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Derek Penslar

"Look at the Jewish history books on my shelves written in the prewar period. Tremendous erudition, but encased in a mythological framework so thick that it severely limits their usefulness"

For a journalist, it’s a question that follows as readily as night does day: doesn’t a university chair in Jewish history burden its incumbent with obligations and pressures from all political quarters?

Derek Jonathan Penslar’s calm, scholarly demeanour remains decisively intact as he answers in a way that also explains why he got the job: “Actually, I would say rather the opposite. I see a chair like this as recognizing the coming of age of Jewish studies in academia. And it is precisely because I hold this chair in a major history department in a major university that I don’t have to feel that I’m representing a particular political or ethnic constituency,” he says. “It is the same as being a professor of Russian history, or a professor of American history. What the chair creates is a fully academic position that doesn’t in and of itself carry a public obligation that would somehow compromise my academic views. I teach about Judaism and the Jews, but I don’t teach as their advocate.”

All of which is not to suggest that the holder of the Samuel J. Zacks Chair of Jewish History is a holier-than-thou purist afraid to enter the marketplace of ideas. In fact, whenever the situation in the Middle East intensifies, Penslar is often interviewed as an expert on Israel. “I do not at all mind doing this,” says Penslar, his eyes brimming with mischief. “People don’t always agree with my comments, but if I am irritating people on all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I’m probably doing something right.”

His insouciant take on the media does not temper his belief in the importance of sincere discourse. “The more knowledge we have about each other, the better chance we have of coming to an agreement,” says Penslar. “One thing that bothers me about the Palestinians and the Israelis is that they don’t understand each other. They feel only their own pain. That’s why I think there’s a need for so-called experts who try to be disinterested. And I do see myself doing that. That doesn’t mean I’m not biased. I am imperfect. But my job is not to advocate a particular kind of political or religious position, regardless of my personal views. My job is to disseminate knowledge, to get people to want to know.”

Jewish history is a relatively new discipline, says Penslar, 42, who came to U of T from Indiana University, where he taught for 11 years, seven of them as associate director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program. Although the first North American chair in the subject was at Columbia University in the 1930s, it was only after the Second World War and the Holocaust that it became widely studied. Penslar places its flowering in the ’60s and ’70s, when a breakdown in the Eurocentric, Christian-centric world view and the growth of feminism and ethnic awareness fostered many new disciplines. By 1979, when he entered graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, Jewish history had become mainstream. In the past 20 years, “it’s grown tremendously,” he says.

Penslar himself has contributed to the growth of written material in this area since he came to Toronto in 1998. This June, University of California Press is releasing his book, Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe. Next year, he will be finishing a book about the role of radio and television in shaping modern Israel.

“As we get farther and farther away from the Holocaust, the creation of the state of Israel and the Six-Day War, Jewish memory will become increasingly normalized.” But, he admits, there is still much work to be done. “It’s rather odd. You can have tremendous knowledge that is also buried in myth. Look at the Jewish history books on my shelves that were written in the prewar period. Tremendous erudition, but encased in a mythological framework so thick that it severely limits the works usefulness. Piles and piles of facts, but without sufficient understanding of the context in which the Jews live.”

It is essential that modern Jewish history be studied in a global context, says Penslar. “That’s why it’s very important that the kind of teaching I do has to be comparative. There is a famous line that is attributed to [German poet] Heinrich Heine: ‘The Jews are like everybody else only more so.’ And this is very much a pillar of what I teach. Yes, of course, every nationality has its own unique perspective. But with the Jews, there are so many aspects of modern Jewish culture that can be compared fruitfully with Arab culture, Russian culture, you name it. It is only through the comparative technique that the truly unique points emerge. And again, it is only through comparison that you can have some possibility for dialogue.

“I’m trying to create an atmosphere in which people truly understand not just their own history, but history as such.”

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