Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for History awarded to Jonathan Israel

4 February 2011

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has awarded the 2008 Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for History (USD 150,000) to Professor Jonathan I. Israel, School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, United States, for 'his vitally new perspective on the history of the Enlightenment'.

The topic

Some scholars believe the Enlightenment began with eighteenth-century French philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau, whereas others trace its origins to England and to Newton and Locke. But these theories have been altered by the work of British historian Jonathan Israel, who emphasises the significance of what went before: the early, radical phase of the Enlightenment, dominated by the ideas of the philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677).

In Israel's view, Spinoza played a key role in the emancipation movement on which our modern, secular, democratic and tolerant society is based. His philosophy led directly to the French Revolution's notions of freedom, equality and brotherhood. The Enlightenment was a single, pan-European movement, according to Israel. It is ideas that make the difference in history, he believes. Not everyone agrees with Israel, but his themes are of special relevance to many contemporary discussions.

Israel had already caused quite a stir outside his discipline with his writings on the Dutch Republic.

The laureate

Jonathan Israel (London, 1946) studied history at Cambridge University and took his PhD at Oxford. He concentrated on the early modern history of Europe, initially at the University of Hull and then at University College London, where he became the first non-Dutch professor of Dutch history. He became a professor at Princeton in 2001.

Israel is extraordinarily productive and has written authoritative books about such wide-ranging topics as Jewry in early modern European history, colonial politics in Mexico, and world trade in the age of mercantilism. He is also a keen debater of contemporary issues. He knows eight European languages, including contemporary and seventeenth-century Dutch.

In 2007 Israel was granted a Fellowship by the Royal Library of the Netherlands and gave the Royal Library Lecture, Failed Enlightenment. Spinoza's Legacy and the Netherlands (1670-1800), which can be heard on the Royal Library website.

Israel is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Foreign Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was granted an honorary professorship at Amsterdam University in 2003 and, one year later, was made a Companion of the Order of the Dutch Lion, an honour seldom conferred on foreigners.

Examples of key publications

  • Jonathan Israel, European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550-1750, Oxford, 1985 Jonathan Israel, Dutch primacy in world trade, 1585-1740, Oxford, 1989
  • Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806, Oxford, 1995
  • Jonathan Israel, Conflicts of Empires: Spain, the Low Countries and the Struggle for World Supremacy, 1585-1713, London, 1997
  • Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750, Oxford, 2001.

The prize

The Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for History was established in 1990. It was initially intended for European history alone, but in 2006 eligibility was extended to all areas of the discipline. Previous winners include Peter Gay, Heiko Oberman, Jacques le Goff and Joel Mokyr. The jury was chaired by Willem Frijhoff.

The presentation ceremony

The Heineken Prizes are presented every other year during an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. This year the meeting will be held on Thursday 2 October at the Beurs van Berlage Building in Amsterdam.