A Harvard task force on anti-Semitism got off to a rocky start, with complaints that the professor it chose to help the committee had signed a letter critical of Israel, describing it as an “apartheid regime” for its treatment of Palestinians.
Harvard’s new interim president, Alan Garber, announced the creation of two “presidential task forces” on Friday, one to combat anti-Semitism and the other to combat Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias. The move came less than a month after his predecessor, Claudine Gay, was forced to resign amid accusations of plagiarism and criticism that she was weak in reining in anti-Semitism.
But the choice for co-chairman of the task force, Derek J. Penslar, a professor of Jewish history at Harvard, was opposed by Lawrence H. Summers, a former Harvard president, and Bill Ackman, a hedge fund manager whose relentless U.S. review of Dr. Gay helped her fall.
Dr. Penslar was among nearly 2,900 academics, members of the clergy and other public figures who signed an open letter in August, before the October 7 Hamas attack, condemning the Israeli government and saying it was determined to “ethnically cleanse all lands under Israeli sovereignty of their Palestinian population.”
“Meanwhile,” the letter, written by a group called Academics4Peace, said, “American Jewish billionaire financiers help support the Israeli far right.”
The same group released another letter in December calling for a ceasefire and exchange of hostages and prisoners in the Israel-Hamas war. Dr. Penslar did not sign this release.
The controversy over his selection shows that the long-running debate over what constitutes anti-Semitism is still raging, with Dr Penslar’s stance at odds with his critics.
Dr. Penslar said in a statement that he saw the task force as “an important opportunity to determine the nature and extent of anti-Semitism and the more subtle forms of social exclusion affecting Jewish students at Harvard.”
But in a Dec. 29 opinion essay in the campus publication The Harvard Crimson, Dr. Penslar called for “a better understanding of what is – and what is not – anti-Semitic”.
“Confusing criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism,” he said, “magnifies the divisions within our Harvard community and hinders a shared struggle against hate.”
Harvard said in a statement that Dr. Penslar approached his work “with an open mind and respect for conflicting views.”
But to donors and critics, his worldview didn’t seem to match the job description.
Mr. Ackman was posted that with the selection of Dr. Penslar, Harvard “continues down the path of darkness.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, posted on the appointment of Dr. Penslar: “Lessons on How NOT to Fight Anti-Semitism, Harvard Edition.”
Dr. Summers said in a social media post on Sunday that he had no quarrel with Dr. Penslar’s scholarship and believed him to be “a man of good will without a trace of personal anti-Semitism.”
“However,” he said, “I believe that, given his record, he is unfit to lead a task force whose mission is to combat what many consider a serious problem of anti-Semitism at Harvard.”
Dr. Summers criticized Dr. Penslar for taking a narrow view of anti-Semitism and for underestimating the university’s anti-Semitism problem.
“Could one imagine Harvard appointing as head of its anti-racism task force someone who had minimized the problem of racism or who had supported federal anti-racism efforts?” He wrote. “This is yet another example of the double standards between anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice.”
Several professors pushed back.
Criticism of Israel may not be popular in all circles, but it is “hardly a fringe position” between American Jews and Israel, Alison Frank Johnson, professor of history, and Steven Levitsky, professor of government, wrote in a opinion essay Monday in The Harvard Crimson.
They also expressed concern about external pressure.
“Donors, right-wing politicians, and activists are welcome to share their views, just like anyone in a free society,” they wrote, “but they are not allowed to dictate de facto university policies — for example, regarding the regulation of speech and protest on campus. — removing university leaders or vetoing appointments to important university working groups’.
Yehudah Mirsky, professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, said he would not have signed the letter calling the Israeli government an apartheid regime. But he said the rhetoric surrounding the appointment of Dr. Penslar does no injustice to “a wide-ranging cosmopolitan scholar.”
Dr. Mirsky, a dual citizen of the US and Israel, suggested that the reaction reflected the “overcharged” atmosphere on college campuses surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, which he said seemed divorced from reality.
He described the tense scene on October 7, as he fled to a bomb shelter in Jerusalem with his wife: “If I turned to her and said, ‘You know, this means the president of Harvard is going to have to resign. He would look at me like I was crazy.”