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Derek Penslar. Photo: Penslar Instagram.

Harvard antisemitism head once labeled Israel an “apartheid” state

Harvard University’s efforts to address antisemitism on campus are not off to a promising start. The co-chair of the new antisemitism taskforce, Derek Penslar, director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies, has repeated the false claim that Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing. He also labeled the Jewish state “a regime of apartheid.”

“Yes, we have a problem with antisemitism at Harvard, just like we have a problem with Islamophobia and how students converse with each other,” he said. “The problems are real. But outsiders took a very real problem and proceeded to exaggerate its scope.”

READ: South African says Israel is not an apartheid state

These comments, though, are mild in comparison to things Penslar said last year. For a December column published in “The Harvard Crimson,” he argued that the focus on the rise of antisemitism at Harvard has “obscured the vulnerability of pro-Palestinian students, who have faced harassment by actors outside of the university and verbal abuse on and near campus.”

Last August, Penslar added his signature to a letter blatantly charging Israel with ethnic cleansing and implementing “a regime of apartheid” against Palestinians. Furthermore, the letter’s writers accused the Israeli government of implementing a “messianic, homophobic and misogynistic agenda” and called on U.S. lawmakers to “restrict American military aid from being used in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

Former Harvard president and U.S. Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, called on Penslar to resign.

Summers stated Penslar has “publicly minimized Harvard’s anti-Semitism problem, rejected the definition used by the US government in recent years of anti-Semitism as too broad, invoked the need for the concept of settler colonialism in analyzing Israel.” The settler view of Israel uses the premise that Jews never existed in the land and ignores 3,800 years of history. Summers say these comments, “for the co-chair of an anti-Semitism task force that is being paralleled with an Islamophobia task force it seems highly problematic.”

The taskforce announcement comes more than a week after six Harvard graduate and law students who are members of Students Against Antisemitism sued the Ivy League school for “severe and pervasive” antisemitic harassment since Hamas’s invasion of Israel on October 7. The lawsuit says the university “has become a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment” because of pro-Palestinian protests on campus.

“Mobs of pro-Hamas students and faculty have marched by the hundreds through Harvard’s campus, shouting vile antisemitic slogans and calling for death to Jews and Israel,” the 77-page federal civil complaint reads. “Those mobs have occupied buildings, classrooms, libraries, student lounges, plazas and study halls, often for days or weeks at a time, promoting violence against Jews and harassing and assaulting them on campus.”

–Dwight Widaman | MV

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