When I saw the headline that the co-chair of Harvard’s new anti-Semitism task force was himself accused of anti-Semitism, I wondered: “How bad could it be?”
Turns out, it’s shockingly bad. Lesson learned: When it comes to Harvard and anti-Semitism, always bet the over.
Former university president Claudine Gay’s performance at a December congressional hearing on anti-Semitism, and in the weeks that followed, showed the school really had no interest in having Jews on campus. But while Gay can be accused of indifference, the man selected to co-chair Harvard’s task force on anti-Semitism will never be mistaken for being indifferent toward anti-Semitism. He absolutely loves the stuff.
This time, however, the scandal illuminates something unpleasant about how these significant institutions have manipulated the Jewish community in ways that cannot be chalked up to ignorance.
The man called upon to head the Harvard task force on anti-Semitism is Derek Penslar. He is a Jewish history professor at the university with some pretty horrifying opinions about Jews and history.
First, as the New York Post notes, Penslar claimed anti-Semitism at Harvard has been “exaggerated” and that it’s comparable to the university’s “problem with Islamophobia.” So right off the bat we have a clear indication that the task force was assembled to sweep the problem under the rug.
But oh it gets so much worse.
Harvard alum Ira Stoll notes that Penslar last year signed a letter accusing Israel of apartheid and of seeking to “ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population.” Just last month, he extolled the virtues of seeing Israel through the prism of “settler colonialism,” the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that denies Jewish indigeneity in the land of Israel and evinces a deep ignorance of basic world history. Along those lines, he also incorrectly believes “Zionism is a modern phenomenon.”
He summons concepts from some pretty dark shadows of anti-Jewish discourse, too. In a book published last year, he wrote, “Veins of hatred run through Jewish civilization.” That’s the sort of line you expect to see on the Twitter feeds of white nationalists and unrepentant Soviet-brained tankies. And, I guess, Harvard professors of Jewish history.
I’ve written in recent weeks about the AsAJews, a group of agitators from within the Jewish community who sell their birthright to anti-Zionist political activists. What Penslar’s case shows is that these agitators are not merely reactive; they are proactive. The anti-Zionist political activists they serve know very well to have their AsAJews in position long before they’re needed for any public debate. From his perch at Harvard, a professor like Penslar can manipulate the discipline of Jewish history even beyond the confines of the Ivy League, simply by telling the non-Jewish academic world what it wants to hear, such as that “veins of hatred run through Jewish civilization.”
We don’t like to admit it, but the purpose of having professors like Penslar at Harvard is to soften the ground for a whole mess of ideas that denigrate Jews and Israel and fuel an inevitable backlash against both—“decolonization” being a prime example. The uncomfortable truth is that Penslar wasn’t hired at Harvard so that he’d be in position to defend the school after an anti-Semitism scandal. He was there to help brew the conditions of the scandal in the first place.
American Jews will need to guard our history much more carefully in the coming years, and pay more attention to who claims to speak for us. Has any other religious community or national minority so often put its detractors in charge of telling its story?