A group of Jewish scholars is defending Harvard University’s appointment of Derek Penslar, the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History, who has criticized Israel, as co-chair of the university’s new antisemitism task force.
Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, announced the selection of Penslar for the presidential task force last week, The New York Times reported (Garber also announced the formation of another task force to address Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias).
Penslar’s appointment quickly garnered criticism from those who took issue with his views on Israel and Palestine, including a letter he signed last year, along with nearly 3,000 other scholars, rabbis and educators, condemning the Israeli government. He also defended critics of Israel in a recent opinion article in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, and argued that “Conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism magnifies divisions within our Harvard community and stymies a common struggle against hatred.”
The group defending Penslar, the Nexus Task Force, which describes itself as “a group of Jewish communal scholars that developed an alternative definition of antisemitism in part to combat the political weaponization of accusations of antisemitism,” released a letter Tuesday in defense of Penslar. (Penslar is a member of the group.)
“We reject efforts to cynically weaponize antisemitism by inflaming divisions or undermining university initiatives to help students,” the letter said. “Diversity of perspectives and experience helps to navigate complex issues thoughtfully and ultimately strengthens the effort to counter antisemitism. Leaders should applaud appointments like Professor Penslar’s to bring insight rather than ideology to this difficult task.”
Bill Ackman, the billionaire Harvard donor who led calls for former president Claudine Gay’s resignation in the wake of Gay’s widely criticized congressional testimony on campus antisemitism and subsequent accusations that she plagiarized parts of her past scholarship, is a leading critic of Penslar’s appointment. Ackman posted on X on Friday that “Harvard continues on the path of darkness.”
And Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard president, wrote on social media that Penslar’s appointment was akin to putting “someone who had minimized the racism problem or who had argued against federal antiracism efforts” on an antiracism task force, according to the Times. “This is yet another example of a double standard between antisemitism and other forms of prejudice.”