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Harvard ‘anti-Semitism’ row: fury over influence of Jewish billionaires on US university 

January 24, 2024 at 1:59 pm

Harvard University [Joseph Williams/Wikipedia]

The latest round in the ongoing row over alleged anti-Semitism at Harvard University has triggered concern over the undue influence of Jewish billionaires, right-wing politicians and pro-Israel activists on university policies.

Prominent pro-Israel figures in the US who campaigned to oust the now former President of Harvard, Professor Claudine Gay, are outraged over the appointment of a Jewish professor to help lead Harvard’s anti-Semitism taskforce because he signed a petition describing Israel as an “apartheid” regime.

Gay, a leading expert on African and African-American Studies, resigned earlier this month as president of the prestigious university. The Black American professor came under attack for rejecting pro-Israel speech codes to silence critics of the apartheid state. Jewish billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman is said to have led a campaign to oust Gay from her job.

Last week, Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, announced the formation of two “presidential task forces”, one to combat anti-Semitism and the other to combat Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias.

Read: Israel’s allies using ‘McCarthyist tactics’ to ‘cynically weaponised’ anti-Semitism

Derek J Penslar, a professor of Jewish history at Harvard, was appointed co-chair of the task force on anti-Semitism. According to the New York Times, Penslar was among nearly 2,900 academics, clergy and other public figures who signed an open letter in August, before the 7 October attack, condemning the Israeli government and saying that it was determined to “ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population.”

The letter was written by a group called Academics4Peace. “American Jewish billionaire funders help support the Israeli far right,” said the signatories, who described Israel as “a regime of apartheid” due to its treatment of Palestinians.

Incensed by the appointment, Ackman said on X that, with Penslar’s selection, Harvard “continues on the path of darkness.” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of pro-Israel advocacy group, the Anti-Defamation League, said of Penslar’s appointment: “Lessons in how NOT to combat anti-Semitism, Harvard edition.” Other key figures within the pro-Israel scene also criticised the appointment.

Several professors, though, including Jewish historians, pushed back. “Enough Outside Bullying: Penslar Is the Right Choice To Lead the Antisemitism Task Force,” said Alison Frank Johnson a Professor of History and Steven Levitsky the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and a Professor of Government, in an article for the Harvard Crimson.

“Criticism of Israel is not popular in all circles, but it is hardly a fringe position,” added Johnson and Levitsky, explaining that Penslar himself identifies as a Zionist. “These views are shared by many American Jews, and indeed by many Israeli Jews.”

Raising alarm at the pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, they said: “Donors, right-wing politicians, and activists are welcome to share their opinions, as is everyone in a free society, but they cannot be allowed to de facto dictate university policies (for example, on regulating campus speech and protest), remove university leaders, or veto appointments to important university task forces.”