By: Rena Nasar First | Distinctions Journal
SUMMER 2023 — ANTISEMITISM
‘Robust debate’ or Jewish hate? An uproar at George Washington University puts Jewish and Israeli students on the defensive — and their advocate, a Syrian Jew, on offense.
In the 2022 Fall semester, Jewish and Israeli graduate students enrolled in the Professional Psychology Program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., found themselves subjected to targeted and persistent antisemitism in the classroom — all led by their professor. Lara Sheehi, who teaches a mandatory course on diversity and identity awareness, repeatedly directed disparaging remarks toward Jewish and Israeli students in her class solely because of their identities.
On the first day of class, all students were invited to introduce themselves and share their background. When a Jewish student shared that she was born in Israel, Sheehi responded: “It’s not your fault you were born in Israel.”
In another instance, Professor Sheehi invited a guest lecturer who invoked age-old antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories, like accusing Israelis of testing weapon systems on Palestinian children, and claiming that Jews and Israelis do good deeds to distract from their sinister activity. The lecturer also expressed support for violence against Israeli civilians. One can only imagine the visceral reaction from those in the room who are Israeli, have family in Israel or identify their ancestral connection to Israel as a key part of who they are.
I have heard many equate the campus environment to a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where students are stuck in a constant state of tension and division. ”
The speaker also continually referenced “white Israeli racism” in her presentation, ignoring that the majority of Israel’s population are Jews of North African or Middle Eastern descent and are not “white.”
The lecture triggered tremendous anxiety for Jewish and Israeli students in the class. They sought refuge in each other as they discussed the alienation they were experiencing and how to convey to the teacher and the class why they felt targeted, vulnerable and unsafe.
Upon sharing these heartfelt sentiments with their classmates, these brave students were dismissed by Professor Sheehi, who aggressively denied the antisemitic nature of the incidents and even distorted some of their comments to accuse the Jewish students of attacking other identity groups. A response from the university’s Arts and Sciences Office acknowledged the concerns surrounding the lecture but emphasized that as “an institution of higher learning, we encourage robust debate on issues that impact our global society.”
It seems the university administration totally missed the point.
When the Jewish students brought their complaints to the administration, Professor Sheehi retaliated by tainting their reputations among other faculty and subjecting them to baseless disciplinary proceedings. The university neglected to protect these students and instead enabled the retaliatory punitive proceedings to proceed, without any investigation into their merit.
StandWithUs, the organization for which I work, is committed to combating antisemitism and supporting Israel. We intervened on behalf of these students and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Using a firm it procured and hired, George Washington conducted its own internal investigation into the allegations and claimed the findings exonerated the university.
StandWithUs understands it differently, however. These already vulnerable students were being gaslit by their own university, simply for taking a stand against antisemitism. After sharing their repeated experiences with discrimination and bias in the classroom on behalf of themselves and others, they were re-victimized.
These events at George Washington reflect a larger pattern of increasing antisemitism on college campuses and a severe lack of accountability from university leaders. I have worked at StandWithUs for almost 10 years now — starting in the field by supporting students on campuses in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and now overseeing our campus activity and outreach on an international scale — and I have seen iterations of antisemitism across the country and the world. StandWithUs exists to combat these challenges, amplifying the voices of those affected by antisemitism, demanding action and driving meaningful change. Considering that misinformation about Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people is so pervasive and often triggers antisemitism, StandWithUs remains vigilant about educating people of all backgrounds so that they have a deep, nuanced understanding of Israel.
As a Syrian Jew working in this space, I also make it a point to share my experiences with antisemitism on campus — like when it came from my Arabic language professor — and my personal connection to Israel through my family’s history in order to emphasize the importance of inclusivity. I’ve been educating about Israel and standing against antisemitism since I was in high school. As I went through college and entered the professional world, however, I noticed fewer Mizrahi voices or perspectives represented, which made me even more vocal. My realization over time was that this gap wasn’t just in the Israel activism space, but also in the distorted narratives perpetuated by the anti-Israel movement.
The anti-Israel movement as a whole has long perplexed the Jewish community, along with larger manifestations of antisemitism on campus. In my experience, when discussing the current state of college campuses for Jewish students, the conversation often is dominated by the alarming rise in antisemitic activity, and rightfully so. A recent Anti-Defamation League study of Jewish college students found that 1 in 3 have experienced antisemitism, with around 80% of those students encountering more than one incident. I have heard many equate the campus environment to a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where students are stuck in a constant state of tension and division. These are sobering facts for parents as they prepare their children for the rite of passage of going to college while heeding the warnings that university can be a challenging and sometimes marginalizing place for Jewish students.
Manifestations of antisemitism on college campuses can be analyzed in a petri dish, each one having its own origins or catalyst. We often see what can be categorized as classic antisemitism — swastikas and hate symbols spotted around campus, Holocaust trivialization or denial, academic conflicts with Jewish holidays, targeting and/or vandalism of Jewish dorms or communal spaces, and more.
But on campus, we also see manifestations of contemporary antisemitism, which through anti-Zionist rhetoric and activity seeks to demonize Israel and Israelis, delegitimize indigenous Jewish connections to the land of Israel and the right to self-determination, and hold Israel to a severe double standard not expected of any other country. On campus, anti-Zionism presents itself as harmful and destructive campaigns like Israel Apartheid Week, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions or petitions, Jewish and Israeli conspiracy theories, severe bias in the classroom, and other overt ways.
Within the campus microcosm, Jewish students feel targeted by these campaigns and negative incidents and often face social ostracization, disruptions or protests at Israel events, and even adopted policies of anti-normalization. These students are effectively shut out of campus life, sometimes even physically. I hear too many first-hand anecdotes where Jewish students have been disinvited or barred from women’s marches, LGBTQ+ rallies, protests about climate change, and other progressive spaces where they wish to participate. Just a few years ago, around 50 campus clubs at New York University signed onto a statement pledging not to collaborate with pro-Israel (read: Jewish) student clubs on campus. A similar scenario played out this past fall at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, where nine student clubs adopted a bylaw to bar pro-Zionist speakers. These clubs failed to recognize their actions to boycott Zionists, with Israel being a core component of identity for a majority of Jews, were antisemitic.
Many Jewish college students, not wanting to risk confrontation or their grades, painfully ignore bias or discrimination that occurs in the classroom or on campus. As such, they face a crossroads: Either curtail the expression of their identity (or, at worst, abandon it altogether), or be openly themselves and face the social and academic consequences. To compound this further, the students who call out very real incidents of antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not always guaranteed a proper resolution. While some school administrations have acted swiftly and effectively to support their Jewish communities, many others have failed to respond with a sense of urgency.
A deep gap pervades campuses in how administrators, stakeholders and leaders understand issues relating to Israel and Zionism. Many incorrectly chalk up harmful and inciting rhetoric to political debate or disagreement, and stand on ceremony that interfering in these “conversations” would squash the exchange of free ideas. They must recognize, however, that manifestations of antisemitism or anti-Zionism are an ever-present attack on our students’ identities and the free expression of those identities — an attack on their undeniable lived and inherited experiences. We often are burdened to explain this ourselves in too many spaces to count.
Beyond ignorance and inaction, there is sometimes retaliation, like at George Washington, where we assert Professor Sheehi escalated from antisemitic hate speech to antisemitic conduct — from harmful words to direct action. StandWithUs is supporting these students in their fight for a just outcome, and we are glad to say that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has opened a full investigation into our Title VI complaint. We are currently awaiting their findings and have since provided supplemental information based on the ongoing case.
Throughout the first few months of 2023 alone, we have seen a tremendous uptick in campus incidents and antisemitic expressions. It is undeniable that students are facing a calculated, well-funded campaign with the goal of demonizing Israel in the eyes of future leaders and disgracing the positions of those who care about the self-determination of the Jewish people and security of Israel. Having worked in the Israel education space professionally for more than eight years, I often get asked the same questions: How do we discredit the influence of anti-Israel activism? How can we put a stop to all of the ignorance and bigotry? How do we get others to care?
We should ask ourselves: Have we done our best to educate our campuses about the Jewish community in all its facets? ”
And here is where we have an opportunity for a call to action: What if we have had the answer all along?
The anti-Israel movement’s messaging centers around whitewashing Jewish and Israeli history. Some of the movement’s repeated tropes include accusing Israel and Israelis of being white European colonizers, or categorizing Israel as a guilt-ridden gift for the Jewish people after the atrocities of the Holocaust, which in effect denies and delegitimizes Jewish indigenous presence in the land and region for over 3,000 years.
Apart from the blatant inaccuracies, the claims also reflect a deep ignorance of the holistic Jewish experience. They completely exclude Mizrahi and Sephardic communities and their very raw, very recent histories in the region. In the 1940s, approximately one million Jews lived in Arab-Muslim lands. Before and after Israel declared independence in 1948, countries across the Middle East became increasingly hostile to their Jewish habitants. As a result of discrimination, violence, expulsion, dispossession, and fear, 850,000 Mizrahi Jews urgently fled their homes and became refugees, forced to leave everything behind. Often regarded as the “forgotten refugees,” about 650,000 settled in refugee camps in Israel and the remaining 200,000 headed West to the United States and elsewhere.
Politics, media, pop culture, academia, and even mainstream Jewish institutions and communal leadership too often exclude the Mizrahi refugee experience. The Jewish community, in Israel and abroad, has its own history of marginalizing Mizrahi voices and prioritizing education about the Central and Eastern European Jewish experience.
On college campuses, it can feel like everyone from students to faculty, dorm room advisors to upper-level administrators, has an opinion or stance on Israel — its population, borders, societal structure, security — and its conflict with the Palestinians. These opinions or positions are often laden with ignorance, misinformation or inherent bias. Classrooms, dorm rooms and Instagram stories are often littered with pervasive misinformation and quippy, repeated sound bites. When we see antisemitism as a result of this bigotry, we often ask aloud: Where’s the outcry? Why are other communities not responding to our call for solidarity? And again, how do we get others to care?
When anti-Israel voices dilute Israelis (and Jews) to just the Central and Eastern European experience (albeit with their own spin), they effectively erase the pivotal histories of other Jewish communities. The easiest way to counter these arguments is to tell our story — all of our stories. Of course, we must be cautious not to tokenize — the stories of Mizrahi Jews aren’t talking points to win an argument. What we should be doing is emphasizing representation, cultural exchange and community-building across Jewish students of all backgrounds.
We should ask ourselves: Have we done our best to educate our campuses about the Jewish community in all its facets? Did we offer opportunities to learn from diverse perspectives and experiences, like our Mizrahi students? Have we celebrated Mizrahi culture and customs through Mimouna, Mizrahi Heritage Month?
We expect the larger campus community to speak out against the spread of misinformation, to both understand and recognize the significance of Israel, Zionism and the diversity of the Jewish community. But how can we expect others to accurately understand the diverse and dynamic nature of the Jewish experience and Israeli community, and to amplify those facts, if we aren’t highlighting it ourselves? Jewish and Israel education cannot be confined to just the events that led to the Holocaust and its aftermath, but also the traumas that came from the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond — not just in the contributions from Central and Eastern European communities, but also the societies and rich cultures that Mizrahi Jews shaped in their countries and brought to Israel when they emigrated.
To authentically represent ourselves on campus, it is imperative that we amplify diverse Jewish voices. This is critical in the fight against antisemitism and misinformation, as Mizrahi stories tell the history that often is omitted from the Arab-Israeli narrative.
If incidents like the one at George Washington University have taught us anything, it’s that we have a grave responsibility to define ourselves, our identities and our histories before others do that for us. This must be a united effort that reflects the vibrant diversity of the Jewish people, because anything less is simply not enough. We are blessed to live at a time where the organizations and resources that focus on Mizrahi experiences, perspectives and voices abound and are flourishing every single day. But it starts first with us making space for all.
Rena Nasar First is the executive director of campus affairs at StandWithUs, where she directs the organization's campus outreach activities and leadership programs on an international scale. As a proud Syrian Jew, she represents her community wherever she goes. She resides in New York with her husband, Jason.
Opinions expressed by the authors contributing to Distinctions journal reflect the views of the individual writer and not necessarily those of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.