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Updated: Monday, January 22, at 1:23 p.m.
Some of Harvard’s chief critics since Oct. 7 slammed interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 for appointing Derek J. Penslar, a professor of Jewish history, to co-chair a presidential task force on combating antisemitism.
Garber’s selection of Penslar, who also serves as the director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies, came under fire from an array of figures including billionaire Harvard donor Bill A. Ackman ’88 and former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers over Penslar’s past public comments about Israel and allegations that he downplayed antisemitism on campus.
“Prof 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 Sunday post on X.
“None of this in my view is problematic for a professor at Harvard or even for a member of the task force but for the co-chair of an anti-Semitism task force that is being paralleled with an Islamophobia task force it seems highly problematic,” he added.
In particular, critics pointed to Penslar’s decision to sign an open letter in August — prior to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack — that said “Israel’s long-standing occupation” of Gaza resulted in a “regime of apartheid.” Penslar also penned a Dec. 29 op-ed in The Crimson, in which he urged readers to rethink definitions of antisemitism that classify criticisms of Israel as antisemitic.
Some of Penslar’s colleagues, however, were quick to come to his defense. Harvard Government professor Steven Levitsky bashed Penslar’s critics in an interview for attempting to undermine academic freedom and exert influence over the University’s administrative decision-making.
“The University has to maintain independence from outside political forces seeking to shape its agenda,” he said. “Outside forces — Congresspeople, donors, activists — have every right to opine about Harvard or about Harvard’s policies or its leaders, but they cannot be the ones dictating who the president of Harvard is, they can’t be the ones dictating what our policies are, they can’t be the ones dictating how our committees are staffed.”
“That’s up to the Harvard faculty, administration, and students,” Levitsky added.
Penslar’s defenders — a group that includes the American Academy for Jewish Research and several professors at Harvard — also emphasized the strength of his scholarly record on antisemitism and Israeli history.
“Professor Penslar is a prolific scholar with a stellar international reputation, whose numerous books address the historical development of many of the topics raising rancor at our universities today: antisemitism, Zionism, Jews and the military, and the history of Israel,” the American Academy for Jewish Research wrote in a letter to Garber on Sunday.
“It is precisely this kind of expertise that is needed in the current moment,” the group added.
Ackman, whose unrelenting criticism of former Harvard President Claudine Gay contributed in part to her eventual resignation, wrote that Harvard “continues down a path of darkness,” in response to news of Penslar’s appointment to co-lead the task force.
In a statement to The Crimson Monday afternoon, after publication of this article, a University spokesperson wrote that Penslar is “deeply committed to tackling antisemitism and improving the experience of Jewish students at Harvard.”
“The Task Force on Combating Anti-Semitism will undertake broad consultation as it seeks to identify the root causes of antisemitism on campus and recommend approaches to tackle antisemitism directly,” the spokesperson added. “To fully address a challenge of such complexity, Interim President Garber believes that the effort to combat antisemitism at Harvard will benefit from a variety of perspectives and experiences, including those offered by co-chairs Professors Raffaella Sadun and Derek Penslar and through other members who will be named to the task force.”
Penslar wrote on Monday that he believes the presidential task force on antisemitism will provide an “important opportunity to determine the nature and extent of antisemitism and more subtle forms of social exclusion that affect Jewish students at Harvard.”
“Only with this information in hand can Harvard implement effective policies that will improve Jewish student life on campus,” he added.
Summers, a frequent critic of top Harvard administrators and the University’s governing boards over the past four months, offered his strongest criticism of Harvard to date in his Sunday post on X about Penslar's appointment.
“After Friday’s new anti-Semitism task force announcement, I have lost confidence in the determination and ability of the Harvard Corporation and Harvard leadership to maintain Harvard as a place where Jews and Israelis can flourish,” he wrote.
Summers added that Penslar is “unsuited” to lead the antisemitism task force and that he should step down from his position as co-chair.
While former University presidents have typically refrained from criticizing the actions of their successors, Summers has been publicly vocal since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel about the University’s current direction.
Levitsky fiercely rebuked Summers, saying he thought Summers’ wide-reaching public statements on antisemitism at Harvard did not accurately reflect the perspective of the University’s Jewish population.
“Larry Summers says some very bold things about antisemitism at Harvard. He is not representative of a majority of Jews at Harvard,” said Levitsky, who is Jewish.
“That guy is batshit crazy — and you can quote me on that,” he added.
In an interview, Summers responded to Levitsky’s criticism by saying that he was only speaking on behalf of himself and “not some segment of the Harvard community,” but doubled down on his criticism of the University.
“The fact that there’s been an unprecedented decline in applications, that both the Democratic Biden administration and the Republican Congress and civil society have launched investigations or litigation against Harvard suggests that there is a substantial antisemitism problem of perception that — in my view — the University needs to reckon with,” Summers added.
Unlike Summers, Levitsky said it would be hard for him “to imagine a better person for this position” than Penslar, and criticized the attacks against Penslar as political.
“You have to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism to suggest that Derek Penslar is not a good fit for this role,” Levitsky said. “When you deliberately conflate the two, you utterly silence criticism of Israel, and you utterly silence pro-Palestinian speech — and that we can't tolerate, not at a university in a free society.”
“The same crowd that mobilized to effectively bring down Claudine Gay has mobilized again against Derek Penslar — doesn’t shock me, doesn’t surprise me,” he added. “I think it falls well short of controversy, and it’s a campaign that Harvard has to resist.”
Harvard Divinity School professor Annette Yoshiko Reed said she saw Penslar as “someone who, throughout his career — and I’ve literally known this for decades — has been a really ardent supporter of both Jewish Studies and Jewish life on campus.”
Reed noted that Penslar — who was appointed as co-chair alongside Harvard Business School professor Raffaella Sadun — was not leading the task force alone.
“We’re not a political party. We’re a university, and what we’re supposed to be is a place people can have conversations — which means when you appoint a committee, part of the point is that not everybody agrees,” Reed said.
—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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