(JTA) — Prominent Jewish critics of Harvard University are opposing the appointment of a Jewish studies professor to co-chair the school’s new antisemitism task force, arguing that his views on Israel and antisemitism disqualify him.
The latest controversy at Harvard began on Friday, when Derek Penslar, director of the school’s center for Jewish studies, was tapped to co-lead the new taskforce. Shortly afterward, Penslar came under attack from former Harvard President Larry Summers as well as Bill Ackman, the Harvard alum and hedge-fund activist who previously led calls for the resignation of former Harvard President Claudine Gay. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, soon joined them in their criticism.
In response, the school has doubled down on Penslar’s appointment, and a group of Jewish academics is speaking out in his defense.
The debate is erupting one month after a similar dispute played out at Stanford University, where the co-chair of the antisemitism task force, Ari Y. Kelman, stepped down from his role following nearly identical lines of criticism.
Together, the episodes demonstrate that antisemitism task forces — which a number of universities have announced since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war — are turning into another front for debate. They point to an intra-Jewish divide over the questions that lie at the heart of fighting antisemitism, and which Jews get to answer them.
The new task force at Harvard replaces an antisemitism advisory group that Gay had formed following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, and that had drawn criticism from Jews on the left for excluding Penslar — a scholar of modern Jewish history, Zionism and Israel. Harvard President Alan Garber announced the new task force on Friday, alongside one focused on Islamophobia, and said it would be co-chaired by Penslar and business professor Raffaella Sadun.
Summers and Ackman argued that Penslar holds views that are out of step with the Jewish mainstream. They object to a letter Penslar signed, prior to October, that used the word “apartheid” to refer to Israel’s control of Palestinians. They also mentioned his comment, made to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency earlier this month, that some voices have “exaggerated” the level of antisemitism at Harvard.
In addition, they cited his criticism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism, which includes some forms of Israel criticism. The definition has been adopted by hundreds of governments and other entities, but its opponents say it could chill legitimate criticism of Israel.
On X, formerly Twitter, Summers called Penslar’s appointment “highly problematic.” He accused Penslar of having “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, referred to Israel as an apartheid state and more.”
Last May, the Biden administration announced a strategy to counter antisemitism that recognizes the IHRA definition as the “most prominent” framing of antisemitism but did not adopt it exclusively.
Ackman wrote on the platform that “Harvard continues on the path of darkness,” and reposted Summers’ arguments against Penslar.
Greenblatt tweeted that the task force offered “Lessons in how NOT to combat antisemitism, Harvard edition. Start by naming a professor who libels the Jewish state and claims that ‘veins of hatred run through Jewish civilization’ to your antisemitism task force. Absolutely inexcusable. This is why Harvard is failing, full stop.”
Greenblatt appeared to be quoting a passage from Penslar’s 2023 book, “Zionism: An Emotional State,” in which he noted that Jews who lived as a small and often persecuted minority in Europe frequently fantasized about vengeance against Christians. Penslar also writes that other emotions also coursed through Jewish communities that would later adopt Zionism, including love, hope, honor and solidarity.
In a statement to JTA in the wake of the weekend’s criticisms, Penslar said he was “dedicated to the education and well-being of our students.”
He added, “I see in the Task Force on antisemitism an important opportunity to determine the nature and extent of antisemitism and more subtle forms of social exclusion that affect Jewish students at Harvard. Only with this information in hand can Harvard implement effective policies that will improve Jewish student life on campus.”
Harvard is also standing behind Penslar’s appointment, calling him “a renowned scholar” who is “highly regarded as a leading authority in his field” in its own statement to JTA.
The statement added that Penslar “approaches his research and teaching with open-mindedness and respect for conflicting points of view and approaching difficult issues with care and reason,” and “is deeply committed to tackling antisemitism and improving the experience of Jewish students at Harvard.”
As Summers’ and Ackman’s criticism spread online, a prominent consortium of Jewish scholars has also spoken out in Penslar’s defense. In a statement to JTA on Monday, the American Academy for Jewish Research said it was “dismayed” by the attacks on Penslar, adding that they “could result in long-term damage to the field” of Jewish studies.
“Professor Penslar is a prolific scholar with a stellar international reputation, whose numerous books address the historical development of many of the topics raising rancor at our universities today: antisemitism, Zionism, Jews and the military, and the history of Israel,” the group said. “It is precisely this kind of expertise that is needed in the current moment.”
This is not the first time that Harvard’s efforts at combating antisemitism have drawn backlash. Summers, Ackman and other critics had initially slammed Gay for what they called a tepid response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Gay was later pilloried after a congressional hearing in which she, along with the leaders of two other elite schools, declined to say that calling for the genocide of Jews violated campus rules.
In the days after Gay’s Congressional testimony, Rabbi David Wolpe stepped down from the antisemitism task force she had assembled. Wolpe, for decades a prominent congregational rabbi in Los Angeles, said the body was an inadequate response to the enormity of the task of fighting antisemitism. In its announcement of the new task force on Friday, the school said that Gay’s advisory group had “wrapped up its work.”
A federal Title VI civil rights investigation has been opened at Harvard for its handling of an alleged antisemitic incident on campus; Congress has also launched its own investigation into antisemitism at Harvard.
Exclusive: Iran Sends Russia Hundreds of Ballistic Missiles, Sources Say
Iran has provided Russia with a large number of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, six sources told Reuters, deepening the military cooperation between the two US-sanctioned countries.
Iran‘s provision of around 400 missiles includes many from the Fateh-110 family of short-range ballistic weapons, such as the Zolfaghar, three Iranian sources said. This road-mobile missile is capable of striking targets at a distance of between 300 and 700 km (186 and 435 miles), experts say.
Iran‘s defense ministry and the Revolutionary Guards – an elite force that oversees Iran‘s ballistic missile program – declined to comment. Russia‘s defense ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The shipments began in early January after a deal was finalized in meetings late last year between Iranian and Russian military and security officials that took place in Tehran and Moscow, one of the Iranian sources said.
An Iranian military official – who, like the other sources, asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information – said there had been at least four shipments of missiles and there would be more in the coming weeks. He declined to provide further details.
Another senior Iranian official said some of the missiles were sent to Russia by ship via the Caspian Sea, while others were transported by plane.
“There will be more shipments,” the second Iranian official said. “There is no reason to hide it. We are allowed to export weapons to any country that we wish to.”
U.N. Security Council restrictions on Iran‘s export of some missiles, drones and other technologies expired in October. However, the United States and European Union retained sanctions on Iran‘s ballistic missile programme amid concerns over exports of weapons to its proxies in the Middle East and to Russia.
A fourth source, familiar with the matter, confirmed that Russia had received a large number of missiles from Iran recently, without providing further details.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said in early January the United States was concerned that Russia was close to acquiring short-range ballistic weapons from Iran, in addition to missiles already sourced from North Korea.
A US official told Reuters that Washington had seen evidence of talks actively advancing but no indication yet of deliveries having taken place.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the missile deliveries.
Ukraine’s top prosecutor said on Friday the ballistic missiles supplied by North Korea to Russia had proven unreliable on the battlefield, with only two of 24 hitting their targets. Moscow and Pyongyang have both denied that North Korea has provided Russia with munitions used in Ukraine.
By contrast, Jeffrey Lewis, an expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said the Fateh-110 family of missiles and the Zolfaghar were precision weapons.
“They are used to point at things that are high value and need precise damage,” said Lewis, adding that 400 munitions could inflict considerable harm if used in Ukraine. He noted, however, that Russian bombardments were already “pretty brutal”.
US AID DELAY WEAKENS UKRAINE’S DEFENCES
A Ukrainian military source told Reuters that Kyiv had not registered any use of Iranian ballistic missiles by Russian forces in the conflict. The Ukrainian defence ministry did not immediately reply to Reuters’ request for comment.
Following the publication of this story, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Air Force told national television that it had no official information on Russia obtaining such missiles. He said that ballistic missiles would pose a serious threat to Ukraine.
Former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said that Russia wanted to supplement its missile arsenal at a time when delays in approving a major package of US military aid in Congress has left Ukraine short of ammunition and other material.
“The lack of US support means shortages of ground-based air defense in Ukraine. So they want to accumulate a mass of rockets and break through Ukrainian air defense,” said Zagorodnyuk, who chairs the Kyiv-based Centre for Defense Strategies, a security think tank, and advises the government.
Kyiv has repeatedly asked Tehran to stop supplying Shahed drones to Russia, which have become a staple of Moscow’s long-range assaults on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, alongside an array of missiles.
Ukraine’s air force said in December that Russia had launched 3,700 Shahed drones during the war, which can fly hundreds of kilometres and explode on impact. Ukrainians call them “mopeds” because of the distinctive sound of their engines; air defenses down dozens of them each week.
Iran initially denied supplying drones to Russia but months later said it had provided a small number before Moscow launched the war on Ukraine in 2022.
“Those who accuse Iran of providing weapons to one of the sides in the Ukraine war are doing so for political purposes,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday, when asked about Tehran’s delivery of drones to Russia. “We have not given any drones to take part in that war.”
Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said a supply of Fateh-100 and Zolfaghar missiles from Iran would hand Russia an even greater advantage on the battlefield.
“They could be used to strike military targets at operational depths, and ballistic missiles are more difficult for Ukrainian air defences to intercept,” Lee said.
DEEPENING TIES WITH MOSCOW
Iran‘s hardline clerical rulers have steadily sought to deepen ties with Russia and China, betting that would help Tehran to resist US sanctions and to end its political isolation.
Defence cooperation between Iran and Russia has intensified since Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022.
Russia‘s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met the head of Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force, Amirali Hajizadeh, in Tehran in September, when Iran‘s drones, missiles and air defence systems were displayed for him, Iranian state media reported.
And last month, Russia‘s foreign ministry said it expected President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi to sign a broad new cooperation treaty soon, following talks in Moscow in December.
“This military partnership with Russia has shown the world Iran‘s defense capabilities,” said the military official. “It does not mean we are taking sides with Russia in the Ukraine conflict.”
The stakes are high for Iran‘s clerical rulers amid the war between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas that erupted after Oct. 7. They also face growing dissent at home over economic woes and social restrictions.
While Tehran tries to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel that could draw in the United States, its Axis of Resistance allies – including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen – have attacked Israeli and US targets.
A Western diplomat briefed on the matter confirmed the delivery of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia in the recent weeks, without providing more details.
He said Western nations were concerned that Russia‘s reciprocal transfer of weapons to Iran could strengthen its position in any possible conflict with the United States and Israel.
Iran said in November it had finalized arrangements for Russia to provide it with Su-35 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters and Yak-130 pilot training aircraft.
Analyst Gregory Brew at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said Russia is an ally of convenience for Iran.
“The relationship is transactional: in exchange for drones, Iran expects more security cooperation and advanced weaponry, particularly modern aircraft,” he said.
The post Exclusive: Iran Sends Russia Hundreds of Ballistic Missiles, Sources Say first appeared on Algemeiner.com.
Middlebury College Response to Antisemitism Allegations Slammed by Watchdog Group
Middlebury College on Tuesday issued, as well as deleted, statements which indirectly responded to allegations of institutional antisemitism that a civil rights group lodged against its administration last week.
As The Algemeiner previously reported, StandWithUs (SWU), a nonprofit that promotes education about Israel, filed a complaint with the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) alleging that high level officials at the school fostered a “pervasively hostile climate” for Jewish students by refusing, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, to enforce anti-discrimination policies equally.
A timeline of events laid out in documents provided by SWU begins after Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7, when the school issued a statement that did not acknowledge the deaths of Israelis, but instead only alluded to “violence happening now in Israel in Palestine.” The following week, the administration allegedly obstructed Jewish students’ efforts to publicly mourn Jews murdered on Oct. 7., denying them police protection for a vigil, forcing them to hold it outside, and demanding that the event avoid specifically mentioning Jewish suffering.
Middlebury responded to the charges on Tuesday, explaining the college’s “Educational Approach to the War in Gaza and Israel,” in two statements, the first of which was later deleted and replaced with a revision containing numerous “stealth” edits.
The first defended chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a slogan widely considered as a call for a genocide of Jews in Israel, as utterance protected by its free speech policy.
“We are fully aware that, while this phrase is divisive, it is experienced and interpreted differently by different groups,” the school said. “Middlebury has extensive structures in place for mitigating ham that controversial speech can cause, and our open expression policy safeguards a learning environment ‘where all voices can be heard and have the opportunity to contribute to the conversation.’”
According to the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice, Middlebury’s response did not directly address its handling of a vigil that Jewish students organized on Oct. 9 to mourn the victims of Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel, which happened two days prior. In its complaint, SWU alleged that Middlebury roadblocked the event, denying Jewish students police protection and demanding that they omit direct references to Jewish suffering in their remarks and promotional materials. In an email to the Jewish group that planned the vigil, Vice President and Dean of Students Derek Doucet said, “I wonder if such a public gather in such a charged moment might be more inclusive.”
Additionally, no high level administrators agreed to speak at the vigil and condemn antisemitic violence, as well as terrorism. However, a month later, the administration accommodated Students for Justice in Palestine’s “Vigil for Palestine,” providing campus police, space on campus, and a speech from a high ranking official diversity-equity-and-inclusion (DEI) official, a request, StandWithUs insists, which organizers of the Jewish vigil had been denied.
In Tuesday’s deleted statement, Middlebury claimed that president Laurie Patton provided the Jewish students “remarks that were read at the vigil, condemning Hamas and pledging support and care for students.” Not true, StandWithUs, explained. Patton’s statements, like Middlebury’s previous statements about Oct. 7, mentioned only “violence we have seen in Israel and Gaza,” a description of the conflict at which SWU takes umbrage for its equating Hamas’ atrocities with Israel’s self-defense.
StandWithUs said in a press release on Wednesday that Middlebury’s statement is “mendacious,” noting that members of the Coalition for Dismantling Antisemitism at Middlebury are all hired faculty and staff, some of whom are accused of antisemitism in its complaint. SWU also charged that Middlebury’s claim to collaborate with a local Chabad organization is misleading as well, noting that “for over six years” the school has denied the group’s entreaties for formal recognition, a designation that would qualify it for funding and the privilege to reserve space on campus for events and other activities.
“It is no wonder that by the morning of February 20, 2024, Middlebury took its statement down from its website entirely and replaced it with an even more misleading post,” StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein said. “Middlebury can no longer hide from its legal and moral duty to provide a campus environment for its Jewish students free from discrimination and harassment.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
The post Middlebury College Response to Antisemitism Allegations Slammed by Watchdog Group first appeared on Algemeiner.com.
Courage to disagree, with respect: York University student initiative Bridging the Gap promotes civil dialogue on Israel
How a campus initiative was revived following Oct. 7.