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Harvard antisemitism task force draws skepticism due to chair’s criticisms of Israel

Leader signed letter accusing the Israeli government of ‘apartheid’

Harvard University’s new Presidential Task Force on Combating Antisemitism is drawing criticism due to co-chair Professor Derek Penslar’s history of anti-Israel comments.

Penslar, a professor of Jewish history, was a signatory to an August 2023 letter criticizing the Israeli government for creating “a regime of apartheid” and adopting a “messianic, homophobic, and misogynistic agenda.”

Harvard formed the task force Jan. 19 amid growing concerns about antisemitism on campus and the administration’s response to it. In early January, President Claudine Gay resigned after facing plagiarism allegations and criticism for her statements to Congress about antisemitism. The Ivy League school also is facing backlash from alumni and major donors and a lawsuit from Jewish students.

But the new task force has not alleviated concerns for many.

“Harvard is trying to virtue signal while encouraging pervasive hostility to Jews to continue,” Rabbi Yaakov Menken, managing director of the Coalition for Jewish Values, told The College Fix last week when asked about the task force.

Menken said Penslar’s appointment as co-chair is particularly troubling.

“Penslar is an advocate for anti-semitism in its most potent current form: claiming to only oppose Israel,” he said.

The letter that Penslar signed criticized Israel for denying “Palestinian people … almost all basic rights,” but Menken said Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that “welcomes both Jews and Arabs into all aspects of government and public life.”

“To call that ‘apartheid’ is Nazi propaganda, and, as the reactions to Oct. 7 on Harvard’s own campus demonstrate, it leads to precisely the same place: justifying atrocities,” the rabbi told The Fix.

Others have expressed concerns about Penslar’s appointment, too, including former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who urged him to step down.

“Penslar has 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,” Summers wrote in a Jan. 21 post on X.

The Fix contacted the Harvard media relations department several times by phone and email in the past two weeks. In a Jan. 31 phone conversation, a media relations representative told The Fix that the department has a backlog of media requests and asked that the email be sent again. However, The Fix did not receive a reply to the re-sent email.

Penslar signs letter calling Israel ‘regime of apartheid’

On Jan. 28, amid the backlash, Penslar (pictured) backed out of a Jewish Public History Forum about antisemitism at the Center for Jewish History where he was scheduled to speak, according to a report by the Washington Free Beacon.

Penslar wrote a statement that was read at the “Addressing Antisemitism” event in his absence, stating that he did not want to answer questions about his position on the task force at Harvard.

“I am mindful of my role as co-chair of the Harvard Task Force on Combating Anti-Semitism, and since at the symposium I would invariably be asked to speak about the goings on at Harvard, and since the task force is only now just being put together, and its plan of action is being formed, it would not be appropriate for me to make public comments at this time,” Penslar said in the statement.

Concerns about his role in the task force center around the letter he signed along with hundreds of other academics, clergy, and public figures in August 2023 criticizing the Israeli government.

The letter accuses Israel of the “illegal occupation of millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” and “a regime of apartheid.”

Additionally, it calls for Jews in North America to use “the Israeli protest movement” to advocate for “equality for Jews and Palestinians within the Green Line and in the OPT,” “overhaul educational norms and curricula for Jewish children and youth in order to provide a more honest appraisal of Israel’s past and present,” and urge the United States to intervene on behalf of Palestine.

Penslar did not return The Fix‘s requests for comment in the past two weeks.

Task force aims to prevent future antisemitism

Harvard Interim President Alan Garber announced the new task force and a second one to address Islamophobia on Jan. 19 in response to rising “incidents of bias and hate against Jews and against Muslims, Palestinians, and other people of Arab descent.”

“Reports of anti-semitic and Islamophobic acts on our campus have grown, and the sense of belonging among these groups has been undermined,” Garber said. “We need to understand why and how that is happening—and what more we might do to prevent it.”

The Fix contacted Garber’s office, the Harvard history department, task force co-chair Professor Raffaella Sadun, and the Jewish and Israel Caucuses at the Harvard Kennedy School with requests for comment about the taskforce and Penslar, but did not receive responses.

MORE: Harvard, Penn lose major donors after botching response to Hamas invasion of Israel

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Kate Roberson is a student at Empire State College where she is studying history. Her work has appeared in The Federalist and on her blog, The Inkstain.