Students walk by the Harvard Yard gate in Cambridge, MA, Sep. 16, 2021. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
(JTA) — Prominent Jewish critics of Harvard University are opposing the appointment of a Jewish studies professor to co-chair the school’s new antisemitism task forcearguing that his views on Israel and antisemitism disqualify him.
The latest controversy at Harvard began on Friday, when Derek Penslar, director of the school’s center for Jewish studies, was tapped to co-lead the new taskforce. Shortly afterward, Penslar came under attack from former Harvard President Larry Summers as well as Bill Ackman, the Harvard alum and hedge-fund activist who previously led calls for the resignation of former Harvard President Claudine Gay. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, soon joined them in their criticism.
In response, the school has doubled down on Penslar’s appointment, and a group of Jewish academics is speaking out in his defense.
The debate is erupting one month after a similar dispute played out at Stanford University, where the co-chair of the antisemitism task force, Ari Y. Kelman, stepped down from his role following nearly identical lines of criticism.
Together, the episodes demonstrate that antisemitism task forces — which a number of universities have announced since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war — are turning into another front for debate. They point to an intra-Jewish divide over the questions that lie at the heart of fighting antisemitism, and which Jews get to answer them.
The new task force at Harvard replaces an antisemitism advisory group that Gay had formed following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, and that had drawn criticism from Jews on the left for excluding Penslar — a scholar of modern Jewish history, Zionism and Israel. Harvard President Alan Garber announced the new task force on Friday, alongside one focused on Islamophobia, and said it would be co-chaired by Penslar and business professor Raffaella Sadun.
Summers and Ackman argued that Penslar holds views that are out of step with the Jewish mainstream. They object to a letter Penslar signed, prior to October, that used the word “apartheid” to refer to Israel’s control of Palestinians. They also mentioned his comment, made to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency earlier this month, that some voices have “exaggerated” the level of antisemitism at Harvard.
In addition, they cited his criticism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitismwhich includes some forms of Israel criticism. The definition has been adopted by hundreds of governments and other entities, but its opponents say it could chill legitimate criticism of Israel.
On X, formerly Twitter, Summers called Penslar’s appointment “highly problematic.” He accused Penslar of having “publicly minimized Harvard’s anti-Semitism problem, rejected the definition used by the US government in recent years of anti-Semitism as too broad, invoked the need for the concept of settler colonialism in analyzing Israel, referred to Israel as an apartheid state and more.”
Last May, the Biden administration announced a strategy to counter antisemitism that recognizes the IHRA definition as the “most prominent” framing of antisemitism but did not adopt it exclusively.
Ackman wrote on the platform that “Harvard continues on the path of darkness,” and reposted Summers’ arguments against Penslar.
Greenblatt tweeted that the task force offered “Lessons in how NOT to combat antisemitism, Harvard edition. Start by naming a professor who libels the Jewish state and claims that ‘veins of hatred run through Jewish civilization’ to your antisemitism task force. Absolutely inexcusable. This is why Harvard is failing, full stop.”
Greenblatt appeared to be quoting a passage from Penslar’s 2023 book, “Zionism: An Emotional State,” in which he noted that Jews who lived as a small and often persecuted minority in Europe frequently fantasized about vengeance against Christians. Penslar also writes that other emotions also coursed through Jewish communities that would later adopt Zionism, including love, hope, honor and solidarity.
In a statement to JTA in the wake of the weekend’s criticisms, Penslar said he was “dedicated to the education and well-being of our students.”
He added, “I see in the Task Force on antisemitism an important opportunity to determine the nature and extent of antisemitism and more subtle forms of social exclusion that affect Jewish students at Harvard. Only with this information in hand can Harvard implement effective policies that will improve Jewish student life on campus.”
Harvard is also standing behind Penslar’s appointment, calling him “a renowned scholar” who is “highly regarded as a leading authority in his field” in its own statement to JTA.
The statement added that Penslar “approaches his research and teaching with open-mindedness and respect for conflicting points of view and approaching difficult issues with care and reason,” and “is deeply committed to tackling antisemitism and improving the experience of Jewish students at Harvard.”
As Summers’ and Ackman’s criticism spread online, a prominent consortium of Jewish scholars has also spoken out in Penslar’s defense. In a statement to JTA on Monday, the American Academy for Jewish Research said it was “dismayed” by the attacks on Penslar, adding that they “could result in long-term damage to the field” of Jewish studies.
“Professor Penslar is a prolific scholar with a stellar international reputation, whose numerous books address the historical development of many of the topics raising rancor at our universities today: antisemitism, Zionism, Jews and the military, and the history of Israel,” the group said. “It is precisely this kind of expertise that is needed in the current moment.”
This is not the first time that Harvard’s efforts at combating antisemitism have drawn backlash. Summers, Ackman and other critics had initially slammed Gay for what they called a tepid response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Gay was later pilloried after a congressional hearing in which she, along with the leaders of two other elite schools, declined to say that calling for the genocide of Jews violated campus rules.
In the days after Gay’s Congressional testimony, Rabbi David Wolpe stepped down from the antisemitism task force she had assembled. Wolpe, for decades a prominent congregational rabbi in Los Angeles, said the body was an inadequate response to the enormity of the task of fighting antisemitism. In its announcement of the new task force on Friday, the school said that Gay’s advisory group had “wrapped up its work.”
A federal Title VI civil rights investigation has been opened at Harvard for its handling of an alleged antisemitic incident on campus; Congress has also launched its own investigation into antisemitism at Harvard.
This article originally appeared on JTA.org.