StandWithUs, an international nonprofit organization providing education about Israel and combating antisemitism, last January submitted a Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 complaint to the US Department of Education’s civil rights office, based on antisemitic discrimination and retaliation experienced by first-year Jewish and Israeli students in the Professional Psychology Program at George Washington University. The complaint alleges that GWU had failed to protect Jewish students from a hostile environment, and retaliated against the students by instituting disciplinary proceedings against them after they complained to university administrators about the discrimination they faced.
Earlier this month, the subject of the complaint, Lebanese-born Dr. Lara Sheehi, who lectures on diversity, accused GWU of colluding with StandWithUs to smear her good name.
During the Fall 2022 semester, Jewish and Israeli students in the Program’s mandatory diversity course were singled out for repeated and persistent harassment when their Jewish and Israeli identities were disparaged by faculty and peers, according to the complaint.
“Jewish students at George Washington, or 20 percent of the cohort, first tried to address the antisemitism they were experiencing with Dr. Lara Sheehi, who teaches the mandatory diversity course. Dr. Sheehi responded by denying that the students had experienced antisemitism, and by distorting their comments to accuse the Jewish students of attacking other identity groups. Dr. Sheehi did not treat members of any other identity group in this fashion. Only Jewish students were deprived of the opportunity to define their own identity and describe how discrimination based on that identity manifests. In a class designed to educate future therapists about different identities and sensitize the students to bias experienced by those identities, Dr. Sheehi singled out the Jewish students and deprived only them of an opportunity she afforded all other students — defining their own identity and what it means to experience discrimination based on that identity. In this way, Dr. Sheehi engaged in ‘erasive antisemitism,’ a form of antisemitism that denies the uniqueness of Jewish identity and erases Jewish history and the Jews’ lived experience. Not surprisingly, other students in the class quickly followed the professor’s lead and began disparaging and denying Jewish identity in a similar discriminatory fashion.”
Sheehi responded in CounterPunch, a left-wing online magazine, saying, “As an Arab woman professor teaching in the United States, I am accustomed to demands to prove that I am not antisemitic as a precondition to engaging relationally. Similarly, as someone who has been involved in the abolitionist and anti-oppressive movements in the field of psychology for years, I immediately recognized that I was the next target of choice. In recent years, right-wing advocacy groups have intensified their harassment, red-baiting, and attack campaigns, vilifying academics (and clinicians) who critically engage settler-colonialism, white supremacy, anti-blackness, gender (especially trans issues), sexuality, disability, reproductive rights.”
Sheehi argued: “I have been targeted specifically because I am an Arab woman whose scholarship and activism advocates for Palestinians and, in the process, critiques Israeli settler-colonial Apartheid. Because I am an Arab, StandWithUs can casually parse key information to create an inflammatory narrative in place of facts, relying on anti-Arab prejudice which remains robust in the United States.”
“I have been targeted specifically because I am an Arab woman whose scholarship and activism advocates for Palestinians and, in the process, critiques Israeli settler-colonial Apartheid,” said Dr. Lara Sheehi, who is being accused by pro-Israel groups of promoting anti-Semitism. pic.twitter.com/yyvizh6vnK
— PALESTINE ONLINE ?? (@OnlinePalEng) February 7, 2023
She noted: “GW has now colluded with StandWithUs’ misrepresentation of my classroom by being silent about a number of key issues of which they are well aware and about which they have supporting documentation that could have been used to publicly dispel these allegations.”
The StandWithUs complaint quoted Sheehi telling an Israeli student on the first day of class, “It’s not your fault you were born in Israel.” It also says Jewish students felt targeted by Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian from Hebrew University who was a guest speaker in Sheehi’s class, who advocated throwing stones at Israelis as a form of resistance. When students complained, Sheehi accused them of Islamophobia.
GWU President Mark Wrighton said the school is opening an investigation, conducted by a third party, of “claims of discrimination and retaliation against unnamed students in a GW course,” and a GWU spokesperson insisted the school “strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred,” but “also recognizes and supports academic freedom.”
Good to know.