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New Harvard antisemitism task force under fire for controversial co-chair

Professor Derek Penslar, the co-lead of the task force, was dismissive of the focus on campus antisemitism in op-ed published after Oct. 7

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

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

Following the resignation of former Harvard President Claudine Gay earlier this month, Jewish students and allies called for the university’s new leadership to get more serious about cracking down on the antisemitism they say has dramatically increased on the Ivy League campus since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel.

An email sent by interim President Alan Garber on Friday announcing the creation of two new “presidential task forces,” one focused on combating antisemitism and another focused on Islamophobia, fueled their concerns about the credibility of the school’s efforts. 

The antisemitism-focused group came under immediate scrutiny for naming Derek Penslar, a historian and the director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies, as co-chair. Penslar’s appointment drew the ire of Jewish communal leaders and prominent figures at Harvard over comments he made in recent weeks minimizing concerns over antisemitism at Harvard, and for past statements he has made about Israel.

“Yes, we have a problem with antisemitism at Harvard, just like we have a problem with Islamophobia and how students converse with each other,” task force co-chair Derek Penslar, a historian and the director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies, told JTA earlier this month. “The problems are real. But outsiders took a very real problem and proceeded to exaggerate its scope.” 

Harvard did not respond to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks until two days later, but by then, a letter signed by more than three dozen student groups holding Israel alone responsible for the massacre had gone viral. Since then, antisemitic incidents at the Massachusetts campus have rapidly increased. Six Jewish students sued the school this month, calling it a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.”

In an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson last month, Penslar also said that the intense focus on rising antisemitism at the Ivy League university has “obscured the vulnerability of pro-Palestinian students, who have faced harassment by actors outside of the university and verbal abuse on and near campus.”

Penslar also faced pushback for signing a letter in August that accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and of implementing “a regime of apartheid” against Palestinians. He has also sharply criticized the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, a tool that has been widely adopted by dozens of countries, including the United States, and the mainstream Jewish community.

Former Harvard President Larry Summers called for Penslar to step down, noting that his appointment threatened the task force’s credibility.

“I also hope Harvard’s leadership will recognize that they have exacerbated Harvard’s credibility problems on anti-Semitism with the Penslar appointment and take steps to restore their credibility,” Summers said in a post on X on Sunday. “As things currently stand, I am unable to reassure Harvard community members, those we are recruiting or prospective students that Harvard is making progress in countering anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called Penslar’s appointment “absolutely inexcusable,” citing his past writings on Israel.

“This is why Harvard is failing, full stop,” Greenblatt wrote on X on Sunday. 

Penslar “is widely respected across the Harvard community as someone who approaches his research and teaching with open-mindedness and respect for conflicting points of view and approaching difficult issues with care and reason,” a Harvard spokesperson told Jewish Insider on Monday. “He is deeply committed to tackling antisemitism and improving the experience of Jewish students at Harvard.”

The task force comes on the heels of an antisemitism advisory group created by Gay in November. That group featured prominent outside members, including writer Dara Horn and Rabbi David Wolpe, who stepped down after Gay’s widely criticized Capitol Hill testimony in December. (The left-wing writer Peter Beinart theorized in December that Penslar may have been excluded from the initial advisory group because “he doesn’t want to suppress pro-Palestinian speech.”)

“So Harvard’s antisemitism advisory group came up with recommendations for the task force, and now the task force is going to come up with actual recommendations?!” former Harvard Hillel student president Jacob Miller, a junior, wrote on X on Friday. “Enough with the Kafkaesque committees — take action against the antisemites and implement curriculum reform now!” (Miller was an editorial fellow at JI from 2021-2022.)

It is not clear who will sit on the task force besides Penslar and co-chair Raffaella Sadun, a Harvard Business School professor. Sadun signed onto a 2022 Harvard faculty letter that criticized the Crimson’s editorial board for endorsing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Penslar did not sign that statement.

In his email announcing the formation of the task forces, Garber did not give a deadline by which they would complete their work. “I have asked that the work of the task forces be completed as soon as is feasible,” he wrote, “and I will share reports and recommendations in due course.”

Penslar issued a statement on Monday pledging to remain as the task force’s co-chair and expressing his dedication “to the education and well-being of our students.”

The task force is “an important opportunity to determine the nature and extent of antisemitism and more subtle forms of social exclusion that affect Jewish students at Harvard,” said Penslar. “Only with this information in hand can Harvard implement effective policies that will improve Jewish student life on campus.”

This story was updated on Monday afternoon to include statements from Derek Penslar and a Harvard spokesperson.

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