Harvard Is Ignoring Its Own Antisemitism Experts

The university’s new advisory group on antisemitism elevates political concerns over academic integrity.

Peter Beinart
December 11, 2023

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as former University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, December 5th, 2023.

Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

On October 27th, after roughly three weeks of campus turmoil surrounding student responses to Hamas’s October 7th attacks and the ensuing Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Harvard president Claudine Gay announced at a Shabbat dinner at Harvard Hillel that she was establishing an advisory group to guide her efforts to combat antisemitism on campus. In a November 9th email, she unveiled its members, a collection of Harvard administrators, alumni, professors, and affiliated rabbis. Her message to the campus community laid out some of the group’s initial plans, including “a robust program of education and training for students, faculty and staff on antisemitism broadly and at Harvard specifically.” The email also offered a clue as to the task force’s orientation: Gay noted that the training would address “the roots of certain rhetoric that has been heard on our campus in recent weeks.” It specifically condemned the phrase “from the river to the sea,” a pro-Palestine slogan that she said conveys “specific historical meanings that to a great many people imply the eradication of Jews from Israel and engender both pain and existential fears within our Jewish community.”

But while Gay’s letter suggests that the task force will explore what she casts as a worrisome relationship between antisemitism and activism for Palestinian rights, none of its members have conducted scholarly research into this supposed intersection. Most notably absent from the advisory group was Derek Penslar, the director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies and a leading scholar of Zionism and its critics. His acclaimed recent book, Zionism: An Emotional State, includes a chapter entitled “Hating Zionism,” on the different motivations that have driven Zionism’s opponents since its creation. Given the relevance of his scholarship, Penslar would have seemed an obvious choice for the advisory group. But according to four faculty members familiar with Jewish studies at Harvard who requested anonymity to discuss internal university affairs, not only was he not selected, he wasn’t even consulted. One professor compared snubbing Penslar to “creating a task force on AI without consulting the chair of the department of computer science.”

Why wasn’t Penslar chosen? One likely factor is that he signed the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), which states that “criticizing or opposing Zionism” is not necessarily antisemitic. By contrast, most of the people appointed to the advisory group—none of whom have Penslar’s expertise—have made public statements alleging that anti-Zionism is antisemitic, or are affiliated with organizations that hold that view. Though Gay’s email claims that the advisory group is committed to “bringing our teaching and research mission” to bear in the fight against antisemitism, the group’s composition suggests that its members were selected less for their scholarly credentials than for their political beliefs, which align with those of influential donors, some of whom have already withdrawn funding or have threatened to do so.

The advisory group’s composition suggests that its members were selected less for their scholarly credentials than for their political beliefs, which align with those of influential donors.

Harvard is not the only university where political considerations have trumped scholarly ones in the wake of October 7th. The presidents of New York University and the University of Pennsylvania have also responded to alumni pressure to define anti-Zionism as Jew-hatred with initiatives designed to validate that view. In so doing, they are not only threatening pro-Palestinian speech; they are undermining their universities’ academic integrity. “Scholars with a more nuanced view of antisemitism know that challenging the activities of a government, or even questioning its legitimacy, is not antisemitism,” Lior Sternfeld, an associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Penn State, told me. “Yet their expertise is rejected or sidelined because it is not what the donors and the Jewish establishment want. They don’t want a more scholarly conversation about antisemitism.”

Harvard’s advisory group represents the university’s attempt to respond to the student anxiety and donor pressure that emerged in the weeks following October 7th. On the evening after Hamas’s attack, the Harvard Graduate Students for Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Committee, with the endorsement of more than 30 other campus groups, declared, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” That Monday, President Gay and other Harvard administrators issued a statement that ignored the students’ assertion and professed themselves “heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas.”

The student statement—and what critics see as Gay’s error in not immediately denouncing it—have dogged her ever since. On that same Monday, one of Gay’s predecessors, Lawrence Summers, wrote that the “silence from Harvard’s leadership . . . coupled with a vocal and widely reported student groups’ statement blaming Israel solely” had left him “disillusioned and alienated.” Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, a Harvard alum, also condemned the university’s leadership, “for whom silence is complicity.” Investor Kenneth Griffin, who has donated more than $500 million to the university, reportedly called Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, and urged Harvard to make a statement defending Israel.

On October 10th, Gay did just that. She condemned Hamas’s massacre as “abhorrent” and said that the pro-Palestinian student groups do not speak “for Harvard University or its leadership.” Two days later, she released a video declaring that “our university rejects terrorism. That includes the barbaric atrocities committed by Hamas.” But the backlash continued to mount. On October 13th, Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer announced he was resigning from the board of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to protest the university’s response to October 7th. Three days later, the Wexner Foundation, which had for decades funded fellowships at the Kennedy School, ended its support because it was “stunned and sickened at the dismal failure of Harvard’s leadership.”

Meanwhile, some Jewish students reported harassment, especially on an anonymous Harvard message board called Sidechat, where one post declared “LET EM COOK.” Israeli students expressed particular concern. One Harvard professor told me that an Israeli student had recounted being called a murderer in class. Open letters from prominent alumni, including Senator Mitt Romney and hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, excoriated Harvard’s leadership for a lack of action on campus antisemitism. They both cited a video of alleged harassment of an Israeli student filming a student “die-in” for Gaza, even as some student accounts of the incident painted a different picture.

Soon, Gay’s critics began asking her to do more than simply repudiate the initial student statement. On November 1st, The Boston Globe reported that 1,200 Harvard alumni had penned an open letter asking the university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which lists among its examples of Jew-hatred, “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Ackman’s November 4th letter explicitly took aim at Harvard’s “commitment to free expression,” alleging that Gay’s reiteration of this principle in her October 12th video “sent a clear message that the eliminationist and antisemitic statements of the protesters are permissible on campus.” He singled out the phrase “from the river to the sea.”

“It looks to me like Harvard’s leadership has been very effectively bullied.”

Some Harvard faculty see the antisemitism committee as a concession to this donor pressure. “It looks to me like Harvard’s leadership has been very effectively bullied,” Harvard political science professor Steven Levitsky told me. Most of the committee’s members have outlined positions similar to the IHRA definition of antisemitism, or have ties to organizations that hold that view. Two of its original eight members, Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine and Rabbi David Wolpe, are affiliated with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which insists that anti-Zionism is antisemitism and in October asked university leaders to investigate their chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine—the nation’s most prominent anti-Zionist student group—for violations of university policy or federal law. Acuña-Sunshine serves on the ADL’s board; Rabbi David Wolpe is its rabbinic fellow, and has asserted that people who “deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel” should not be invited to speak at “universities and other institutions that respect rational discourse.” (Wolpe announced his resignation from the committee in early December, claiming that “the ideology that grips far too many of the students and faculty” at Harvard “places Jews as oppressors” and thus that he “cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped.”)

Several other committee members have also suggested that anti-Zionism is antisemitic. In a 2019 essay, the author Dara Horn cast doubt on efforts distinguish the two concepts, facetiously announcing that she had discovered “the origins of today’s supposedly novel concept: Jews who are of course not anti-Semitic (how could they be? they’re Jews!), but simply anti-Zionist.” In her search for the origins of Jewish anti-Zionism, Horn could have highlighted the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel, the socialist Bund, or much of the American Reform movement, since large swaths of world Jewry opposed creating a Jewish state in the early 20th century. Instead, she claimed that Jewish anti-Zionism began with the Yevsektsiya, a Soviet group that in the early days of the USSR “managed to persecute, imprison, torture, and murder thousands of Jews.” Horn’s implication is clear: anti-Zionism is—and always has been— antisemitic. That’s also the insinuation of a column written by another committee member, Harvard Divinity School Professor Kevin Madigan, a historian of medieval Christianity, who in 2015 welcomed the Catholic Church’s declaration that “an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism.” Committee member Eric Nelson, a Harvard professor who specializes in American and early modern European political thought, suggested a similar view last year when he cited The Harvard Crimson’s endorsement of boycotting Israel as an example of the “eruption of antisemitism on campus.” (The committee also includes three members who have not taken public stances on the equation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. They include former Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, who has defended Palestinian freedom of speech, and Harvard College Dean of Students Thomas Dunne, who has no record of public views on antisemitism or Israel. The final member, a Harvard undergraduate named Nim Ravid, previously served as spokesperson for the Head of the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.)

Beyond its ideological orientation, the committee’s other defining feature is its lack of scholarly expertise about Israel-Palestine or antisemitism. None of the members study the former, while Madigan is the committee’s only scholar of antisemitism—and he specializes in the antisemitism of the Catholic church, a subject quite distant from the brand of supposed Israel-related antisemitism that Gay’s letter suggests the task force will consider. By contrast, when Harvard appointed a committee to study the legacy of slavery at the university in 2020, 12 of its 13 members were Harvard professors who work in related fields.

It would not have been hard to assemble from within Harvard’s ranks a well-credentialed committee on antisemitism, especially as it relates to debates over Israel-Palestine.

It would not have been hard to assemble from within Harvard’s ranks a similarly well-credentialed committee on antisemitism, especially as it relates to debates over Israel-Palestine. In addition to Penslar, Harvard boasts Sara Roy, who in addition to being one of the world’s leading experts on Hamas and the political economy of the Gaza Strip, is a child of Holocaust survivors who has written powerfully about how the humiliation she witnessed in Gaza helped her understand her parents’ experience of antisemitism in Europe. Last year, the university hosted visiting lecturer Scott Ury, who served for ten years as the director of Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism. And instead of tapping alum Dara Horn, whose expertise is Yiddish and Hebrew literature, Harvard could have selected another former graduate, Princeton professor Jonathan Gribetz, whose two books—Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter and Reading Herzl in Beirut: The PLO Effort to Know the Enemy—both deal with Palestinian reactions to Zionism.

Harvard most likely passed over these kinds of experts because their views complicate the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Like Penslar, Roy signed the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism—which, unlike the IHRA definition, states that opposition to Zionism is not necessarily antisemitic. Indeed, any panel that included scholars who work on antisemitism, Zionism, and Israel-Palestine would have probably failed to assuage Harvard’s angry donors. That’s because, in general, scholars of Jewish studies and Israel-Palestine tend to be more critical of Israel, and less apt to call such criticism bigotry, than establishment Jewish organizations like the ADL. “A significant number of people with Israel studies positions are not doing Israel advocacy—what they do actually upsets people who want them to do advocacy,” Yair Wallach, a lecturer in Israel studies at SOAS University of London, told Jewish Currents last year. In 2021, more than 200 scholars of Jewish and Israel studies signed a letter calling Israel-Palestine “a systemically unequal space” and defending the right to boycott. While both the IHRA and the JDA boast hundreds of academic signatories, a far higher percentage of JDA signatories hail from Jewish studies, while endorsers of the IHRA more often work in unrelated fields. It is in part because of this reluctance by Jewish studies scholars to endorse the American Jewish establishment’s preferred definition of antisemitism that Alan Dershowitz recently called for America’s Jewish studies departments—which he claims are “filled with anti-Zionists”—to be disbanded.

Several other prestigious universities
have launched antisemitism initiatives since October 7th. University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill created her own University Task Force on Antisemitism before she was forced to resign in the wake of a congressional hearing in which she failed to declare unambiguously that the term “intifada”—an Arabic word meaning uprising, which members of Congress alleged without evidence constitutes a call for genocide of Jews—would be prohibited on campus. Penn’s effort, which also followed donor outrage and reports of antisemitism, does include the directors of the university’s Jewish studies program and its Center of Advanced Judaic Studies. But, as at Harvard, none of its members do scholarly work on Israel-Palestine. And, as at Harvard, the committee’s mandate suggests a link between antisemitism and activism for Palestinian rights. Penn’s Antisemitism Action Plan boasts that the university is “actively partnering with the American Jewish Committee,” which, like the ADL, views “anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism.” The administration has also pledged to “refer” to the IHRA definition when fighting Jew-hatred.

The same ideological orientation frames NYU’s newly announced Center for the Study of Antisemitism. While its Faculty Advisory Panel includes three Jewish studies scholars, including Lawrence Schiffman, who helped edit a volume on contemporary antisemitism, and Lihi Ben Shitrit, who has written on contemporary Israel-Palestine, the Center’s mandate is strikingly unscholarly. According to the university, it “will research both classical forms of antisemitism as well as the ‘new antisemitism’ and its links to anti-Zionism.” But the use of the phrase “the new antisemitism” betrays a specific bias: It was coined by two ADL officials in 1974, and then amplified by Jewish organizations in the early 2000s, largely to discredit critics of Israel and Zionism. By asserting the existence of a new, specifically anti-Zionist antisemitism, notes David Feldman, Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at the University of London, NYU “appears to be giving an answer to issues that academics debate and treat as questions. Unless this bias is corrected, the center will turn out to be an ideological rather than an academic enterprise.” As if to underscore the point, the press release announcing the center features praise from the executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, which “works to oppose efforts to delegitimize Israel on campus.”

By asserting the existence of a new, specifically anti-Zionist antisemitism, NYU “appears to be giving an answer to issues that academics debate and treat as questions. Unless this bias is corrected, the center will turn out to be an ideological rather than an academic enterprise.”

How seriously these new initiatives threaten free speech on campus isn’t yet clear. They could lay the groundwork for suspending or banning additional chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, as Brandeis, Columbia, and George Washington University have already done—a step that could have consequences for other student groups whose advocacy offends influential donors. Or they could prove toothless, especially if donor pressure subsides. But either way, they threaten the reputation of Jewish studies as a discipline devoted to critically studying Jews rather than serving their most powerful institutions. Harvard’s task force, one faculty member there who requested anonymity told me, “shows a complete lack of valuation of Jewish studies as a source of academic study.” An NYU graduate student in Jewish studies warned that the university’s press release announcing the new antisemitism center “threatens to undermine what we do as a discipline.”

Never before have America’s leading universities been so eager to study antisemitism. And never before have they displayed such contempt for the experts who could help them understand it. This contempt doesn’t only threaten Jewish studies. At some of America’s most prestigious universities, it threatens academic integrity itself.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.