In my role as director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, I work closely with many Israeli scholars, and have many friends in Israel. So the fear and grief created by Hamas’ atrocities hit close to home, and I am grieving for the lives that have been lost, both Israeli and Palestinian. Compounding the situation is my concern about Penn’s community. I have heard things on campus from protestors that have left me stunned, including the claim that it is completely justified to target civilians in Israel, and that if Jews don’t like it, they can go back to Minsk, Moscow and Berlin. Such statements do not help anyone, but they certainly hurt.
I am by nature a hopeful person, and in my effort to find some way forward, I take a lesson from something happening in Israel over the last week. Even now, as Israelis are stricken by the brutal slaughter of loved ones, many are asking hard questions about what the right course of action is from an ethical as well as military perspective. I do not know where that process will lead, but I have been moved by the willingness to look within and admit mistakes at such a moment. It is my wish that the University community also finds a way to engage in its own process of self-examination about why it has been so easy for our sense of community to unravel.
Of course, people’s feelings about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are so intractable that there is no way an institution like Penn could overcome them. However, it seems to me that the tensions developing on campus were amplified by certain institutional weaknesses exposed just three weeks before by the controversy surrounding the Palestine Writes Literature Festival and the platform it gave to a few speakers known for making antisemitic statements or statements that endorsed (or clearly implied an endorsement of) mass violence.
Much of the controversy since that conference has focused on public statements from a new administration, but I want to call attention to longer term issues that existed before President Magill arrived to campus.
Here are some examples from my perspective as a professor of Jewish Studies:
First, for a University with a mission to train its students to be global citizens, Penn is underdeveloped in the field of Israel Studies. Students can take courses on Hebrew language and literature, and sometimes there are courses on the conflict taught by emeriti or visiting scholars. But what has been missing is a faculty member who can sustain relevant research and teaching as a permanent and consistent part of Penn’s academic culture. A scholar who can offer courses not just on the conflict, but on Israeli society, politics, religion and history and serve the campus and community as a resource. Whatever one’s political views, how can one overcome misunderstanding and ignorance if there are not enough opportunities to learn about Israeli society?
Second, it also does not help that one venue for informed discussion of the conflict has been weakened in recent years. The University invested so little in its Middle East Center that a few years ago, the center lost its federal Title VI funding as a result. Although the School of Arts and Sciences has stepped in with some funding to fill the gap until the next application round, the Center has had to reduce its staff and is merely subsisting in terms of resources.
Beyond funding, there is another issue inherent in SAS’s structure. In contrast to departments like History and Political Science, non-departmental units like the Middle East Center and the Jewish Studies Program cannot make their own case for a faculty hire. They depend entirely on the decisions of departments — and in my experience, no department ranks Israel Studies as a hiring priority. This situation has helped to institutionalize an intellectual vacuum: A field like Israel Studies falls in between departments, making it very difficult to advocate for it as worthy of support.
Third, Penn is only now beginning to acknowledge that its relationship with Jewish students had been changing significantly in the last few decades. Penn was a haven for Jewish students seeking a full Jewish life on campus, and still is: I am a parent of two Penn students, and they had a fantastic experience here.
However, the perception has emerged that it is not as welcoming to Jews as it once was, and these last few weeks have magnified that perception many times over. I certainly would not compare the experience of American Jews to minorities that have faced racial or gender-based discrimination in the U.S., but antisemitism is a part of American history; even today, the greatest percentage of religiously motivated hate crimes are targeted for Jews. The University has not fully registered the impact of such trends on how many Jews respond to a shifting climate on campus, and adding hatred to the mix in such a devastating period is a tremendous blow, as the reaction of Penn alumni is now demonstrating.
Fourth, I have been asking myself why faculty weren’t more helpful in this situation, and I include myself in this criticism. I have interacted with many faculty who have wanted to be helpful during these last few weeks but did not know how. I have begun to wonder if we have lost the ability to model how to talk to each other across differences that feel existential. The fault here does not lie solely with the faculty themselves. Our culture is so noisy, oversaturated by media and misinformation, contemptuous of expertise, and polarized that the deliberative, self-reflective and open-minded perspective that scholarship can bring feels out of tune with the times. That said, I think it is fair to say that the faculty, not just the administration, bear responsibility for this situation.
The weeks ahead are going to be excruciating as the war in Gaza develops, and it is hard to watch things from afar while being able to do so little to alleviate the suffering. Here at Penn, however, we have the privilege of not being immersed in war, and if people directly impacted by the violence are finding the strength to look within even now and acknowledge mistakes, I feel we should be able to do so as well. What has been erupting on campus these last weeks is not unique to Penn. Rather, it reflects larger social trends, but we have it in our power to take a different path if we can just muster the ability to recognize the humanity of others on campus and acknowledge what led us to this moment and then make the investments required to do better.
STEVEN WEITZMAN is the Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures. He is also the Undergraduate Chair of the Religious Studies Department. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.