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AAJR Statement Regarding Professor Derek Penslar

AAJR Statement Regarding Professor Derek Penslar Posted on January 21, 2024

On January 19, 2024, our colleague Derek Penslar, William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History at Harvard and former two-time president of the American Academy for Jewish Research—the oldest organization of Jewish studies in North America, whose fellows are elected by their peers and constitute the most distinguished and most senior scholars teaching Judaic studies at American universities—was appointed co-chair of Harvard’s presidential task force on antisemitism. As senior scholars of Jewish studies from antiquity to the present, we greeted the news of Professor Penslar’s appointment as a welcome step by Harvard’s interim-president Alan Garber to address the gravity of the current situation by turning to academic experts in the pertinent fields. As fellows of the American Academy for Jewish Research, we are now dismayed by the attacks being leveled against Penslar’s scholarship and his commitment to the task force’s work. 

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. It is precisely this kind of expertise that is needed in the current moment.

The vicious and groundless charges launched at Professor Penslar since his appointment to Harvard’s presidential task force on antisemitism have caricatured his work and views through out-of-context sentences or sentences not authored by him to impugn his scholarship and integrity and cast him, unjustifiably, as ideologically motivated and even antisemitic. What may not be obvious to the public is that as scholars, we engage with historical sources and ideas to analyze and explain them, even if we may disagree with these ideas or even find them abhorrent.

As the fellows of the AAJR and as colleagues of Professor Penslar in Jewish studies, we express our support and admiration for his scholarship, integrity, and sound judgment in approaching complex and controversial topics with nuance, depth, and critical analysis. Penslar is a highly esteemed scholar. He has held research fellowships in Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. As President of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Derek Penslar led the august organization with deftness and sensitivity expanding its platform and renewing its influence in the academy.
Jewish Studies courses taught at universities ensure that students can learn about the diversity of Jewish culture and historical experience.  Such courses are especially critical today, when misrepresentations of Jews and Judaism are being spread through new forms of old antisemitic stereotypes. Attacks on scholars in Jewish studies, such as Professor Derek Penslar, threaten that enterprise and could result in long-term damage to the field and its essential role on campus. 

The American Academy for Jewish Research