The Royal Society of Canada’s (RSC) recognition of three Jewish studies scholars this year suggests that the field of Jewish studies is gaining respect and credibility in the world of academia.
McGill University’s Gershon Hundert, as well as University of Toronto professors David Novak and Derek Penslar, all of whom are Jewish studies experts, have been elected by the fellows of the RSC to join their ranks.
Hundert, Novak and Penslar join 75 other fellows this year, and the nearly 2,000 others who were elected in previous years for their outstanding achievement in their respective fields.
Founded in 1882, the RSC is a national body of distinguished Canadian scholars, artists and scientists established to recognize academic excellence and outstanding contributions to Canadian culture.
Penslar, who was recognized for his work on controversial subjects including Zionism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Jewish economic and political power and antisemitism, said he is thrilled to have received the highest honour a scholar can achieve in Canada.
“It is a great honour for me personally, and I also think it is a sign… when three scholars of Jewish studies get elected in a single year… that [the RSC] are willing to consider on equal terms scholarship in subjects that in the past may have been considered peripheral or so highly controversial that they didn’t want to deal with it,” said Penslar, the Samuel Zacks professor of Jewish history at U of T, who will take up his post in 2012 as Oxford University’s first professor of Israeli studies.
Penslar added that in most universities, U of T included, Jewish studies does not have a department. McGill is the only Canadian institution that boasts a Jewish studies department, rather than a centre.
“A centre integrates 20 to 25 different departments and units. But people who do Jewish studies are full-fledged scholars of a discipline,” he said.
“We were trained at secular universities, we know how to talk to our colleagues in a certain disciplinary vocabulary, we know how to reach students of any background.”
Although Hundert said he couldn’t be sure how many other Jewish studies scholars have ever made the RSC fellows list, if any, he agreed the inclusion of three Jewish studies scholars on this year’s list “signals the maturation of the field of Jewish studies in the Canadian academy.”
Hundert explained that as a discipline, Jewish studies is quite young, having been established at McGill and U of T in the 1960s.
“This is a signal that we’ve come of age and we have a place in the academy.”
Hundert said that one of the most “satisfying” parts of being honoured by the RSC is that the nominations come from their colleagues.
“People at McGill put my name forward and suggested that I was worthy of this. That is especially satisfying.”
Hundert suggested that he might have been recognized this year because of his role as the editor-in-chief of the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, which is now available free online at www.yivoencyclopedia.org.
“I had 450 scholars contributing from 17 countries – it’s massive.”
Novak, who holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies as a religion and philosophy professor at U of T, has also been honoured by the society for his research in natural law theory, Jewish-Christian relations and biomedical ethics.
Novak said the honour is significant because not long ago, “Jews were not all that welcome [on university campuses] let alone Jewish history being welcome.”
He said it’s important for people to know that Jewish studies isn’t reserved for Jewish students, adding that a vast majority of his students are non-Jews.
“If we only appealed to Jewish students… we would be very marginalized. The fact that we have this wide appeal indicates that we’re not,” Novak said.
He said that while he’s honoured by the recognition, what is most significant is the fact that Jewish studies are “not foreign in the larger Canadian cultural context.”
This year’s new fellows will be inducted to the RSC during a ceremony on Nov. 26 at the Ottawa Convention Centre in Ottawa.