Letter to the Editor: Hillel-Shalom clarifies misunderstanding around Convocation speech controversy

The Editors

Dear Whitman Community,

We are writing because we believe there has been a misunderstanding with regard to the faculty address at convocation this year.

Our concern about Professor Elyse Semerdjian’s speech was not due solely to its content. We recognize that conversation regarding Israel/Palestine and other conflicts is important both in and out of the academic setting at Whitman. We were primarily concerned with the forum granted to the speech. This concern is twofold. First, attendance at convocation is required of first-year students. It serves as a pivotal event during orientation for this reason. It is our opinion that a one-sided lecture on an emotionally and politically charged and complex topic, such as the conflict in Israel and Palestine, without the presence of a contrasting opinion, any chance for Q&A, or open discussion, is inappropriate at an event required for all first-year students. Our second concern stems from our understanding that Convocation should serve as a “welcome to Whitman” event. The choice to feature a talk that was so divisive was not welcoming to everyone. It left some Jewish students feeling alienated, unsupported and singled out.

We would also like to clarify that we did not initiate Hillel’s involvement in the creation of principles for future convocation speakers and we are not following through on President George Bridges’ offer. Furthermore, and as we understood the President’s proposal, the goal of these non-binding, advisory principles was never to censor or infringe upon academic freedom.

Finally, members of Hillel Shalom, and Jews in general, voice a wide range of differing views and opinions. We hope this letter provides insight into the critique we bring to this year’s convocation speech. We bear no ill will toward Professor Elyse Semerdjian or her opinion. Academic freedom and meaningful dialogue are aspects of our time at Whitman upon which we place an unsurpassed value.

Please feel free to contact the signatories below. We are always open to meaningful dialogue, differences of opinion and shared efforts toward mutual understanding.

Sincerely,

Eliana Schwartz, Sabra Jaffe, Asher Jaffe, Hannah Snyder, Deborah DeHovitz, and Lauren Rekhelman