Trajectories of European Jewish identity: Providing tools to engage with pasts unknown
Submitting InstitutionUniversity College London
Unit of AssessmentTheology and Religious Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
Research by Michael Berkowitz, François Guesnet and John D. Klier has
inspired and informed a wide range of public engagement, including
exhibitions, popular television shows (such as Who Do You Think You
Are? reaching 5.82 million viewers) and lively conversation on
internet-based forums. Their work on Jewish life and culture in
continental Europe and Britain has shaped and provided vital content to
local, national and international communities numbering in the millions.
Through non-academic conferences and lectures, stimulated and contributed
to international public debate on little-discussed histories, and provided
cultural organisations an opportunity to promote and participate in this
UCL research investigating the diverse trajectories of modern British and
European Jewish identity was conducted by John Doyle Klier, Corob
Professor of Modern Jewish History (died in office in September 2007), Dr
François Guesnet (part-time Lecturer 2007-8, full-time Corob Lecturer in
Modern Jewish History 2008-11; Corob Reader in Modern Jewish History since
2011) and Michael Berkowitz (Reader at UCL since 1997, Professor of Modern
Jewish History since 2004). Their collective study encompasses the history
of Jews in Europe from the early modern era and questions of identity
formation and self-representation in 19th-20th century Britain.
The first strand of research, led by Klier and Guesnet, addresses the
history of Jews in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland-Lithuania and
Russia. In contrast to the small Jewish communities of Central and Western
Europe, Jews in East-Central and Eastern Europe during the early modern
era (18th-19th centuries) lived in large communities. These enjoyed
significant autonomy, guaranteed through privileges offering considerable
constitutional and legal stability over many generations. This contributed
to a strong identification with the community as a distinct cultural and
political entity, most evidently in the continued use of Yiddish, the
insignificant numbers of conversions to the surrounding faiths, and the
cultural hegemony of religious observance. Another key insight concerns
the impact of the partitions of Poland, and the integration of former
Polish-Lithuanian Jewry in Russia, Prussia and Austria, which led to
significant political and cultural segmentation of a once-unified
community. These questions were examined in Klier's posthumously published
monograph [a], and Guesnet's research on Jewish historiography in
East-Central Europe, which focuses on the dialectics of integration and
separateness [c, d], and developed in his anthology of Polish sources on
the Jewish presence in Poland [b]. Guesnet is also Director of the
Montefiore Testimonials project, which is digitising and transcribing
testimonials sent by Jews from around the world, but particularly
continental Europe, to the great British Jewish philanthropist, Sir Moses
Montefiore, from the 1840s to 1885.
Berkowitz's work on modern European Jewish identity formation and
political self-representations between 1881-1948 has focused on the
relationships between art, politics, culture, sport (especially boxing)
and spectacle. Research focused on boxing in England, where Jewish boxers
such as Daniel Mendoza, Isaac Bitton and `Dutch Sam' were leading figures
in the sport's rise to prominence in the 18th-19th century, with Jews
remaining active until the early 1960s [e]. Since 2008, Berkowitz has
researched the engagement of Jews with photography in Europe and the
United States, and has investigated the pioneering attempt in the 1960s to
write a history of Jews in photography [f].
References to the research
[a] John D. Klier, Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881-1882
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011). Edited posthumously by Helen
Klier & François Guesnet. Available on request. [Highly positive
reviews in historical and Jewish studies press, eg American Historical
Review 117 (Apr 2012): `the achievement of a consummate archival
[b] François Guesnet (ed.), Der Fremde als Nachbar. Polnische
Positionen zur jüdischen Präsenz. Texte seit 1800 (Frankfurt am
Main: Suhrkamp Verlag 2009). Submitted to REF2014. Positively reviewed in
Mittel-und Osteuropa Kultur, Dec-Jan 2011 (URL http://www.moe-kultur.de/pdf/moe74.pdf);
Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropaforschung 60 (2011) 2, 323.
[c] François Guesnet (ed.), Zwischen Graetz und Dubnow: Jüdische
Historiographie in Ostmitteleuropa Im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert
(Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsanstalt 2009). Available on request.
Positively reviewed in H-Soz-u-Kult, 05.01.2011; Quest. Issues
in Contemporary Jewish History; Judaica 67 (2011) 2,
334-336; jgo.e-reviews 4 (2011).
[d] François Guesnet, "Between Permeability and Isolation: Ezriel Natan
Frenk as Historian of the Jews of Poland," in Israel Bartal, Antony
Polonsky, and Scott Ury (eds.): Polin. Studies in Polish Jewry,
vol. 24: Jews and their Neighbours in Eastern Europe since 1750 (Oxford,
Portland, Oregon: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012), 111-131.
Submitted to REF2014.
[e] Michael Berkowitz, "Jewish fighters in Britain in historical context:
Repugnance, requiem, reconsideration," in Sport in History, vol.
31, no. 4 (December 2011): 423-443. doi: 10.1080/17460263.2011.645334
[refereed journal article].
[f] Michael Berkowitz, "`Jews in Photography': Conceiving a field in the
papers of Peter Pollack," in Photography & Culture, vol. 4,
no. 1 (March 2011): 7-28. doi: 10.2752/175145211X12899905861357.
Submitted to REF2014.
Details of the impact
UCL research on the history of Jews in Europe has helped to shape the
stories British and European Jews tell about themselves. This has been
achieved by providing cultural organisations, media and individuals with
information from research on under-reported facets of Jewish cultural
heritage, and creating original forums at which to engage with this
Informing genealogical research and engaging the public with a
Research at UCL has enabled investigations of British Jewish heritage by
the producers of the popular BBC genealogy programme Who Do You Think
You Are? Guesnet and Berkowitz received enquiries from the programme
makers (eg Guesnet, 2010, 2011 and 2012). Most notably, on 11 August 2011
Berkowitz appeared on an episode aired both in the UK and overseas. The
producers approached Berkowitz to help the actor June Brown — who played
Dot Cotton in EastEnders. Berkowitz drew on research to advise on
tracing her ancestor, the Sephardi Jewish boxer Isaac Bitton, and
recommended sites of particular relevance such as the Tom Cribb pub which
was later used for filming. The audience of the original broadcast was
5.82 million, demonstrating the reach of this impact .
The significance of this public engagement impact is demonstrated
by the intense interest this segment generated in this little-known
history. The episode's web forum had an active discussion about the boxing
connection, including a viewer who discovered her own ancestral links to
Jewish boxers in the East End of London  and many others who noted
their prior ignorance of this history. The episode was reviewed in news
outlets including the Daily Mail, Independent, Daily Mirror,
Metro ("perfect fodder for a social history programme") and on
genealogy blogs such as Genes Reunited . As a result, a wide
public has gained a new appreciation of the complex routes by which Jews
integrated themselves into British society. This has profound impacts both
on those of Jewish heritage, who thus gain a deeper understanding of and
connection with their cultural heritage, and the wider British public
whose understanding of Jewish history is improved, thus contributing to
Fostering debate between academics, cultural organisations and the
UCL research provided cultural organisations and embassies with a means
to fulfil their mandate to promote informed and authoritative debate in
London and internationally about contested or little-known histories,
demonstrated by their repeated sponsorship of events bringing the research
to an interested public. Research also provided British Jews with a
sustainable forum at which they could engage with academic debates around
the history and experiences of Eastern European Jewry and thus created
interest and engagement with a shared, but often overlooked, history. This
was achieved through a series of free talks and public conferences at the
UCL Institute for Jewish Studies, which were advertised through community
newspapers and mailing lists to attract a non-specialist audience and were
accompanied by exhibitions and film screenings.
For example, research provided the Polish Cultural Institute (PCI), a
diplomatic mission, a means by which to achieve what it terms "one of the
most challenges priorities of Polish cultural diplomacy": to engage the
British public with Polish and Jewish relations in their historical and
contemporary aspects . This was achieved through a partnership,
beginning in 2009, to arrange a conference titled `Warsaw: the History of
a Jewish Metropolis' (June 2010), organised by Guesnet, who lectured on
the 19th century transformation of Warsaw's Jews "from community to
metropolis". This was sponsored by the PCI, its collaborator the Instytut
Adama Mickiewicza and the Polish Embassy as part of Polska!Year. This was
so successful that the Polish Embassy invited Dr Guesnet back in March
2012, to moderate a discussion on Polish-Jewish relations in the Second
World War, which was also widely covered in London's Polish press .
According to the Director of the PCI, this was the largest academic
conference devoted to the history of the Polish capital outside Poland
itself . The conference, and those which succeeded it, was designed as
a hybrid event attracting a non-academic Polish and Jewish audience
interested in engaging with the latest research on the subject. It was
attended by over 300 people  and sparked a series of successful
- May 2011: Unsere kinder, the last Yiddish film in Poland,
introduced by Guesnet
- Dec 2011: launch of a special issue of the journal Polin (over
- Feb 2013: sold-out screening of the Venice Biennale film And Europe
Will be Stunned by Yael Bartana for Jewish Book Week. Guesnet was
the historian on the discussion panel before about 400 Jewish and Polish
These and similar events in 2010-2013 collectively attracted over 1,400
people and enabled the PCI to fulfil its commitment to promote discussion
of the contentious history of Jewish-Polish relations while reaching out
to a British public interested in Jewish themes . It also enabled the
PCI to build sustainable new relationships with other organisations, such
as Jewish Book Week, with whom a new partnership was subsequently arranged
The communities attending these events also benefited from a new
conversation about British Jewish history and connections to continental
Europe, which facilitated the strengthening of this group with its
cultural heritage and history. When several screenings of Unsere
kinder sparked an interest in historical research amongst members of
the Shomrei Hadat Congregation in London, for example, they invited
Guesnet to deliver a series of three lectures on the history of the Jews
in Poland and Lithuania in October 2012-January 2013 . These, in the
words of the congregation's President, "enhanced our community and our
understanding of who we are and who we have come from" .
UCL research led to wider public awareness of, and interest in, the
little-discussed role of Jewish sportsmen and thus challenged assumptions
about the role of this community in British society. This was achieved
through the development of heritage resources in order to conserve and
interpret cultural and historical heritage. In 2007 the Jewish Museum
London mounted Ghetto Warriors, the first major exhibition on the
relationship of Jews and other minorities to boxing. Drawing on the work
which was later published as [e], Berkowitz served as its Academic
Consultant and co-edited with Ruti Ungar the widely praised catalogue, Fighting
Back? Jewish and Black Boxers in Britain (2007), to which Berkowitz
contributed a essay . This was, unusually for a publication in this field,
reviewed in Supersport in 2009 and recommended as a `fascinating
new book' of interest to boxing fans despite its academic style . The
significance of this exhibition is demonstrated by its ongoing use by the
museum, which incorporated parts of Berkowitz's interpretation into a new
permanent display launched in 2010 . It also integrated objects from
the show into its Sandford Award-winning Take One educational
programme, such as a pair of shorts worn by a Jewish boxer competing in
the Olympics . In 2013, this research was used for a special exhibition
and public lecture (30 July), on Jews and boxing, for members of the
Jewish Historical Society of England as a preview of its 120th anniversary
celebration later that year.
A two-day public colloquium on relations between Jews and Lithuanians,
co-organised by Guesnet, brought this contested subject to worldwide
attention. `No Simple Stories' (February 2011) was co-sponsored by the
Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe and the Lithuanian Embassy. It was
attended by over 250 people from non-academic and academic backgrounds
. Even before the event, the involvement of the Lithuanian government
was strongly disputed by groups who felt it was complicit in downplaying
the Holocaust and difficulties faced by present-day Lithuanian Jews.
Heated debate erupted in the media and at the event . A comparatively
little-known controversy was thus brought to mainstream attention and
covered in The Economist (circulation over 1.4 million) where
lively debate continued in the comments section . As many positive
emails on the thought-provoking content confirmed , the conference
provided space for a stimulating and informed debate on this contested
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Berkowitz appearance on episode: http://bit.ly/18YnFBw.
Reach: Audience figures from Digital Spy: http://bit.ly/1cHFJal.
 Significance: Who Do You Think You Are episode web
Examples of news and blog coverage: Genes Re-United `Who Do You Think You
Are? June Brown — Episode 1', 11 August 2011, 12 comments, over
1,800 views. http://bit.ly/18oGtOf;
Liz Thomas, `EastEnders' June Brown discovers she's a real cockney in Who
Do You Think You Are?', 2 August 2011 Daily Mail: http://dailym.ai/1eGdlWY
(readership* 4.3m in print); Rachel Tarley. `Who Do You Think You Are?
featuring June Brown was a rare treat', 11 August 2011 in Metro
(readership* 3.6m) http://bit.ly/16q0l5F.
*Adult readership figures from National Readership Survey top line figures
July 2011 to June 2012 http://www.nrs.co.uk/top-line-readership/.
 Statement provided by the Director of the Polish Cultural Institute
in London confirming use of research for outreach, and events details.
 Newsletter No.9 (2012) of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in
London. Full page interview in the London-based The Polish Observer
(August 2009); full page article in Dziennik Polski, an online
publication in Britain, 21 May 2012 http://bit.ly/1dIji2K.
 Statement from President, Shomrei Hadat Congregation. Notice on
synagogue website: http://bit.ly/12wwC26.
 Supersport.com: R. Jackson, "Focus on boxing's minority groups", 9
Jul 2009 http://bit.ly/16Zut5j.
 Photograph demonstrating ongoing use (and thus significance to
interpretation) of Berkowitz exhibition materials available upon request.
 Jewish Museum London's educational workshop using Olympic boxing
 Audience figures and feedback provided by Institute of Jewish Studies
 Sample news coverage: `UK calls on Lithuania to tackle
anti-Semitism', Jerusalem Post online (most-read English language
website in Israel), 8 Feb 2011 http://bit.ly/16Zxcf8
`A challenging look at Jewish life in Lithuania', The Jewish News
(weekly readership 100k) 20 Jan 2011. `Old Wounds', The Economist,
10 Feb 2011 (print circ. 1.5m). http://econ.st/16dAjNR.