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Enough Outside Bullying: Penslar Is the Right Choice To Lead the Antisemitism Task Force

The Harvard Center for Jewish Studies is directed by Derek J. Penslar and located in the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, formerly the Harvard Semitic Museum.
The Harvard Center for Jewish Studies is directed by Derek J. Penslar and located in the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, formerly the Harvard Semitic Museum. By Jessica C. Salley
By Alison Frank Johnson and Steven Levitsky, Contributing Opinion Writers
Alison Frank Johnson is a Professor of History. Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and a Professor of Government.

As professors at the College, we applaud the recent announcement by interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 of two presidential task forces, one to combat antisemitism and one to combat Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias. Unfortunately, the leadership of the antisemitism task force was immediately attacked by outside political forces, threatening to undermine its work before it even begins.

The appointment of Derek J. Penslar — William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies — as co-chair of the antisemitism task force was an especially wise choice. Penslar is one of the world’s leading scholarly experts on antisemitism. He has devoted his career to studying Jewish history across the world, to understanding the aspirations and challenges of Zionism, and, importantly, to combating antisemitism.

Professor Penslar’s academic credentials stand out even by Harvard’s standards. He has written six books and co-edited several more; he has published more than fifty academic articles and essays in leading journals; he has served on the faculty of several prestigious universities; he was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Association for Israel Studies; he is an elected fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research; and he has received countless honors and fellowships, including from Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, the Yitzhak Rabin Center, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

From the point of view of scholarly expertise, there is no one at Harvard better suited to this job. Despite all this, Penslar’s appointment immediately came under fire from by-now familiar quarters.

His transgression? Criticism of Israeli government policies.

On August 6, 2023, Penslar, along with nearly 2,800 public figures, primarily Israel and North American academics and including mainstream Zionists like prominent Israeli historian Benny Morris, signed an open letter pleading for Jewish support for Palestinian rights. That document noted “the elephant in the room: Israel’s long-standing occupation that, we repeat, has yielded a regime of apartheid.”

Such criticism of Israel is not popular in all circles, but it is hardly a fringe position. These views are shared by many American Jews, and indeed by many Israeli Jews.

And yet professor Penslar, who himself identifies as a Zionist, has been assailed in scathing and outrageous terms. Bill A. Ackman ’88 called Penslar’s appointment to the task force a step down “the path of darkness.” A deputy director general in the Netanyahu government’s foreign ministry labeled Penslar a “rabid anti Zionist.” Borrowing talking points from these and other critics, deeply misleading articles on Penslar appeared in the Times of Israel and right-wing media like the New York Post, the National Review, the Daily Caller, and the Washington Free Beacon. The New York Post went so far as to suggest he might be antisemitic.

It’s time to say enough. The attacks on professor Penslar — and by extension on President Garber for appointing him to this role — exemplify two profoundly worrying trends that threaten Harvard’s very mission.

The first is external political forces undercutting the University’s independence and the principle of academic freedom. 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.

The second trend is the reckless mischaracterization of criticism of Israeli government policy as hate speech. It is essential to distinguish between criticism of Israel, which must be protected, and antisemitism, which must be combated. In the weeks following the traumatic attacks of Oct. 7, these terms were routinely conflated, which had the effect of chilling criticism of Israel.

This needs to stop. Criticism of (or support for) any government’s actions must be tolerated in a university that respects academic freedom and encourages vigorous debate. Treating fact-based criticism of Israel as inherently antisemitic shuts down speech and academic debate, which should be anathema to any university in a free society. Even the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, in its expansive and oft-cited definition of antisemitism, acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

What exactly crosses the line into antisemitism is a difficult question and one that requires serious scholarly debate. President Garber got it right — Derek Penslar is best equipped to lead that debate. Consider, for example, his thoughtful article in Antisemitism Studies analyzing different definitions of antisemitism.

Universities are increasingly under assault from outside political forces. That a highly respected Jewish scholar who has dedicated his career to understanding and combating antisemitism — as Derek Penslar has done — stands accused of being unfit to lead a task force on the subject (and even of being antisemitic himself) is a reminder that no one is immune to this kind of dishonest, politicized attack. University leaders must resist calls for professor Penslar’s removal as co-chair of the antisemitism task force.

We must not allow the task force’s work or its members’ reputations to be undermined by loud outside actors with political agendas. There is more than committee staffing at stake in Harvard’s response: The work we do, our scholarship, our expertise, and our right to freely criticize governments are being challenged.

It’s a test we cannot afford to fail.

Alison Frank Johnson is a Professor of History. Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and a Professor of Government.

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