The co-chair of the newly formed task force on antisemitism at Harvard University is facing backlash for signing a letter that was critical of Israel, describing the Jewish state as “a regime of apartheid” over its treatment of Palestinians.
Interim president Alan Garber announced two new “presidential task forces” on Friday that are aimed at combating antisemitism and Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias, and the choice for co-chair of the antisemitism task force, Derek J. Penslar, a professor of Jewish history at Harvard, has prompted widespread criticism.
Penslar, along with over 2,800 academics, clergy members and other public figures, signed an open letter written by the group Academics4Peace in August, before the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, that stated the Israeli government aimed to “ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population,” stating “Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid.”
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Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers and hedge-fund billionaire Bill Ackman, a Harvard graduate, who have both been publicly critical of Harvard in recent months, expressed opposition to Penslar serving in the new role.
“@Harvard continues on the path to darkness,” Ackman posted to X following the announcement of Penslar’s promotion.
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.”
Given Penslar’s record, Summers said “he is unsuited to leading a task force whose function is to combat what is seen by many as a serious antisemitism problem at Harvard.”
In a statement to Fox News Digital, a Harvard spokesperson insisted, “Professor Derek Penslar is a renowned scholar of modern Jewish and Israeli history who is highly regarded as a leading authority in his field. He 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.”
The spokesperson added, “He is deeply committed to tackling antisemitism and improving the experience of Jewish students at Harvard.”
In a separate statement, Penslar noted, “I am honored to be part of the Harvard community and am dedicated to the education and well-being of our students. I see in the Task Force on antisemitism an important opportunity to determine the nature and extent of antisemitism and more subtle forms of social exclusion that affect Jewish students at Harvard. Only with this information in hand can Harvard implement effective policies that will improve Jewish student life on campus.”
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote on X that the move by Harvard was a lesson “in how NOT to combat antisemitism.”
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Academics4Peace published another letter in December calling for an “immediate and lasting ceasefire” that included a hostage-prisoner exchange and urgent humanitarian aid to Gaza, which Penslar did not sign.
Harvard organized the task force after it was harshly criticized for its response to antisemitism on campus following the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas that left at least 1,200 Israelis dead.
Former university president Claudine Gay resigned earlier this month after she offered vague answers at a Congressional hearing on antisemitism where she was repeatedly asked about whether calls for genocide against Jewish people on campus qualifies as a violation of Harvard’s rules against bullying and harassment. She was later hit with multiple accusations of plagiarism throughout her academic career.
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