Fighting a Pernicious Evil

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Illustration by Melinda Beck

Dental School Dean Mark Wolff has been leading a University-wide task force to combat antisemitism on campus.


When Mark Wolff, the Morton Amsterdam Dean of the University’s School of Dental Medicine, was asked to lead the task force associated with Penn’s Action Plan to Combat Antisemitism, he didn’t hesitate to answer the call. But he knew how difficult and “emotionally charged” the work would be.

“There’s a lot of hurt and pain when we look at our Jewish community on campus, when we look at our Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities on campus,” Wolff said. “That makes this both a very important mission, and it makes it a somewhat emotionally painful mission. It’s that combination, that exists for everybody, that’s most challenging.”

Wolff began as chair of the University Task Force on Antisemitism on November 1, when former Penn President Liz Magill announced the action plan to fight the “pernicious evil” of antisemitism amidst a rise of it across the country and at Penn (where incidents have included hateful graffiti spray-painted in Meyerson Hall and next to a Jewish fraternity house, an individual vandalizing Penn Hillel, and staff members receiving antisemitic emails). The work has continued under Penn Interim President J. Larry Jameson, to whom the task force submitted a report on December 19, and with whom the committee met on January 11. On January 16, several points of progress were announced on the action plan’s website (antisemitism-action-plan.upenn.edu) in three primary areas: safety and security, education, and engagement.

The safety measurements implemented have included the provision by Penn’s Division of Public Safety (DPS) of enhanced services to several locations and religious events; the formation of a review group to help make decisions about requests to schedule campus events that could pose security challenges; and improvements to a bias incident reporting form that allows Penn community members to confidentially report hate and harassment.

Steps taken in the area of education have included sending a delegation of Penn leaders to the Brandeis Leadership Symposium on Antisemitism in Higher Education in November; supporting faculty-led antisemitism programming through a Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies’ lecture series; and the announcement of other programs to encourage dialogue and build connections, including two new ones (Conversations for Community and Dinners Across Differences) and the annual MLK Interfaith Commemoration which this year focused on Black–Jewish allyship [“Gazetteer,” this issue].

Finally, in the area of engagement, the work thus far has centered around establishing a student advisory group (12 students were selected, from more than 80 applicants, and began meeting in the spring semester) in addition to building the University Task Force on Antisemitism, which was convened on November 16 and has conducted interviews with a variety of Penn experts and whose members have attended conferences and developed partnerships with national organizations such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

The task force—which, in addition to Wolff, is comprised of seven faculty members, two students, and six staff, alumni, and trustee representatives—meets in person regularly. “They are incredibly dedicated and incredibly caring,” Wolff said. “They care deeply for the University of Pennsylvania and want to see this become a better place for everybody.”

Wolff has also worked closely with members of the Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community, which was convened on December 20. Cochaired by Vijay Kumar and Katharine Strunk—deans of Penn Engineering and the Graduate School of Education, respectively—that commission was formed to “address the interconnectedness of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate, discrimination, and bias on campus” and is “closely connected to the Action Plan to Combat Antisemitism and In Principle and Practice, Penn’s recently announced strategic framework.”

Noting that there are some commonalities between antisemitism and Islamophobia,  Wolff has been pleased to see examples of Jewish and Palestinian faculty and students productively working alongside each other.  “It’s important that people, while they’re expressing their personal feelings, not say something that is so offensive that the person sitting next to them in a laboratory or classroom doesn’t want to be next to them anymore,” Wolff said.

While recognizing the concern that many Jewish students and alumni have felt since October 7, Wolff noted that “we need to be very conscious that the social media picture of what’s happening on campus is not actually what’s happening on campus.” He recounted a story about escorting an alumna down Locust Walk because she was apprehensive about walking alone—and how surprised she was not to see any protests or signs posted along the way. “I said, ‘Well that’s a normal day on campus,’” Wolff recalled, adding that “overall we have a safe campus and we have been able to maintain a safe campus.”

Wolff also praised the University as “legendary” for long fostering a “thriving and large Jewish community” and welcoming Jews when other institutions limited their presence through quotas. The University notes this history on the action plan’s website, touting the graduation in 1772 of Penn’s first Jewish student, Moses Levy, who later became the first Jewish trustee of the University; the establishment of the Jewish Students’ Association at Penn in 1924; and the election of Martin Meyerson Hon’70 as the first Jewish Ivy League president in 1970. Although Jewish student enrollment has declined at Penn (and other Ivies) in recent decades, Wolff mostly chalks that up to Jews having more choices than they once did. “That being said, the task force is going to look to see to it that we have an environment that is safe and supportive of the Jewish community—and all communities.”

On that front, he knows there’s still a lot of work to be done, including daily conversations about “trying to understand how we best thread the needle between being a university that upholds open expression and, at the same time, is respectful of individuals and protects against hate.” As they continue to collect data, Wolff hopes the task force will release additional benchmarks and recommendations to Jameson before the end of the semester and encourages alumni and other Penn community members to share feedback via their dedicated antisemitism-taskforce@upenn.edu account.

Asked what else he would say to concerned alums, Wolff said: “Have faith that your institution is going to help lead the way in the future to a better position of understanding of people and culture—and our university will try to do the right thing at all times.” —DZ

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