More than 200 people attended a talk by author Dara Horn at Penn Hillel, the first of six speakers in a new spring semester series on antisemitism and education, “Jews and the University: Antisemitism, Admissions, Academic Freedom,” organized by the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at Penn.
Horn has received three National Jewish Book Awards among other honors for her work, and speaks frequently in the United States, Israel, and Australia. She also is the creative advisor for the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, a co-sponsor of the event with the Katz Center and Penn Hillel.
Katz Center Director Steven Weitzman introduced the event. The University, and higher education in general, he said, are facing questions that they are “still struggling” to address: “Are our universities fulfilling their role in creating learning environments welcoming to all students?” and is there more they can do to “get a better balance between academic freedom on the one hand and protecting against harassment and intimidation on the other?”
Weitzman acknowledged that “the last few months have been a very difficult period for the campus community,” after the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 in Israel, and the continuing war that followed. The speaker series is exploring the past, present, and future of the relationship between Jews and the university as an institution, Weitzman said.
“We wanted to find a way to acknowledge and wrestle with what has been happening on campus, along with other universities, to encourage learning about antisemitism and its impact and to try together to get a better understanding of this terrible moment we’re in and how we move forward from here,” Weitzman said.
In his introduction of Horn, Penn alum Philip M. Darivoff, trustee and chair emeritus of the Weitzman Museum and former chair of the Katz Center advisory board, said he “learned how to be a member of the Jewish community here at Penn,” adding that “everything good in my life I connect to my time here at Penn,” including his wife, family, friends, and career. He said the recent events and fallout on campus has been “deeply painful for us, deeply hurtful to us, and we want to help and move to a better place,” he said, including support of the Katz speaker series.
Horn, whose publications include five novels, spoke about themes in her 2021 non-fiction essay collection, “People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present.” She reflected on the feeling of “otherness” that Jewish people may perceive and the pressure to try to fit in. “I feel that Jews in non-Jewish societies often feel the need to erase themselves in order to make other people comfortable,” she said, adding that “facing that uncomfortable reality can actually empower us.”
She also challenged the idea that “hatred comes from ignorance” and assumptions that education is the solution to antisemitism, noting antisemitic people include those who are well-educated. Instead, she said, in her view it is important to recognize there are those who see Jewish people as “the obstacle” to making the world a better place.
Horn argued that one reason to strengthen the humanities at the university level, but even more so at the K-12 level, is to help counter antisemitism. This moment, she said, can be an opportunity to include more study about Jewish people and their histories in U.S. curriculums, including “how to define what it means to be Jewish.
“Educators actually believe that people can change,” Horn said. “I think we all have so much to learn from each other if we’re willing to be uncomfortable enough to learn it.”
The humanities are even more relevant now, Horn said, “because it’s about how do we think about information and how do we think about storytelling and what are the ways the storytelling and information interact with each other.”
During a Q&A, Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, executive director of Penn Hillel, asked Horn about Jewish people considering divesting themselves from U.S. higher education institutions. “I think that there would be an enormous loss,” Horn said. “I think that it’s an abandonment of participation in American life.”
Upcoming speakers in the series will address a range of topics including the history of anti-Jewish quotas and how admissions today compare with earlier eras, the history of Jewish life on the American college campus, and the challenge for the university as an institution to balance a commitment to inclusiveness with its responsibility as protector of academic freedoms.
Steven Weitzman is the Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center of Advanced Judaic Studies, the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures, and the undergraduate chair of the Department of Religious Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.