On Friday, Harvard University announced twin presidential task forces: one on antisemitism and one on Islamophobia. “Reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic acts on our campus have grown, and the sense of belonging among these groups has been undermined,” wrote Alan Garber, Harvard’s interim president. “We need to understand why and how that is happening—and what more we might do to prevent it.”
One of two co-chairs of the school’s Presidential Task Force on Combating Antisemitism is Derek Penslar, a Jewish history professor at the school. That appointment drew harsh criticism from former Harvard president Lawrence Summers.
“I have 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,” Summers wrote of the announcement.
“The previously touted advisory committee has disbanded without any ripple, except for the resignation in frustration with the Harvard administration of its most respected member, Rabbi David Wolpe,” he added.
Summers called Penslar “a profound scholar of Zionism and a person of goodwill without a trace of personal antisemitism who cares deeply about Harvard,” but said that given his record, the professor “is unsuited to leading a task force whose function is to combat what is seen by many as a serious antisemitism problem at Harvard.”
Harvard was ranked the worst for Jew-hatred among 100 schools by AMCHA, and there is Title VI litigation against the academic institution for antisemitism, Summers noted. “Note also that Harvard has suffered worse admissions drop off than any major university in memory because of the events of last semester,” he said.
Penslar has “publicly minimized Harvard’s antisemitism problem, rejected the definition used by the U.S. government in recent years of antisemitism as too broad, invoked the need for the concept of settler colonialism in analyzing Israel, referred to Israel as an apartheid state and more,” Summers said. “While he does not support BDS, he has made clear that he sees it as a reasonable position.”
Those views aren’t, to Summers, a problem for a Harvard professor or a task force member, “but for the co-chair of an antisemitism task force that is being paralleled with an Islamophobia task force it seems highly problematic,” he said. “Could one imagine Harvard appointing as head of anti-racism task force someone who had minimized the racism problem or who had argued against federal anti-racism efforts? This is yet another example of a double standard between antisemitism and other forms of prejudice.”
Earlier this month six students sued Harvard, claiming that the antisemitic atmosphere violated their civil rights. The House Education Committee has also sought a trove of documents as it investigates Harvard.