Reflecting on the Past Semester at Penn

December 11, 2023
Steven Weitzman

Steve Weitzman sees the Center as a steadying presence in the current maelstrom.

Photograph: Henri Jankola: “Calm Sea Equals Serenity and Welcomed Solitude”

Photograph by Henri Jankola

As I think readers of this blog are likely to know, the horrifying attack of October 7 and the war that followed have loomed over the entire semester at Penn. The events in the Middle East have brought shock, grief, and trauma to the university as well as outbursts of prejudice and hatred, suspicion, misunderstanding, feelings of isolation and marginalization, and—as the world knows—institutional turmoil.

During this period, the Katz Center has sought to stay on mission, which means, above all, supporting the fellows who have come here for the year to forward their research. This has been very challenging to do, I must admit. Out of regard for the well-being of the people working in our building, we have had to hire extra security and take other precautionary measures. Fellows coming here from Israel have had to postpone or cancel their plans. We have likewise had to cancel or postpone academic programs.

Colleagues on campus are rightly concerned about the future of academic freedom in this politicized moment, and I absolutely share that concern, but I can also attest that the climate this last semester—the level of hostility and the demonization—have created their own threats to academic freedom as well that have to be acknowledged.

In such a stressful and politically charged environment, it has felt vital to sustain a sense of normalcy at the Center for the fellows as much as possible, which is one reason this website has had so little to say about current events, as agonizing as they are. Fortunately, the fellows themselves have been resilient and wonderfully supportive of each other; and the Center’s staff has done a marvelous job adapting to changes. I am very thankful to them. I am also very thankful to alumni and supporters who are seeking to help the university get to a better place and to colleagues who have reached out to be supportive and to engage in constructive dialogue.

In other words, despite the pain this semester has brought, I have also encountered a tremendous amount of good will that, though it has not made the headlines and isn’t getting picked up on in social media, is real. I hope the university can build on this as it finds its way forward. Next semester, the Katz Center will be offering some public programs meant to help the university think more deeply about the difficult issues that have surfaced, and we will also be working behind the scenes in support of the university community as it seeks to rebuild trust and refocus on its scholarly and educational missions.

Finally, I want to add that those who have been directly impacted by the events of this fall, including former fellows who have suffered great tragedy, remain very much in our thoughts. We will continue to look for ways to be supportive.



About the Author

Steven Weitzman

Steven Weitzman

Steven Weitzman is the Ella Darivoff Director at the Katz Center and Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages & Literatures at Penn.

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