Derek Penslar will take up post as a fellow of St Anne's college next year to study the country's history 'within a global context'
Oxford University has appointed its first chair of Israel studies to research the economics, society and politics of the Jewish state, following a £3m benefaction by a charitable foundation.
Derek Penslar, professor of Jewish history at Toronto university, will take up the post next year as a fellow of St Anne's College. He said he regarded himself as under an obligation to "strive for political neutrality" and would study Israel "within a global context". "One cannot understand Zionism without studying the history of nationalism, both within Europe and as a reaction against European colonialism.
"One cannot understand Israeli politics, or the relationship between the Israeli state and its military, outside of the framework of Arab-Israeli relations and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Penslar told the Guardian in an email. "Israel's economy is, particularly in recent years, very much a product of trends towards globalization."
Commenting on the question of neutrality, he said: "I do believe that when people study a part of the world closely, and as they develop a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of its history, politics and culture, they develop empathy for even mutually-opposed parties, which tends to moderate extreme, rigid political orthodoxies. But it does not overthrow long-held political convictions, nor should it."
Penslar will be the first Stanley Lewis professor of Israel studies, a chair created with a £3m benefaction from the Stanley and Zea Lewis family foundation.
He is jointly appointed by the school of interdisciplinary area studies, and the department of politics and international relations.
Professor Roger Goodman, head of the social sciences division at Oxford, said: "Israel plays a key part in the debate about the Middle East, and Professor Derek Penslar is a foremost scholar of its history and politics. This chair and his appointment give Oxford a fantastic opportunity to expand its research into this important area of the world and to become a major global centre for the study of contemporary Israel."
Oxford has more than 70 staff conducting research on countries in the Middle East, and is the latest university to expand its study of Israel. The School of African and Oriental Studies in London announced last month that it was creating two posts in the field, funded by a charity rooted in Jewish values, while a European Association of Israel Studies will be launched in September.
From next year, Oxford will also upgrade an existing fellowship in Israel studies, at St Antony's College, to a lectureship in the subject. The university says the purpose of this post is to "support and collaborate with the new chair in Israel studies" as well as conducting research and providing teaching for degree courses in Middle East studies.