Uncertainty surrounds Harvard’s efforts to tackle antisemitism 

Harvard is standing by Derek Penslar, its embattled co-chair of the antisemitism task force, amid lack of clarity over its task

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Harvard Yard during finals week, December 13, 2023 in Cambridge, Mass.

Anyone trying to follow Harvard’s efforts to address rising antisemitism on campus has had to decipher a labyrinthine turn of events that have left even those close to the university questioning what, exactly, the strategy is. 

The critical response to a co-chair of the university’s new antisemitism task force, announced last week, is just the latest unforced error for Harvard, which since the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel has been mired in a series of PR missteps amid widespread public scrutiny of its actions.

Some Jewish communal leaders and prominent Harvard affiliates criticized recent comments made by task force co-chair Derek Penslar, a historian and director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies, minimizing the scope of antisemitism at Harvard. Some also expressed concern about public writings from Penslar adopting a left-wing approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on which he has written extensively, including a letter he signed onto that accused Israel of ethnic cleansing. 

In a statement to Jewish Insider, Harvard on Monday stood by its choice of Penslar and Harvard Business School professor Raffaella Sadun as co-chairs. But what remains most unclear is what action the task force, with a broad mandate to research and address antisemitism, will take.

The body comes on the heels of an antisemitism advisory group created by former Harvard President Claudine Gay in November. But that group’s activities have not been made public by the university. 

The group, which was comprised several Harvard faculty members and administrators, a university trustee, one student, author Dara Horn and Rabbi David Wolpe (who resigned in December), disbanded at the end of last year.

The advisory group authored a detailed report that contained specific recommendations Harvard could take to counter antisemitism on campus, two sources with knowledge of the group’s work told JI on Tuesday. The report was shared with university administrators but otherwise is confidential and not meant to be shared with the public, one of the sources close to the advisory group said. 

“The advisory group has wrapped up its work, including having come up with recommendations for the charge and work of the Task Force on Combating Antisemitism, that will lead this initiative going forward,” Harvard spokesperson Jason Newton told JI on Tuesday.

Despite its lack of transparency, the advisory group was more than a public relations move — it met roughly twice a week for two months, and each meeting was attended by then-Provost Alan Garber, who is now Harvard’s interim president. (Gay did not consult the group before her testimony to Congress in December.) Its report included recommendations that the new task force is meant to implement, including specific guidance to enforce Harvard’s code of conduct against student protestors who interrupt classes to chant antisemitic slogans and policies to evaluate the academic rigor of speakers on campus, according to the source. 

These ideas have been advocated by Jewish students and alumni for months, with little action from Harvard. Despite Gay saying in November that chants to free Palestine “from the river to the sea” come across as hateful to Jewish students, pro-Palestine protestors interrupted several classes at Harvard weeks later with that same chant.

Still, the advisory group left the task force with its report as a blueprint for future action. But none of the members of the initial group have yet been named to the task force; Penslar and Sadun were not part of the original group. With the controversy over Penslar’s appointment, Harvard is beginning a crucial task already on the defensive, promoting Penslar as a good steward of the cause while also taking steps toward appointing other members of the task force.

Reached for comment on Monday, a Harvard spokesperson offered the names of several Jewish studies professors at other universities who could vouch for Penslar, a well-respected scholar. Among some members of the campus Jewish community and advocates with ties to the university, his appointment to lead the group raises questions.

“Being chair of a task force is not a scholarly enterprise. You need to be able to bring multiple stakeholders along, particularly where people feel very aggrieved. It is important that the person in place be someone who is not polarizing and can help the community to heal,” said Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, an organization that works with Jewish faculty at U.S. universities to counter antisemitism and anti-Israel bias. (She and Penslar will appear on a panel together, discussing antisemitism, at a Center for Jewish History event in New York on Sunday.) What’s most important, Elman said, is that the chair of a committee like this “should have the trust and support of the aggrieved Jewish community on campus.”

Talia Kahan, a Harvard sophomore who took a Jewish history class with Penslar in the fall, said he handled the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks thoughtfully.

“In the wake of October 7, I definitely felt fully supported as a Jewish student, and as somebody who has a lot of personal ties to Israel, by Professor Penslar,” she told JI on Tuesday. “A lot of the criticism leveraged against him has come from an analysis of his scholarship to claim that he is not well equipped to be on this task force. I’m fairly confident that most people who are leveraging criticism against him have not spent a semester learning with him.”

Academics view the close reading of Penslar’s past writings on Zionism and his public statements about antisemitism as an affront to their profession, where freedom of expression and critical inquiry are key tenets. 

“The frustration among many scholars in seeing Penslar become a target and a focal point for debate about this is that we need to be focused on the larger goal of thinking critically and carefully about these institutions and really using evidence-based methods,” said James Loeffler, a professor of modern Jewish history at Johns Hopkins University who has worked closely with Penslar. “I want the people who are charged to investigate and to come up with solutions to really be singularly focused on honesty and academic rigor.”

Any timeline for the task force to name its members or implement new policies has not been made public. Back from winter break, Harvard Jewish students continue to complain of a toxic environment. The Harvard Crimson reported on Monday that the university sent a selection of antisemitic messages posted on an anonymous chat app for Harvard undergraduates to the campus police, to investigate whether law enforcement should get involved. 

Kahan, on her first day back after winter break, walked by posters with the photos of Israeli hostages. They had been vandalized.

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