies. “This award recognizes the extraordinary scope and reach of Michael’s contributions to scholarship, as well as his building an international community of scholars devoted to this work.”
Friedman calls Brenner “a historian with a writer’s sensibility, whose reflections on the visions and nightmares and imaginary utopias that are the Israel of the mind are as lyrical as they are filled with insight. His many books on German Jewish history have given members of his community — survivors of an attempt at total erasure — as well as the Germany of today a window into the rich and varied cultural landscape of their collective past. And he has used his national stature in his country of birth to become a forceful advocate of human rights for all. American University is fortunate to count him among our own.”