By: Dion J. Pierre | The Algemeiner | January 12, 2023
A Jewish nonprofit has filed a civil rights complaint against George Washington University (GWU), alleging that it neglected to protect students from a psychology professor accused of a creating a hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students enrolled in a graduate level psychology program.
The complaint alleges that GWU did not intervene when Psychology Professor Lara Sheehi, who teaches a mandatory diversity course, hosted an antisemitic speaker, launched a smear campaign against Jewish students, and filed disciplinary charges against them in retaliation for their accusing her of antisemitism.
“A professor singling out and targeting Jewish and Israeli students for adverse treatment because of their identity is textbook antisemitic, discriminatory conduct,” said Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, an advocacy group which filed the complaint.
In a statement to The Algemeiner, a GWU spokesperson said the university “strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred.”
“We are aware from media reports that an advocacy group recently submitted a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) asserting allegations of discriminatory conduct,” she continued. “They are allegations, and reflect the advocacy group’s perspective. The university will respond to OCR regarding any complaint it may receive from OCR. In the meantime, the university will continue to provide support to students as well as faculty who have shared concerns about recent experiences and work with students and faculty involved to take appropriate actions to address these concerns.”
According to the complaint, Sheehi expressed contempt for Jews on the first day of class, when in August she asked every student to share information about their backgrounds and cultures. Replying to a student who revealed that she is Israeli, Sheehi said, “It’s not your fault you were born in Israel.”
In another incident, Sheehi organized a presentation featuring Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, an academic who has accused Israel of testing weapons on Palestinian children. During the event, Shalhoub-Kevorkian allegedly disparaged Israelis and Jews, claiming, according to the complaint, that “good deeds done by Jews and Israelis are done to mask sinister activity.” Shalhoub-Kevorkian then “lionized” a Palestinian who was an accessory to the stabbing of a 13-year-old Israeli girl.
During the class that followed the event, Jewish students raised concerns with Sheehi about the content of Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s presentation, arguing that it was antisemitic and would not have been allowed had its claims attacked other minority groups. Sheehi then allegedly denied their interpretation of what was said, asserted that anti-Zionism is not antisemitic, and argued that Zionism itself is antisemitic.
The students made several attempts to persuade the university to intervene in the situation or arrange an alternative option for fulfilling the requirements of Sheehi’s course. Each time, StandWithUs alleged, they were told that nothing could be done. Later, the complaint continued, Sheehi began telling faculty in the department that the Jewish and Israeli students were “combative” and racist. In November, she filed disciplinary charges against them, but, the complaint added, the students have never been told what they did to prompt the action.
“She turned the faculty against the Jewish students by spreading lies about us and our conduct, she disparaged us in front of our classmates, calling us Islamophobes,” a student from the course, who elected to speak anonymously for fear additional retaliation, told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. “She smeared our name in a community where success as a therapist really depends on relationships with our faculty supervisors and our colleagues. The disciplinary proceedings effectively silenced us, making it clear that you can’t be a Jew and you can’t speak up about antisemitism safely in this program.”
On Thursday Carly Gammill, StandWithUs director Carly Gammill said George Washington’s failure to act is “unacceptable.”
“Too often when Jewish students raise concerns about antisemitism, they are subjected to gaslighting or false claims meant to cause self-doubt and deflect the bigotry at play,” she continued. “Jewish and Israeli students deserve the same level of respect and consideration as all minority groups when they report cases of bigotry and discrimination.”
StandWithUs is asking the university to drop the disciplinary charges against the students, excuse them from any engagement that would require interaction with Professor Leehi, launch an official investigation of their complaints of antisemitism, institute bias and sensitivity training, and adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
Professor Lara Sheehi has not responded to The Algemeiner’s request for comment on this story.