A Harvard task force on antisemitism has gotten off to a rocky start, with complaints that the professor chosen to help lead the panel had signed a letter that was critical of Israel, describing it as “under a regime of apartheid.”
Harvard’s new interim president, Alan Garber, announced the formation of two “presidential task forces” forces on Friday, one to combat antisemitism and the other to combat Islamophobia. The move came less than a month after his predecessor, Claudine Gay, was forced to step down over plagiarism accusations and criticism that she was weak on reining in antisemitism.
Dr. Garber’s choice for co-chair of the antisemitism task force, Derek J. Penslar, a professor of Jewish history at Harvard, met with immediate opposition from Lawrence H. Summers, a former Harvard president, and Bill Ackman, a hedge fund manager whose relentless criticism of Dr. Gay helped bring about her downfall.
Dr. Penslar was among nearly 2,900 academics, clergy members and other public figures who signed an open letter in early August, before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, condemning the Israeli government and saying it was determined to “ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population.” The letter said that “Meanwhile, American Jewish billionaire funders help support the Israeli far right.”
The open letter was updated in December with a call for a cease-fire and an exchange of hostages and prisoners; Dr. Penslar did not sign that version.
In a Dec. 29 opinion essay in the campus newspaper, The Crimson, Dr. Penslar called for “a better understanding of what is — and is not — antisemitic.” He added, “Conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism magnifies divisions within our Harvard community and stymies a common struggle against hatred.”
The dispute over his selection shows that the long-running debate over what constitutes antisemitism still rages. And it raises questions about how much influence outside forces, especially big donors, should have over speech and opinion within universities.
“I have no doubt that Prof. Penslar is a profound scholar of Zionism and a person of good will without a trace of personal antisemitism who cares deeply about Harvard,” Mr. Summers wrote Sunday in a social media posting. “However, I believe that given his record, he is unsuited to leading a task force whose function is to combat what is seen by many as a serious antisemitism problem at Harvard.”
Mr. Ackman posted that with Dr. Penslar’s selection, Harvard “continues on the path of darkness.”
Harvard said in a statement that Dr. Penslar was committed to tackling antisemitism and is “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.”
Several Harvard professors also pushed back at the criticism of Dr. Penslar. They said that he was a leading scholarly expert on antisemitism, and that outside forces should not dictate to Harvard how it should run the university.
“Donors, right-wing politicians, and activists are welcome to share their opinions, as is everyone in a free society, but they cannot be allowed to de facto dictate university policies (for example, on regulating campus speech and protest), remove university leaders, or veto appointments to important university task forces,” Alison Frank Johnson, a history professor, and Steven Levitsky, a government professor, wrote on Monday in an opinion essay in The Crimson.
Criticism of Israel might not be popular in all circles, but it “is hardly a fringe position” among American and Israeli Jews, the two professors wrote.