Jan 22, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Harvard's new antisemitism task force co-chair faces backlash

The Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Dec. 12, 2023. Photo: Mel Musto/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Harvard's new task force on antisemitism is facing criticism for its choice of leadership.

The big picture: The group is a part of the university's response to criticism of its handling of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus, and comes after President Claudine Gay resigned earlier this month following a contentious Congressional hearing.

Catch up quick: Interim president Alan Garber announced the two new "presidential task forces" on Friday — one intended to combat antisemitism and the other for Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias.

  • Derek Penslar, a professor of Jewish history, and Raffaella Sadun, professor of business administration, were named co-chairs of the task force.

Driving the news: Penslar was among some 2,900 academics, clergy and public figures who signed a letter last year before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, which said the Israeli government's purpose is to "deprive Palestinians of equal rights" and "ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population."

  • Influential figures like Larry Summers, a former Harvard president and former Treasury secretary, and Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager who has been vocal about antisemitism at his alma mater, are criticizing the university for placing Penslar in the task force.
  • A university spokesperson told Axios that Garber "believes that the effort to combat antisemitism at Harvard will benefit from a variety of perspectives and experiences, including those offered by [the] co-chairs."

Of note: In an op-ed last month, Penslar called for "a better understanding of what is — and is not — antisemitic," adding that "Conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism magnifies divisions within our Harvard community."

What they're saying: Ackman, whose pressure to remove Gay ultimately led to her resignation, said in a post that with Penslar's appointment, Harvard "continues on the path of darkness."

  • Summers said Sunday that he has "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."
  • Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt also wrote in response to the appointment, saying "Lessons in how NOT to combat antisemitism, Harvard edition."

Zoom in: Summers wrote that he has no doubt that "Penslar is a profound scholar of Zionism and a person of good will without a trace of personal anti-Semitism who cares deeply about Harvard."

  • But given Penslar's record, "he is unsuited to leading a task force whose function is to combat what is seen by many as a serious anti-Semitism problem at Harvard," Summers added.

Meanwhile, two university faculty members wrote an op-ed in support of Penslar, defending him against the critics and saying "treating fact-based criticism of Israel as inherently antisemitic shuts down speech and academic debate."

  • A Harvard spokesperson told Axios in an emailed statement that "Penslar is a renowned scholar of modern Jewish and Israeli history who is highly regarded as a leading authority in his field."
  • The spokesperson noted Penslar "is widely respected across the Harvard community as 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."
  • He "is deeply committed to tackling antisemitism and improving the experience of Jewish students at Harvard," the spokesperson added.
  • Penslar said in a statement that he sees the task force as "an important opportunity to determine the nature and extent of antisemitism and more subtle forms of social exclusion that affect Jewish students at Harvard."

Go deeper: Israel-Hamas war tensions at colleges throws Title VI into spotlight

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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