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Harvard’s Derek Penslar Helps Make the World Safer for Antisemitism

A cultural studies professor who makes excuses for bigoted anti-Zionism is appointed to lead the university’s disingenuous ‘Task Force on Combating Antisemitism’

David Mikics
January 31, 2024
Supporters of Palestine gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally on Oct. 14, 2023

Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 19, Harvard University’s interim President Alan Garber appointed Derek Penslar, William Lee Frost professor of Jewish history, as co-chair of its Presidential Task Force on Combating Antisemitism. (The other chair is Raffaella Sadun, a professor in the Harvard Business School.)

It took only a few hours for blood to appear in the water. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., quickly called Penslar an antisemite. “@Harvard continues on the path of darkness,” key donor Bill Ackman tweeted, fresh off crushing the hapless plagiarist Claudine Gay.

Harvard’s ex-President Lawrence Summers also denounced Penslar’s appointment. There has since been a petition supporting Penslar signed by hundreds of Jewish studies scholars.

Derek Penslar is clearly not an antisemite. He is a conscientious, if eccentric, scholar of Jewish history who has no sympathy for Jew-erasing fantasies like Shlomo Sand’s crack-pated The Invention of the Jewish People, which Penslar eviscerated in a book review. He criticizes Israel, sometimes harshly, but so do many Israelis.

Yet Penslar is still clearly the wrong choice to co-chair Harvard’s antisemitism task force because he is an apologist for people who do in fact hate Jews and would like to make Israel disappear by violent means. Quoted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Jan. 4, Penslar said that, although “the problems are real,” “outsiders” had “exaggerate[d]” the extent of antisemitism at Harvard.

That is how Penslar described a campus where: Students, harassed by constant chants advocating genocide, could barely study in Widener Library; the price of quiet study for Jewish students is sitting with large banners advocating the destruction of the Jewish state; within a day after the terrorist attack, dozens of student organizations blamed Israel rather than Hamas for Oct. 7; Jewish students were physically attacked and harassed, and hostage posters have continually been defaced; a photograph of 1-year-old infant Kfir Bibas had scrawled across it “Israel Did 9/11.” And all of that came before Claudine Gay testified that she needed “context” to determine if calls for the genocide of Jews were OK.

Penslar is clearly the wrong choice to co-chair Harvard’s antisemitism task force because he is an apologist for people who do in fact hate Jews and would like to make Israel disappear by violent means.

Laura Leibman, the president of the Association for Jewish Studies, recently lamented that “scholars who were asked by their schools to work on antisemitism task forces have found themselves dragged through the mud by the press, donors, and government officials.” It’s true that attacks on Penslar have quoted lines from his work out of context.

But the question here is not really about Penslar’s scholarship, but rather his position on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which is part of federal Department of Education guidance and has been endorsed by the United States under both Trump and Biden, as well as by the EU—which frequently criticizes Israel. The IHRA definition has been used by European soccer clubs, by the Church of England, by UNESCO and by the U.K. Judicial College. Its opponents have yet to provide a single plausible example of how it has been used to silence anti-Israel speech.

In addition to leading Harvard’s task force on antisemitism, Penslar is also spearheading a movement to reject the IHRA working guidelines on antisemitism. Penslar and his colleagues want to deny that current anti-Zionism is antisemitic—a posture that seems to have less to do with any kind of coherent philosophical position or reading of Jewish history than it does with the political need to kasher the campus left. While he is not an antisemite himself, Penslar’s work seems designed to make both Harvard and the larger world an even safer place for antisemites—which is a scary thought.

Penslar’s opposition to the IHRA definition of antisemitism is in no way passive. As a member of the Nexus Task Force, he is in fact one of the key academic activists leading the effort to sanction a wide range of anti-Zionist speech and teachings. (The Jewish studies petition defending Penslar’s appointment was organized by Nexus.) Officially, Jonathan Jacoby, the incoming director of Nexus, says that he doesn’t want to erase the IHRA, just supplement it. But evidence suggests that Nexus is already lobbying lawmakers to absolve anti-Zionists from any taint of antisemitism. Nexus recently hired Kevin Rachlin, formerly of J Street, to lead its D.C. office—a hire that suggests Nexus’ origins in the world of the Democratic Party’s top-down campaigns to reconcile its “big donors” with some of the party’s more hateful constituencies.

Nexus’ document on antisemitism is very similar to the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), to which Penslar is a signatory. The JDA, which presents itself as an alternative to the IHRA, argues that boycotting Israel and campaigning for its destruction are not “on the face of it” antisemitic. You might hate Zionism, the JDA suggests, just because you “oppose the principle of nationalism.”

Sure you can! Yet it is hard to avoid noticing that a wildly overwhelming majority of anti-Zionists are not so anti-nationalist as to advocate the dismantling of Belgium, Pakistan or Germany, or, for that matter, Iran, or the Palestinian national movement—only Israel.

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism argues that “It is not antisemitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants ‘between the river and the sea,’ whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.” But everyone knows there is no way a binational state between the Jordan and Mediterranean could be achieved without large-scale massacres and expulsions of Jews. In reality, “alternative definitions of antisemitism” like the JDA’s are only semitransparent fig leaves for those who actively plot the destruction of the Jewish state. Some of the JDA signatories have routinely compared Israel to the Nazi regime. Michael Walzer, who signed the JDA and for whom I have great respect, remarked that there were “a couple of anti-semitic signatories” to the declaration, adding that “the organizers in Jerusalem should have rejected their signatures.” But the antisemites signed the Jerusalem declaration for a reason—because it gave them the chance to disguise their Jew-hatred as anti-Zionism.

Penslar’s scholarship has been heavily praised by his defenders. Like the attacks on his scholarship as antisemitic, the praise is also overblown. He is worth reading, if only for his peculiar view of Zionism, which casts some light on his feelings about current antisemitism.

Penslar’s Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader (Yale University Press, 2020) is a lively book about Herzl, whose freakishly interesting fantasies and manias are a gold mine for any biographer. In an earlier piece on Herzl, Penslar remarked, “For him, Zionism became a means by which he could expose his genitals—that is, his circumcised penis—by proclaiming attachment to the people who bore that mark, and who, thanks to Zionism, would do so with pride and dignity.” (Penslar’s work can be nutty.) He added that “Herzl’s Zionism was a reaction to arrested emancipation and social slights, not pogroms and existential threat; it was an expression of a search for purpose and a desire to be of consequence.”

Penslar admits from time to time that Herzl’s Zionism was not just a project of self-making, but a way to save Jewish lives in a moment where Jews were being routinely set upon by mobs nearly everywhere in Europe. In his biography he cites this line from Herzl: “To stand by idly and watch when a house is on fire is certainly more insane than to rush up with a modern fire engine. And that is what I want to do.” Yet much of Penslar’s work insists that Zionism is about emotion rather than a cool-headed practical solution—not an escape route for Jews out of Europe’s burning house, but an expression of personal conflicts and manias.

Penslar is not always fair to the State of Israel, either. He collaborates in the prevailing leftist amnesia about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, according to which Israel—not the Palestinians—has always refused a two-state solution. He refers to “the determination of Israeli Jews to resist pressure to withdraw from the Occupied Territories and foster the creation of a Palestinian state,” ignoring the fact that Israel has offered the Palestinians a state several times in approximately 95% of the West Bank, only to be rejected—as well as withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, with disastrous results.

There are other distortions. Israel’s Arab citizens, Penslar writes, are “subject to structural and systematic discrimination.” He charges that Israeli Arabs are not fully equal citizens, without giving any evidence except the Nation State Law, which states that only Jews have national rights. Though lamentable, the law does not affect the legal rights of any of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Elsewhere Penslar says that the 1939 White Paper “recognized a dual obligation to Jewish and Arab demands in Palestine.” But the White Paper betrayed Britain’s promise to the Jews as well as the terms of the original League of Nations mandate, since it would have ended Jewish immigration to Palestine and blocked the emergence of a Jewish state—not to mention that it condemned millions of European Jews to death in the Holocaust.

Penslar also writes erroneously about the 1929 riots: “As Eli Cohen has shown, the riots of 1929, which from a Zionist perspective were directed entirely by Arabs against Jews, in fact involved killing on both sides that was motivated by mutual hatred.” But Cohen points out quite clearly that the overwhelming majority of the Arabs killed in 1929 had attacked Jews in their homes while the Jews were defending themselves. This was not “mutual hatred”; it was a pogrom committed by Arabs, some of whom died as the result of their efforts to slaughter Jews.

Penslar’s most recent book, Zionism: An Emotional State (Rutgers University Press, 2023), is determined to see Zionism as an emotional phenomenon, not just a world-changing historical movement. At times, the book descends into bizarre nitpicking: Penslar is annoyed by “the branding of Middle Eastern food as ‘Israeli’ and serving it at Jewish social gatherings.” Such peccadilloes to the side, Penslar clearly writes as a Zionist, though he is often grumpy rather than gung-ho about Israel.

Reaching for emotion and ideology rather than realistic explanation is a hallmark of Penslar’s work—and of much work in the field of cultural studies. Penslar quotes Boaz Neumann’s fanciful assessment that Jewish “pioneer desire” in Palestine was “an anarchic flow, devoid of reason or purpose, neither a biological need nor a social demand nor an act of will.” Penslar chimes in: “The young workers saw themselves as impregnating the land ... barren—that is, naked—hills and mountains would be covered, their honor and beauty restored ...” This sort of fantasia is all good fun, but it bears little relation to historical reality. The halutzim gave themselves up to determined, back-breaking labor—not to soft-core porn about rocks and dirt.

Penslar sees modern Jewish politics as all about “fear and anxiety,” an emotional agenda. Too often, he downplays the reasons for the fear. He presents the danger of a nuclear Iran more as Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral fantasy than a real threat. In 2000, he writes, “The Second Intifada erupted, and mainstream Jewish organizations retreated to the language of fear and anxiety, solidarity with Israel, and suspicion, if not downright hostility, to the international community ...” This “retreat” was a necessary one, though Penslar depicts it as irrational. How could Jews not express solidarity and anxiety for Israel when it was being attacked every week by suicidal murderers intent on killing innocent civilians? What are the alternative emotions that Penslar would have preferred?

Penslar clearly writes as a Zionist, though he is often grumpy rather than gung-ho about Israel.

In Penslar’s eyes, Israel is the “stronger party” in an “asymmetrical conflict” and “the stronger party’s hatreds do greater harm to the weaker party than the other way around.” But this begs the question: Who is actually the stronger party? Behind Hamas stands Hezbollah and Iran—a hostile, Holocaust-denying state of over 100 million people. There is one Jewish state in the world, and 22 Arab states. There are perhaps 7 million Jews in Israel, and another 8 million Jews worldwide, against a total of 1.8 billion Muslims. Israel is encircled by hostile entities set on its destruction. Where is the asymmetry here?

Anti-Zionism cannot be antisemitic, Penslar seems to think, if there is no emotion of Jew-hatred behind it. But the argument that Israel is illegitimate and therefore must be dismantled is itself antisemitic. Yes, the anti-Zionist may feel righteous anger, rather than hatred, as Penslar argues. But splitting emotional hairs is not the point—racism is structural. When anti-Zionism envisions, as it must, the ruin of the Jewish state, it becomes a racist polemic.

In August 2023, Penslar signed a petition circulated by a group called Academics4peace. The word “apartheid” appears three times in the petition, as a description of life in the West Bank. In his books, too, Penslar has described the situation in the West Bank as apartheid, even though over 90% of Palestinians there are governed not by Israel but by the Palestinian Authority, which oppresses its population for its own reasons. The point of calling Israel an apartheid regime is clear: to suggest that it must go the way of white-led South Africa. Arafat said about Yitzhak Rabin, “He is not a de Gaulle. Let him be at least a de Klerk.” Algeria without its pieds-noirs would have been the best case scenario; the other possibility was a Palestinian majority ruling over Jews, like Blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. So it is for the campus left: The “settler-colonialist” Jewish state, like white South Africa or French Algeria, must be destroyed.

In Zionism: An Emotional State, Penslar says that the word Zionism has “signified the Israeli state’s paradoxical blend of vulnerability and strength, achievement and unfulfilled purpose.” When the world ignores Israel’s vulnerability and sees only its military strength, antisemitism begins to triumph. Since Oct. 7, Israel has been painted as an aggressor nation, its weakness in the face of terror discounted utterly.

In Zionism, Penslar evokes Herzl’s “uncommonly handsome” countenance, which “connoted prophetic insight, serenity without indifference, and composure without nonchalance.” Penslar explores Herzl’s neurotic character, but also venerates the proud, steady image he projected on behalf of Jews. If we are to get back to Herzl’s nobility, and his hope for Jewish self-sufficiency, we need be united enough as Jews to call things by their true names. The wish to delegitimize Israel—otherwise known as anti-Zionism—is nothing but antisemitism. The U.S. and EU agree on that. Why doesn’t Derek Penslar?

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.

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