Former Harvard President Larry Summers has ‘lost confidence’ in school’s current leadership

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Harvard President Emeritus Larry Summers took to social media over the weekend to condemn the university’s leadership for their pick to co-lead a new antisemitism task force at the institution, saying the selection has caused him to lose confidence in their ability to “maintain Harvard as a place where Jews and Israelis can flourish.”

Interim Harvard President Alan Garber announced Friday that the school is launching two separate task forces to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus amid the war between Israel and Hamas. Summers is taking issue with Garber appointing Harvard Professor Derek Penslar as co-chair of the antisemitism task force.

Penslar is a professor of Jewish history and the director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies.

“After Friday’s new anti-Semitism task force announcement, I have lost confidence in the determination and ability of the Harvard Corporation and Harvard leadership to maintain Harvard as a place where Jews and Israelis can flourish,” Summers wrote in an X post on Sunday.

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Summers, who served as president of Harvard from 2001 to 2006 and remains a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, noted that Harvard’s previous antisemitism task force has been disbanded following the resignation of Rabbi David Wolpe, who stepped down in protest last month following former Harvard President Claudien Gay’s controversial testimony before a House hearing on antisemitism. 

Summers called Wolpe the previous committee’s “most respected member,” and said members of the new task force “have remarkably not yet been chosen,” save for Penslar and his co-lead.

“I have no doubt that Prof Penslar is a profound scholar of Zionism and a person of good will without a trace of personal anti-Semitism who cares deeply about Harvard,” Summers wrote. “However, I believe that given his record, he is unsuited to leading a task force whose function is to combat what is seen by many as a serious anti-Semitism problem at Harvard.”

Summers said Penslar “has 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. While he does not support BDS [the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel] he has made clear that he sees it as a reasonable position.”

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Penslar’s critics point to several public positions he has taken that, in their view, make him unfit to lead a task force addressing antisemitism. In particular, he signed an open letter in August that said, “Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid,” claimed the aim of judicial overhauls in Israel is to “ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population,” and said, “Jewish supremacism has been growing for years.”

“None of this in my view is problematic for a professor at Harvard or even for a member of the task force but for the co-chair of an anti-Semitism task force that is being paralleled with an Islamophobia task force it seems highly problematic,” Summers wrote.

Summers, an economist who served as U.S. Treasury secretary under President Clinton and director of the National Economic Council under President Obama, is not alone in his criticism of Harvard selecting Penslar to lead the new antisemitism task force. 

Bill Ackman

Billionaire Harvard alum Bill Ackman — who has openly criticized Harvard’s handling of antisemitism since Oct. 7 and led calls for Gay’s eventual resignation — said after Penslar’s appointment that Harvard “continues on the path of darkness.”

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Summers called on Penslar to step down as co-chair of the task force.

“I also hope Harvard’s leadership will recognize that they have exacerbated Harvard’s credibility problems on anti-Semitism with the Penslar appointment and take steps to restore their credibility,” Summers wrote. “As things currently stand, I am unable to reassure Harvard community members, those we are recruiting or prospective students that Harvard is making progress in countering anti-Semitism.”

Harvard University

A Harvard spokesperson told FOX Business in a statement that Professor Penslar “is a renowned scholar of modern Jewish and Israeli history who is highly regarded as a leading authority in his field,” and that “He is deeply committed to tackling antisemitism and improving the experience of Jewish students at Harvard.”

The spokesperson added that the new “Task Force on Combating AntiSemitism will undertake broad consultation as it seeks to identify the root causes of antisemitism on campus and recommend approaches to tackle antisemitism directly.”

The school also released a statement from Penslar, which reads, “I am honored to be part of the Harvard community and am dedicated to the education and well-being of our students.”

“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,” Penslar’s statement continues. “Only with this information in hand can Harvard implement effective policies that will improve Jewish student life on campus.”

A number of Penslar’s supporters also rushed to his defense in an article in The Harvard Crimson published Monday.

The outlet reported the American Academy for Jewish Research wrote a letter to Garber on Sunday saying that 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 added, “It is precisely this kind of expertise that is needed in the current moment.”

Harvard Government Professor Steven Levitsky, who is Jewish, defended Penslar and blasted Summers’ comments.

“Larry Summers says some very bold things about antisemitism at Harvard. He is not representative of a majority of Jews at Harvard,” Levitsky told The Crimson. He went on to call Summers “bats— crazy.”

FOX News’ Brie Stimson contributed to this report.

Read the full article here

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