Feb 1, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Group of Jewish leaders defends Israel criticism

The entrance to Harvard Yard. Harvard University as a man passes by on a bike.

The entrance to Harvard Yard at Harvard University. Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A group of Jewish leaders has sent a letter to Harvard defending criticism of Israel from scholars and supporting the embattled co-chair of the school's task force on antisemitism, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Derek Penslar, the task force's co-chair and a professor of Jewish history, has come under fire for once signing a letter attacking the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians.

Driving the news: More than 60 Jewish leaders from across the country backed Penslar in a letter arguing that attacks on scholars like Penslar posed dangers.

  • The Jewish leaders called Penslar "a distinguished historian and a leading scholar of Jewish and Israel studies" who "provides valuable expertise."

Catch up quick: Harvard said earlier this month that it was forming a task force on antisemitism in response to criticism of its handling of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus.

  • The announcement came after President Claudine Gay resigned after a contentious congressional hearing on antisemitism on campus.
  • 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, attacked the university for including Penslar.
  • Ackman, who led a campaign to remove Gay, said in a post that with Penslar's appointment, Harvard "continues on the path of darkness."

Zoom in: In the letter to Harvard, the Jewish leaders said Penslar's knowledge about antisemitism was "unparalleled," and his perspective on Israel would help students have thoughtful conversations.

  • "We are deeply concerned about recent efforts limiting open Israel debate on college campuses. These initiatives conflate disagreement with Israel's policies with antisemitism."

Yes, but: Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in response to Penslar's appointment: "Lessons in how NOT to combat antisemitism, Harvard edition."

Background: Penslar, in an op-ed last month, called for "a better understanding of what is — and is not — antisemitic."

  • "Conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism magnifies divisions within our Harvard community."
  • Penslar also 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."

What they're saying: "It's true that there are some things that are being called out as antisemitic that are not," Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a signee of the letter, tells Axios.

  • Calling for a ceasefire or criticizing Israel's actions in Gaza isn't antisemitic, she said.
  • Though there has been a rise in antisemitism, Jacobs said there are problems with the ADL's recent tally of antisemitic incidents that also included campus rallies of students being critical of Israel.
  • Ruth Messinger, a former Manhattan borough president and another signee, said it's within the right of Israelis, Jews or anything to criticize the government of Israel. "That's how democracy works."

The other side: "We stand behind the accuracy of our historic and current antisemitic incident data," an ADL spokesman tells Axios in response to the letter and the comments.

  • The ADL said antisemitism has become a regular feature at many of these post-Oct. 7 protests.
  • "These rallies have a dramatically different impact on Jewish communities that have felt demonized and harassed because of the sustained level of intense anti-Zionist street activism."
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