“Emotions are the key to understanding Zionism”

6 Dec 2022

Derek Penslar of Harvard University is the first holder of a new Visiting Professorship for Jewish Studies at LMU. Endowed by the Munich-based Brodt Foundation, the chair will bring internationally renowned researchers in this field to LMU.

Professor Derek Penslar from Harvard University is Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at LMU | © privat

Professor Derek Penslar has already dug deep into Jewishness from the political, economic and military perspectives, and has now even delved into the realm of feelings. “Emotions are the key to understanding Zionism,” the Professor of Jewish History at Harvard University explains, “because deep-seated emotions have been its historical mainstay.” Generally speaking, he adds, emotion “is one of the most important cohesive forces that bind states and social movements together.”

Derek Penslar is the first holder of a new Visiting Professorship for Jewish Studies at LMU, endowed by the Munich-based Brodt Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is to renew Jewish culture in Germany and strengthen young people’s conception of their own Jewishness. To this end, it promotes education programs and creative educational concepts. In the shape of the Visiting Professorship, it will in future every year bring internationally respected academics in the field of Jewish studies to LMU.

From Stanford to Berlin

On December 7, Derek Penslar will deliver his keynote address on “Zionism and the International Community: Between Gratitude and Betrayal” in LMU’s main building. Penslar holds the William Lee Frost Chair of Jewish History at Harvard University. He is a member of Harvard’s Center for European Studies, its Center for Middle Eastern Studies and its Center for Jewish Studies, and will become Director of the latter in 2023. Adopting a comparative and transnational approach, Penslar explores Jewish history in the contexts of modern capitalism, nationalism and colonialism.

“One of my great-grandmothers came from Lviv in what was then Austro-Hungary (and is now part of Ukraine) to Cologne. She emigrated to the USA at the start of the 20th century,” Penslar tells us. Born to Jewish parents in California in 1958, he later focused his Stanford studies on German history. “I can’t really pin down what fascinated me so much about it. Maybe it was the contrast between a highly educated, cultured country such as Germany and the barbarism of the Nazi era.”

Only years later did Derek Penslar discover that many of his family members, most of them natives of Poland, had been killed by the Nazis. “So, my interest in Germany also had a personal element that I was unable to express.” His first trip to Germany came in 1978, when he took part in an exchange program between Stanford University and the Freie Universität (Free University) of what was then West Berlin. “This experience made a deep impression on me, and for a long time I was interested primarily in German history,” Penslar recalls.

“Source of emotional energy”

Not until taking up his main studies did Penslar also develop an interest in Jewish history and the history of Zionism. Before moving to Harvard University in 2016, he taught and conducted research at the Universities of Indiana, Toronto and Oxford. His research and numerous books initially tackled Jewish social history. Economic and military history came later, as – repeatedly – did Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism: “A charismatic man who recognized the Jews’ longing for a home.” Penslar’s book on the role of emotions in the Zionist movement and for the state of Israel is currently in print. “It was clear to me that telling an emotional story could be the best way to understand political developments in general and nationalism in particular,” Penslar says. “If you want to understand how Israel became a state, you must understand this process as a national movement. The Jews had no state, no state institutions. So, there must have been a source of emotional energy that was tapped into by Theodor Herzl and other Zionist leaders.”

Returning to political history in his current project, Derek Penslar takes a global perspective of the Palestine war from 1947 to 1949. “Such tremendous interest in two such small peoples! Just 1.2 million Palestinians, only 650,000 Jews. The world was still in shock from a Second World War in which 60 million people had been killed. Yet this conflict still caught the attention of the world.”

“The Jewish community is very important to the Foundation”

Derek Penslar is now spending three months in Munich, where, at venues such as the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library), he is researching the German media echo to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. “Although this was an eventful time for Germany – with the occupation, the Marshall Plan, currency reform, the Berlin blockade and the Berlin airlift – Israel was the focus of many extensive articles in Spiegel, Berliner Zeitung and Tagesspiegel, for example.” During his Visiting Professorship, Penslar will also deliver a lecture on the history of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel, as well as organizing an in-depth seminar with 20 students on the Palestine war. “The focus will be on diplomatic history, cultural history and the history of the war. The students are excellent: It is a pleasure to teach them.”

The Brodt Foundation is very grateful to Penslar, who has met the family behind it in person. “Jakob and Aline Brodt are caring, active people for whom the Jewish community in Germany, its future and its relationship to non-Jews are very important.” The historian perceives Munich as an “agreeable and highly civilized city with an outstanding university that reminds me very much of the University of Toronto”.

In Canada and the USA, he is often asked how he can teach Jewish topics in Germany. “But being Jewish can be difficult at anytime and anywhere. We just have to accept that. And in Germany, many people have made serious efforts to acknowledge and overcome the past in order to create a better Germany.” As a Jew in Munich, Derek Penslar feels comfortable. “I have got to know members of the Freundeskreis des Lehrstuhls für Jüdische Geschichte und Kultur (Friends of the Chair of Jewish History and Culture) at LMU, and they seem to lead a very good Jewish life here.”

07 Dec

Zionism and the International Community: Between Gratitude and Betrayal

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On December 7, 2022, Professor Derek Penslar will deliver the inaugural lecture of the Brodt Foundation Visiting Professorship in Jewish Studies at LMU.

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