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Amid Pressure and Ardent Support, Penslar Mulled Stepping Down from Harvard Antisemitism Task Force

History professor Derek J. Penslar saw an outpouring of support from students and faculty as he weighed stepping down as co-chair of the presidential task force on antisemitism amid fierce criticism.
History professor Derek J. Penslar saw an outpouring of support from students and faculty as he weighed stepping down as co-chair of the presidential task force on antisemitism amid fierce criticism. By Michael Gritzbach
By Tilly R. Robinson and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

History professor Derek J. Penslar considered stepping down as co-chair of the presidential task force on antisemitism following backlash from high-profile critics as faculty and students rallied to his defense.

“Of course anyone would ask themselves if they should continue,” Penslar, a prominent scholar of Jewish history, wrote in a statement. “I am grateful for the outpouring of support I have received from my colleagues and students, and from President Garber, and I remain committed to helping advance the important work of this task force.”

Interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 tapped Penslar, who directs Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies, to co-lead the task force on Friday. His appointment was quickly slammed by leading Harvard critics including former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, billionaire donor Bill A. Ackman ’88, and Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.), who accused him of being too soft on campus antisemitism and overly critical of Israel.

As a result, one faculty member familiar with the situation said, Penslar discussed the prospect of stepping down as co-chair in conversations with other Harvard faculty, who urged him to stay on.

Following the onslaught of criticism, scholars of Judaism and Jewish history from across higher education, as well as Penslar’s Harvard colleagues and former students, voiced their support for the professor across at least five letters and statements in recent days.

On Wednesday, 226 scholars of Jewish studies issued a public statement supporting Penslar’s appointment calling him “an enthusiastic supporter and invaluable interlocutor for generations of scholars based in Israel and other countries.”

“Indeed, it is hard to think of many North American academics who have contributed more to the development of the study of Jewish history and of Israeli society over the past few decades than Derek Penslar,” the scholars wrote.

A group of 21 current and former students who had worked with or studied under Penslar published an open letter supporting Penslar on Medium Tuesday, arguing that “his measured and thorough analysis of Jewish history and Zionism” makes him uniquely positioned to effectively lead Harvard’s efforts against antisemitism.

“Over the past days, we have been heartbroken to see the exceptional reputation and character of Dr. Penslar questioned in service of political ends,” they wrote.

“Not only do these attacks pervert the unparalleled assiduousness and ingenuity of Dr. Penslar’s scholarship, but they also undermine the goal of Harvard’s antisemitism task force more broadly: to understand how antisemitism is manifesting on Harvard’s campus — and what more we might do to prevent it,” they added.

Amid the criticism, Penslar’s book “Zionism: An Emotional State,” was named a finalist for the 2023 National Jewish Book Award in an announcement Wednesday from the Jewish Book Council. Lines from the book were cited by some critics, including Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt, as evidence Penslar was unfit to lead the task force.

Other statements supporting Penslar were circulated by a group of 17 Boston-area rabbis, a group of 29 scholars — including nine Harvard graduate students and researchers — of Jewish studies, and the American Academy for Jewish Research.

In a letter to Garber shared with The Crimson, the leaders of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard declined to take a stance on whether Penslar was the “right choice” for the co-chair position, but argued it would “violate the principles of academic freedom to remove a scholar as chair of a committee solely because some members of the community or public are offended by the views he or she has expressed.”

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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ReligionFASHistoryFront FeatureFaculty NewsAlan GarberFeatured ArticlesLeadership Crisis