Harvard Anti-Semitism Task Force Co-Chair Under Fire Following Free Beacon Report

Derek Penslar (Twitter/University of Washington)
January 22, 2024

Harvard's choice to lead its anti-Semitism task force is coming under fire following a Washington Free Beacon report on his anti-Israel views.

Interim Harvard president Alan Garber last week appointed Jewish History professor Derek Penslar to serve as co-chairman of the task force, which aims to identify "the root causes" of anti-Semitism at the school. The Free Beacon reported last week that Penslar signed a letter in August that called Israel a "regime of apartheid" and called on American lawmakers to cut off military aid to Israel. The letter asserted that "Jewish billionaire funders" have propped up the Israeli government.

Penslar also organized a campaign to defend former Harvard president Claudine Gay after Gay faced calls for her resignation for refusing to condemn anti-Semitism during a congressional hearing in December.

Now, influential Harvard alumni are coming out against Penslar.

Former Harvard president Larry Summers said Penslar was "unsuited" for the task force, given the professor's remarks about Israel. Summers said that while he does not believe Penslar is anti-Semitic, the professor has "publicly minimized Harvard's anti-Semitism problem." Summers said he has "lost confidence" in Harvard leaders' ability to "maintain Harvard as a place where Jews and Israelis can flourish."

Billionaire investor Bill Ackman, a Harvard graduate who pressured the school to fire Gay, said Penslar's selection shows that Harvard "continues on the path of darkness."

Still, some of Penslar's colleagues have rushed to his defense.

The American Academy for Jewish Research in a Sunday letter to Garber defended Penslar, the Harvard Crimson reported. The group said Penslar is "a prolific scholar" of Jewish history whose "expertise … is needed in the current moment."

Harvard government professor Steven Levitsky also defended Penslar and said Harvard should "resist" calls for his removal from the anti-Semitism task force.

"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," Levitsky told the Crimson. "I think it falls well short of controversy, and it's a campaign that Harvard has to resist."

Harvard has seen a surge in anti-Semitic incidents in the wake of Hamas's October terrorist attack against Israel. The Department of Education opened an investigation into anti-Semitic incidents at Harvard, and a group of Jewish students sued the school this month, claiming it creates a hostile environment for Jews.

Penslar and Harvard did not respond to requests for comment.