What They Learned: Joseph Weisberg ’21

The history and Spanish double major reexamined popular perceptions of the past, close to and far from home.

Joseph Weisberg ‘21 wants his history and Spanish theses to challenge perceptions of history–both Haverford’s and Moisés Ville, Argentina’s.

Weisberg’s history thesis examined Haverford’s history of antisemitism and exclusion between 1886–1945. Weisberg became interested in the topic during his work as a research assistant for Professor David Harrington Watt.

“At the time, I was working on various questions related to the history of Haverford College, Quakerism, race, and ethnicity,” he said. “As I dug into this topic, I realized there was a lot of untouched material that I could use for my thesis.” 

One thing Weisberg discovered in the research was the alumni role in perpetuating systems of exclusion in admissions and student life.

“Though the alumni did not support explicitly excluding Jews and Black people from the Haverford community, they encouraged the College to protect its traditional constituency by adopting subjective admissions standards that valued seemingly intangible traits like ‘character’ and ‘well-roundedness,’” he said. “In reality, these qualities reflected the cultural biases of the WASP [White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant] elite, and, therefore, their implementation as admission criteria institutionalized a preference for this group.”

Weisberg’s findings were featured in the People’s Tour of Haverford this spring, a series of tours given by Rebecca Fisher ’18 that told stories about Haverford’s history and the Lenape land Haverford occupies. Weisberg hopes that such work revising the way we think about Haverford’s history continues. 

“This is especially true in the wake of the student strike as the community debates what exactly it means to belong to the Haverford community,” he said. “I hope that my research can inspire other people to think about the College as a historical institution so that these debates can draw from a robust understanding of the College’s past.”

For the aspiring historian pursuing a Ph.D. at Brandeis University, writing one thesis relating to history was not enough. Weisberg’s Spanish thesis looked at how people relate to the past. He researched the memory of Moises Ville, a town in Santa Fe, Argentina that was founded as a Jewish agricultural settlement and remains a site of Jewish belonging. 

“My thesis argued that three physical movements […] represent inflection points in which we can see new ways to understand the town,” said Weisberg. “I built this argument on a theoretical framework of Jewish collective memory and using a wide range of primary sources, some of which had never been analyzed in an academic study.”

Weisberg’s use of memory in his analysis made him rethink the ways that memory and history intersect. 

“One of the biggest takeaways from this project is that memory is malleable and often comments more on our situation in the present than it does on the past,” he said. “I’d encourage anyone interested in history to think about the key distinction between memory and history.”

While completing his two majors and two theses, Weisberg still found time to be a student-athlete. He played for the lacrosse team for four years, was a captain his senior year, and won the athletic department’s Ambler Award this spring. 

What did you learn from working on your history thesis?
The past is not as simple as we might like it to be. For instance, Haverford College instituted policies that systematically discriminated against Jewish and other non-WASP applicants, but it was also more diverse than many places of elite sociability in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The complexity of the past might not always be convenient in our soundbite-driven world, but for me, the idea of recovering and trying to make sense of the complexities of the past makes history an exciting subject to study. 

What are the implications of your Spanish thesis research for other academics or researchers?
My project makes a few subtle proposals and contributions that could affect future studies of Moisés Ville. I think the most important of those is that I analyze the relationship between memory and mobility. Previous studies tend to focus on the demographic decline of Moisés Ville’s Jewish population. My project broadens this relationship to look at mobility, so that I can also analyze the role of tourism in the memory of the town. There’s a lot more work that can be done on the role of tourism to Moisés Ville and the town’s memory as the “Argentine Jerusalem.”

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.