Harvard’s Embattled Anti-Semitism Chairman Goes Mute

Derek Penslar (Twitter/University of Washington)

The embattled chairman of Harvard’s Presidential Task Force on Combating Antisemitism, Derek Penslar, had no problem talking about anti-Semitism on the Harvard campus before he was tapped to chair the committee.

"It’s not a myth, but it’s been exaggerated," Penslar, a professor of Jewish history, told the Boston Globe in an interview before his appointment. He said that while some Jewish students had been "shunned" from "progressive political communities" on campus, that did not amount to "vicious antisemitism."  Hey, no campus gas chambers yet!

So imagine our surprise when Penslar, who was slated to participate in a panel discussion on Sunday at the Center for Jewish History to address the subject, "What is Antisemitism? Definitions and Debates," canceled his appearance at the last minute.

The panel moderator read an apologetic statement from Penslar to the effect that, "Since at the symposium I would invariably be asked to speak about the goings on at Harvard … it would not be appropriate for me to make public comments at this time."

Huh? Penslar could of course have said as much in response to any Harvard-related question he felt was inappropriate to answer.

But one suspects that wasn’t the real reason he threw in the towel. Penslar has already spoken publicly about his new position with the Boston Globe, telling the paper that he views 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." He also told the Harvard Crimson that he considered stepping down from the post given the criticism he has weathered, but that he remains "committed to helping advance the important work of this task force."

Penslar provided pre-written statements to both outlets, and what seems a more likely explanation for his abrupt cancellation over the weekend is that he didn’t want to face the questions that would have come his way.

Will he press the university to discipline the graduate students who accosted an Israeli business school student? Does he still believe that concern over campus anti-Semitism is "exaggerated" and that Israel is a "regime of apartheid"?

Meanwhile, at Penn, the chairman of the University Task Force on Antisemitism, Mark Wolff, did not respond to a request for comment on a university lecturer’s series of grotesque anti-Semitic cartoons. What, exactly, are these task forces doing if not speaking out against anti-Semitism on campus?

If Penslar wants to win over his critics—and demonstrate that these task forces are anything more than window dressing—he and others might start by speaking publicly about the very issue they've been tapped to address.