About Derek Penslar

Where I’ve Been

I study Zionism and modern Israel within the contexts of modern European and Middle Eastern history, Jewish history, nationalism, and colonialism.  This methodology reflects my education as a European historian (with a BA from Stanford University and a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley) and three decades of teaching Jewish, European and comparative history as well as Israel Studies at Indiana University, the University of Toronto, Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard.

Since 1998 I have been the Samuel Zacks Professor of European Jewish history at the University of Toronto.  Between 2012 and 2016 I was also the inaugural Stanley Lewis Professor of Modern Israel Studies at Oxford:


Between 2016 and 2018  I will be a visiting professor of History at Harvard, where as of 2018 I will be the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History.

What I Do

My first book, Zionism and Technocracy: The Engineering of Jewish Settlement in Palestine, 1870-1918 (Indiana University Press, 1991) placed early Zionist settlement policy in the context of European colonial and social policies of the fin de siecle.  My interests in Zionist economic thought led to my second book,  Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe (University of California Press, 2001), which traced the history of Jewish political economy from the eighteenth century to the present.  I’ve written a number of articles on Israel’s place in modern Jewish and world history, and some of these essays were published in my 2007 book Israel in History: The Jewish State in Comparative Perspective (Routledge, 2006).  Over the past five years my research interests have continued to cover both Jewish history and Israel Studies. My most recent book, Jews and the Military:  A History, was published in 2013 by Princeton University Press.  I am currently writing two books:  Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader (for Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series) and Zionism: An Emotional State (for Rutgers University Press’ Keywords in Jewish Studies series).

I co-edit The Journal of Israeli History and serve on the editorial boards of the journals Israel Studies and the Israel Studies Review.  I am a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the American Academy for Jewish Research.

Recent publications:

Jews and the Military:  A History (2013)  (Princeton University Press)  Available from Amazon

This book explores the Jews’ long and complex relationship with military service throughout the modern world.    Although in some times and places Jews feared and shunned the military, there were also cases of Jews serving their countries eagerly in order to demonstrate masculine pride and worthiness for emancipation.  In the twentieth century, millions of Jews fought in the World Wars, and some of the expertise gained in those wars influenced the development of the Zionist militias in Palestine that in 1948 became the Israel Defence Force.

“Shlomo Sand’s ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ and the End of the New History,” Israel Studies 17:2 (2012), 156-68

Shlomo Sand’s 2008 book The Invention of the Jewish People was lambasted by scholarly critics yet attracted a large readership, particularly in western Europe. This article shares the scholarly consensus that Sand’s book is deeply flawed and tendentious yet argues that it’s not enough to criticize the book – we must also understand the reasons for its appeal. .

The Origins of Israel, 1882-1948: A Documentary History (with Eran Kaplan. University of Wisconsin Press, 2011)

Eran Kaplan and I have assembled a documentary history of the Yishuv (pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine) that includes a long general introduction as well as substantive introductions to and comments on each document.   Many of the sources are taken from archives and throw new light on the social, cultural and political history of the Yishuv. The combination of primary sources, commentary and background information makes this a useful text for undergraduate courses on the history of Zionism and Israel.

“The German-Jewish Soldier: From Participant to Victim.” German History 29, 3 (2011), 423-44

A journal article that was an early version of one of the chapters from Jews and the Military.

Recent Seminar/Conference Participation:

I delivered the 2013 Sherman Lectures in Judaic Studies at the University of Manchester:



I offered summary observations at a June 19-21 conference at Birkbeck College on the BDS movement in comparative and historical perspective:


Other media appearances….

Several years ago the CBC produced a thoughtful two-part documentary on Zionism featuring Professors Ruth Wisse (Harvard), Susannah Heschel (Darmouth), and Gadi Taub (Hebrew University):  ”Zionism From Within” (October 2011, produced by Frank Faulk)



I’ve appeared several times on TVO’s excellent public affairs program “The Agenda.”  The episodes have dealt with Israel affairs, antisemitism and the Holocaust, and Jewish history and culture.


Journal editing:

Along with Professor Anita Shapira, I co-edit The Journal of Israeli History, which is housed at the Center for the Study of Zionism at Tel Aviv University:



I am a member of the editorial board of Israel Studies, also published by Indiana University Press.


And of the Israel Studies Review, which is edited by Professor Yoram Peri of the University of Maryland for the Israel Studies Review.


I serve on the advisory board of the Israel Institute, a recently founded educational and philanthropic organization in Washington, DC, which funds graduate and post-graduate students and promotes the teaching of Israel Studies at universities throughout the world



I am a fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research


and of the Royal Society of Canada


For more information please see:










Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s