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I’m Derek Penslar’s Student: He Is the Right Choice for the Task Force

By Vander O.B. Ritchie, Crimson Opinion Writer
Vander O.B. Ritchie ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Philosophy and History in Leverett House.

There are many facts I could tell you to support Derek J. Penslar’s appointment as co-chair of Harvard’s recently-established antisemitism task force.

I could tell you that his decades-long, world-renowned research focuses on Zionism, Israel, Palestine, and Jewish history and antisemitism specifically. I could tell you how many of Penslar’s colleagues and students have advocated for him. I could tell you that he is a signatory of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism — one of the most well-regarded definitions of antisemitism to date — which clearly acknowledges that criticism of Israel can be antisemitic, especially when that criticism denies the Jewish right to self-determination and security.

Instead, I will show you what it’s been like to be one of Penslar’s students.

I was a student in Penslar’s class, “Jews in the Modern World,” last semester. In that time, we collectively experienced the Oct. 7 attacks. In that lecture hall, I felt profound grief, not just from the students but from Penslar himself. I also saw the way he immediately rushed to support students, making us feel comfortable and safe in a time of momentous instability. In his office hours a week after the attacks, we spent an hour discussing the conflict and temperature of the student body. He listened to me and genuinely made me feel more comfortable navigating both campus life and the conflict as a whole.

In Penslar’s class, I also observed robust, constant discussion of antisemitism. We were asked to attempt to understand what, specifically, it means to be Jewish, and what it means to hate Jews. Penslar drove us to explore the complex roots of antisemitism and the ways in which it is similar and dissimilar to other forms of bigotry. He did not shy away from highlighting the antisemitism often present in the administrations of Arab states, military organizations, and political leaders in their consistent opposition to the state of Israel’s existence.

Penslar’s focus on antisemitism as a term, as a sentiment, and as a driving historical force is one based on the facts and careful analysis of thousands of years of history.

On the situation in historic Palestine, Penslar takes an approach that all scholars — especially those of history — should, one rooted in adherence to fact and a rejection of dogmatism. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Penslar is able to consider himself a Zionist, all while holding strong, thoughtful critiques of the Israeli government and its treatment of Palestinians.

He is not an adherent to all-consuming ideologies, and leaves room for his views to change when presented with the right facts and a solid analysis of those facts. He considers all sides of a problem with honesty, compassion, and a genuine thirst for understanding.

Such an approach is threatening to his dogmatic critics. Outside observers like hedge fund CEO Bill A. Ackman ’88 took to social media to criticize the pick, with figures like Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) even going so far as to accuse Penslar of antisemitism.

The reaction to Penslar’s appointment is a problem that is at once much deeper than Penslar himself, but also epitomized by the responses like Stefanik’s and Ackman’s. It’s a problem with the politicization of Harvard and our student body. Conservative politicians and activists see Harvard as synecdoche for “woke” universities, and they view our campus as a battleground for their never-ending “culture war.”

Penslar is not just an excellent choice to lead the antisemitism task force — he is also the obvious choice. It seems Penslar’s critics would only be satisfied if someone wholly uncritical of Israel and Zionism was chosen in his stead. Their ideal candidate wouldn’t question Israel’s status quo, a quality which runs counter to the nature of true academics — especially those picked to task forces with the overt goal of investigation and change. Academics are supposed to be independent, critical thinkers, and it’s ridiculous that critics reject the selection of Penslar in service of a political agenda.

Some critics have claimed that Penslar has downplayed antisemitism at Harvard in saying that outside forces have overblown it. It is perhaps the closest opposition gets to a valid point, but I still believe it falls short of legitimate criticism. Largely because Penslar’s is a sentiment I — along with all those I’ve talked to — share.

While antisemitism is a real and rising problem on our campus — as Penslar has noted — it is nowhere near as large a problem as national media makes it seem. Contrary to what the doxxing trucks would have you believe, we are hardly a hotbed for Hamas apologia.

What has been lost in the relentless, national discussion of antisemitism on our campus is that Harvard is an actual school; it’s not just a symbol for the ostensible wokeness of present day academia. There are students who go to Harvard, and playing political games with their mental health and physical safety is dangerous.

Whether or not you align with Penslar’s politics, he fundamentally understands antisemitism, and he cares deeply about his students. Stepping outside of the political theatrics of it all, it becomes clear that his genuine stake in intellectual rigor and student well-being is what truly matters, and what makes him the right choice for this task force.

Vander O.B. Ritchie ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Philosophy and History in Leverett House.

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