Harvard’s Combating Antisemitism Task Force Co-Chair Derek Penslar Falsely Accuses Israel of “Occupation” and “Apartheid” Propaganda – is Part of the Antisemitism Problem
News Press Release
January 30, 2024

ZOA joins the widespread outrage at Harvard for appointing Professor Derek Penslar to co-chair Harvard’s new Presidential Taskforce on Combating Antisemitism.[1] Penslar promotes the same vicious, defamatory, antisemitic, anti-Israel accusations of “apartheid,” “occupation,” “ethnic cleansing,” “Jewish supremacism,” etc. that are at the root of the antisemitic attacks on Jewish and Israeli students at Harvard. Penslar is not equipped to combat the antisemitic anti-Israel ideology that he agrees with himself. Accordingly, Harvard must rescind Penslar’s appointment, or Penslar must resign from the taskforce.

Penslar’s statement to JTA on January 5, 2024, that Harvard’s antisemitism problem was “exaggerated” also bodes ill. [Penslar claimed: “Yes, we have a problem with antisemitism at Harvard, just like we have a problem with Islamophobia and how students converse with each other. The problems are real. But outsiders took a very real problem and proceeded to exaggerate its scope.”] The harassment and frightening antisemitic environment that Harvard’s Jewish and Israeli students are subjected to needs to be taken far more seriously.

Moreover, Penslar harshly criticized the widely-accepted helpful International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition on antisemitism and accompanying examples, and instead helped dangerous alternate definitions. Penslar served on the “Nexus Document” definition taskforce and signed, embraced and defended the dangerous, so-called Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (“JDA”), along with anti-Zionist co-signers such as Peter Beinart who seek to dismantle Israel.

As the ZOA has explained, the JDA and Nexus definitions shield antisemites who try to mask their hatred of Jews by expressing it as hatred for the Jewish state.  

Among other things, the JDA definition declares that the following are NOT antisemitism:

  • “opposing Zionism” [i.e., denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination];
  • arguing for alternative “arrangements” “between the river and the sea” [meaning, dismantling Israel or endangering Israel’s continued existence];
  • accusing Israel of “systemic racial discrimination,” “settler colonialism” and “apartheid” and “compar[ing] Israel with other historic cases of settler colonialism and apartheid” [all of which are false, antisemitic comparisons];
  • anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions;
  • excessive criticism of Israel; and
  • employing a “double standard” against Israel.

Similarly, the Nexus definition declares that the following are NOT antisemitic: “opposing Zionism or Israel”; “Paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries”; “contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel”; etc.

In Penslar’s 2021 article explaining why he signed the awful JDA definition, Penslar reiterated his belief that it is NOT antisemitic to: boycott Israel; subject Israel to “double standards” or “particular scrutiny”; use “intemperate speech” to condemn Israel; accuse Israel of “deny[ing] West Bank Palestinians basic human rights”; propose solutions that in reality would eliminate Israel; or accuse Israel of responsibility for creating the Arab refugee problem in 1948 and subsequent Arab-Israeli wars. [The refugees were in fact created by the invading Arab armies that called for Arabs to leave the country, and that then refused to resettle the refugees; and subsequent wars were defensive wars, to prevent Israel from being annihilated.] Penslar again promoted the dangerous Nexus and JDA definitions in a December 29, 2023 Harvard Crimson op-ed.

Penslar’s distorted, dangerous views labeling almost every form of antisemitism found on college campuses as “not antisemitic” clearly renders him unfit to lead or serve at all on Harvard’s combatting antisemitism task force.

Moreover, Penslar has repeatedly expressed antisemitic views himself. In August 2023, Penslar co-signed a hateful, defamatory anti-Israel letter entitled “The Elephant in the Room: Israeli Occupation” that falsely accused Israel of illegally occupying “Palestinian territory” eight times [in fact, Israel has the lawful right to the Land of Israel and is not an “occupier”, moreover Israel withdrew from many areas]; falsely accused democratic, human rights-loving Israel of apartheid three times; falsely accused Israel of “Jewish supremacism” and plotting to “ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule” [while ignoring that the Arab population in Israel today is ten times larger than it was in 1948]; falsely accused Israel of killing “190 Palestinians” without mentioning that virtually every killing was of a Palestinian terrorist who was attempting to murder Israelis; and falsely claimed that “settler vigilantes burn, loot, and kill with impunity” – another blood libel reminiscent of medieval times. The letter also demanded restricting aid to Israel; ending the non-existent “occupation”; supporting anti-government protests; supporting anti-Israel NGOs that defame Israel; requiring Israel’s education system to promote anti-Israel propaganda; and ending U.S. defense of Israel at the United Nations.   

Appointing Penslar to co-chair the combating antisemitism task force shortly after Penslar signed this letter demonstrates that Harvard is not serious about ending antisemitism on its campus.

Moreover, the “Elephant in the Room” letter Penslar signed reveals much larger antisemitism problems at Harvard, and in academia as a whole. Notably, thirty (30) signers of this defamatory letter were Harvard professors! Anyone serious about rooting out antisemitism at Harvard would stop these professors from further influencing and indoctrinating impressionable students to hate the sole Jewish nation. But Penslar is unlikely to recommend taking steps against these hate-mongering Harvard academics – when Penslar is one himself.

Further, Prof. Penslar’s fellow letter-signers were a “who’s who” of some 2,900 notorious anti-Israel academics and public figures from around the globe, including:

  • Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP, an Israel-hating BDS group) council leaders Profs. Judith Butler and Daniel Boyarin;
  • Other JVP activists;
  • J Street co-founder Daniel Levy, who called Israel’s rebirth in 1948 “an act that was wrong”;
  • New Israel Fund (NIF; which funded the BDS infrastructure) Public Council member and BDS promoter Prof. David Harel;
  • GWU Prof. Michael Barnett, who asserted that Hamas terrorists have a right of resistance;
  • Rafat Sub Laban, who described himself in the letter as a Human Rights Defender from “occupied” East Jerusalem [eastern Jerusalem is the site of the Jewish quarter and Judaism’s holiest places] and whose LinkedIn page reveals that he works for the anti-Israel UNHRC, previously worked for Addameer (a front group for designated foreign terror group PFLP) and graduated from Birzeit University, a Hamas bastion;
  • Michael Sfard, an infamous anti-Israel lawfare perpetrator and paid witness for the PLO, who partnered with PFLP terror organization front group Al-Haq and other anti-Israel NGOs, including B’tselem and Yesh Din;
  • Notorious Israel blood-libeler Prof. David N. Myers, who was another JVP advisory Board member, and wrote defamatory article for the JVP “Nakba Education Project” and praised fictional “Nakba accounts”;
  • Professors from Al-Quds University – another hotbed of Palestinian Authority and Hamas terrorism incitement: many Arab terrorists studied there;
  • a dozen professors from antisemitism-ridden University of Pennsylvania.

Among some 2,900 defamers of Israel from around the globe.

A sensible step to reduce antisemitism at Harvard would be making sure that Harvard does not hire anyone who signed this or similar letters. This would help limit further indoctrination of Harvard students with hateful lies against the Jewish state. But Prof. Penslar’s task force is unlikely to recommend this sensible step, when Penslar signed the letter himself.

Penslar’s recent book, “Zionism: An Emotional State,” further reveals why Penslar is unfit to co-chair or serve on the Harvard combating antisemitism task force. Penslar’s book, which anti-Zionist Peter Beinart praised in a front-pages blurb, attempts to undermine the Israeli nation, by denying the Jewish people’s 2,000 years of longing and prayers to return to Israel as a free people in the Jewish people’s own land. For instance, Penslar declared in his book: “Jews did not constitute or define themselves as a people in the modern sense of the word”; and Jewish immigrants “came to the Land of Israel to live among the ruins, not to restore the Hebrew kingdoms of biblical antiquity”; and “Jewish connections with the land of Israel are ancient and deep, but they should not be conflated with Zionist goals to settle Jews in the land and configure it as a Jewish homeland.”

Penslar’s effort to undermine the modern Jewish State’s legitimacy is particularly absurd in light of the fact that there is no Palestinian Arab history in Israel – no Palestinian monarchs or kingdoms, archeology, etc., and in light of the fact that no one challenges the legitimacy of modern Arab states that were previously mandates (just like Israel), were formed out of groups of tribes, and that were born approximately the same time that Israel was reborn (Lebanon in 1943; Syria in 1946; Iraq in 1958; Saudi Arabia in 1932, Egypt in 1953, Jordan in 1946).

Journalist Ira Stoll’s criticism of Penslar notes that Penslar’s book also defames Jews and Israel with statements such as: “Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians from their land and oppression of those who remain have made it one of the most disliked countries on the planet.”; “Veins of hatred run through Jewish civilization.” [p. 227]; “In medieval and early modern Europe, where Jews lived as a small and often persecuted minority, Jewish culture was steeped in fantasies (and occasionally, acts) of vengeance against Christians.”; and accuses Israel and American Jewish community leaders of “hatreds.”

Also, at a December 4, 2023 Harvard Center for International Affairs Weatherhead Forum entitled “The War in Israel/Palestine,” Penslar said that “what we need to do” is “get back to 1947,” and promoted going backwards to the UN’s 1947 partition recommendation as the “equitable” position. Penslar ignored the Arabs’ rejection of every “two-state” deal; ignored that a Palestinian state would encircle Israel with terror states and terror organizations; and ignored that any partition violates the still-valid binding international legal rights granted to the Jewish people over all of “Palestine” [i.e., the 1922 Mandate, San Remo, UN Charter and related documents].

Penslar also referred to Arabs in 1947 as “Palestinians” [although the Jews – not the Arabs – were known as Palestinians at that time]; exaggerated the number of Arabs living in the area in 1947; and falsely claimed that “Israel dispossessed 750,000 Palestinians” and referred to this as the “catastrophic Nakba.” [In fact, the invading Arab nations “dispossessed” local Arabs by insisting that they leave. Israel urged the Arabs to remain in Israel. Further, the number of Arabs that left Israel was approximately 360,000 – NOT 750,000.] 

Penslar’s book further inaccurately claimed that after the 1947-1948 war, “Israel controlled most of historic Palestine, and the rest was controlled by Jordan” and that Israel took control of and held “the entirety of historic Palestine” after the 1967 war. [In fact, the invading Arab nations seized eastern Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and Gaza in the 1947-1948 war, and Israel controlled less than 20% of “historic Palestine” after that war. Jordan continues to hold 78% of “historic Palestine” since after the 1967 war to this day.]

Penslar also referred to terrorism against Israel as “guerilla resistance” [instead of as terrorism]; inaccurately called Zionism a “modern phenomenon”; and claimed that the Oslo Accords were scuppered by “bad faith on both sides,” including “Israel’s own extremists” and “settlements.” [He ignored that the “settlements” existed prior to Oslo, and are in the areas that international law and the Oslo Accords assigned to Israel’s full control.]

Penslar also complained that Israelis associate “the entire Palestinian people” with Nazi-collaborator Haj Amin al-Husseini; “conflate” Arab Palestinians with the Holocaust, and immediately compared October 7 to the Holocaust, and that Israelis’ “conflation” of Palestinians with the Holocaust makes it difficult for Israelis to appreciate “Palestinian rights to self-determination” [a state]. Penslar ignored that the 100-year history of continuing Palestinian Arab terrorism, Intifadas and wars, and Palestinian Authority incitement and “pay-to-slay” rewards to murder Jews render a Palestinian state an impossibility. Penslar also called “settler colonialism” an important way of understanding Zionism in the twentieth century.

Penslar’s repeated historical inaccuracies and “solutions” disfavoring and endangering Israel are yet more reasons why he is unfit to co-chair or serve on the Harvard Presidential Combatting Antisemitism Task Force.

[1] See, e.g. Harvard’s ‘Apartheid’ Prof and the Antisemitism Task Force: Guess who the university picked to investigate antisemitism on campus?,” Wall Street Jn’l Editorial Board, Jan. 23, 2024; “New Harvard Antisemitism Task Force Under Fire for Controversial Co-Chair,” Jewish Insider, Jan. 21, 2024; “Larry Summers Blasts Harvard for Picking Israel Critic to Co-Chair Antisemitism Task Force,” New York Post, Jan. 22, 2024; “Congresswoman Elise Stefanik Statement on Harvard’s Continued Failure to Protect Jewish Students & Unacceptable Appointment on Antisemitism Task Force,” Jan. 23, 2024; Background on Derek Penslar, by author Ira Stoll, X, Jan. 19, 2024.

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