By: Aaron Bandler | Jewish Journal | January 12, 2023
On August 29, 2022, the first day of class, Sheehi asked each student to share their identity and she validated each of them, until one Jewish student said they were Israeli.
The pro-Israel education group StandWithUs filed a complaint to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against George Washington University (GWU) on January 11. The complaint, which was obtained by the Journal, alleged that the university violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for failing to take action against a professor accused of targeting Jewish Israeli students in the university’s Professional Psychological Program.
The complaint centers on mandatory diversity classes held by Dr. Lara Sheehi, an assistant professor of psychology at GWU. On August 29, 2022, the first day of class, Sheehi asked each student to share their identity and she validated each of them, until one Jewish student said they were Israeli. Sheehi responded by telling the student it wasn’t their fault “they were born in Israel,” meaning that the student should be “ashamed” of her Israeli identity, the complaint stated.
About a month later, Sheehi encouraged students to go to her Brown Bag Lecture scheduled in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The lecture featured guest speaker Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian saying “that good deeds done by Jews and Israelis are done to mask sinister activity,” per the complaint. “Invoking age-old antisemitic tropes about Jews using money for nefarious purposes, Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian claimed that humanitarian and philanthropic efforts by Jews and Israelis must be seen as suspect,” the complaint stated. “She denigrated Israel’s disaster relief work around the world, and stated that Israel “use[s] tikkun olam [the Jewish value of bettering the world] to camouflage [Israel’s] oppressive power.” Additionally, Shalhoub-Kevorkian suggested that the recourse to “white Israeli racism” is “violent resistance,” including stone-throwing. She also hailed an imprisoned Palestinian teenager who, along with his cousin, stabbed two Israelis, one of whom was a 13-year-old Jewish teen in 2015; both of the victims survived.
“Jewish students in the first-year diversity course reported that during the weekend following this lecture they were unable to eat or sleep due to anxiety,” the complaint stated. “They spoke among themselves about the pain and alienation they were experiencing and grappled with how to convey to the teacher and the class the way in which they felt targeted by the program based on their Jewish ancestral and ethnic and Israeli identities.”
The students did share their concerns with Sheehi during class the following Monday, telling her, and the entire class, that Shalhoub-Kevorikian’s lecture made them feel “unsafe” and seemed like “an excuse to bash Jews.” One of the students asked the class to think about what it must be like “to go out to a bar on a Friday night in Tel Aviv when there is suddenly a terrorist attack with people shooting” to understand day-to-day life in Israel. Sheehi’s response was to claim that the student’s use of the term “terrorist attack” was Islamophobic and that it was impossible “to separate the student’s identity from the political.” Furthermore, not only did Sheehi reject their claims that the lecture was antisemitic, but also she said it was “beneficial” for the students to feel targeted during the lecture and that they should “lean into” that feeling as part of how the class aims to disrupt. She was also adamant that the viewpoint that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism is simply a fact.
“At no point did Professor Sheehi validate any of the students’ experiences, even though each student prefaced her remark by describing how vulnerable, upset, and anxious she felt,” the complaint stated. “Instead, Professor Sheehi denied that what the students had experienced was antisemitism, aggressively rebutted every point the students raised, accused two of the students of engaging in Islamophobic rhetoric, and implied that the students who were complaining about antisemitism were themselves racist and antisemitic. Professor Sheehi never denied or dismissed the concerns of any other identity group in the class, much less in such an aggressive fashion. Professor Sheehi did not subject members of any other identity group to such public vilification. During the course of the semester, she never invited any other speaker or encouraged student attendance at any other program focusing solely on one national or ethnic group, as she had invited attendance at the September 30 program which disparaged Israelis and Jews.”
The students proceeded to take their concerns to university administrators, telling one unnamed official (referred to in the complaint simply as “Dr. [REDACTED]” in the Department of Professional Psychology that based on what they experienced, they did not feel comfortable sharing their Jewish Zionist identities in Sheehi’s class and were afraid of retaliation for coming forward to the official. At first, Dr. [REDACTED] seemed to be sympathetic to the students, calling Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s lecture disconcerting and that the lecture shouldn’t have been scheduled during the High Holidays; additionally, Dr. [REDACTED] said the department would bring in a brown bag speaker to talk about antisemitism and he would personally sit in on her classes to see what went on in the classroom.
But 10 days later, Dr. [REDACTED] changed his tune, telling the students that he met with Sheehi and she denies being antisemitic or in any way excusing antisemitism and the department wouldn’t be able to do much to help the students. He also backtracked on his prior statements, saying that the department would not be bringing a speaker to campus to discuss antisemitism and he would not be personally observing her classes. “They took her words wholesale to heart,” a student told the Journal, saying that the university “believed her without thinking, ‘Well a bunch of students just claimed that this professor is antisemitic.’ Instead they just let what she said stand, and that was the end of that.”
Additionally, the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office sent out a communitywide email on October 22 addressing the matter and framed it as a “political debate,” per the complaint, and encouraged community members to share their thoughts on the matter. The college would also consider bringing an outside expert to foster discussion on the issue. One Jewish student met with a college dean to discuss the issue, saying that they were warned by students who had previously taken her classes that antisemitism is prevalent in the course and that they were better off hiding their Jewish identity. But the dean was unmoved, rejecting their claims of experiencing antisemitism and told her in a subsequent email that if she withdrew from the course, she would still have to take it in a later semester and there was no guarantee she would have a different teacher.
The complaint proceeds to allege that Sheehi began taking retaliatory measures against the students who reported her to the college, stating that she began to spread false claims about the students to other faculty members “as pretext to justify initiating disciplinary proceedings against the students.” “Upon information and belief, the fabricated justifications for subjecting the students to disciplinary action have continuously and repeatedly changed,” the complaint stated. “The students have been informed that the faculty voted to initiate disciplinary proceedings against them, but to date, neither the students nor their faculty advisors have been told what the students did to warrant the disciplinary action. Rather than provide the students with a statement of their offense, faculty have instead asked the students to describe to the faculty what they did wrong and what harm they caused.” And if they don’t admit to wrongdoing, they will face “further disciplinary action” and their academic records will be stained with “a permanent disciplinary notation.” The complaint does not detail what these disciplinary measures are; one student told the Journal that she didn’t want to provide any specifics of the measures out of respect for the privacy of the students involved, but such measures require “the vote of the faculty.” The student called the retaliatory measures a “silencing tactic to guarantee that nobody speaks up about the antisemitism again.”
When a student told Dr. [REDACTED] about the retaliatory actions, he simply told the student that it was too early in the disciplinary process to appeal it.
Sheehi’s alleged retaliatory actions also took place in the classroom, as the complaint details an accusation that Sheehi excoriated a Jewish student’s final paper discussing whether or not Jews are white as having “lack of empathy and misattunement” despite the student running the paper before a faculty advisor before submitting it. Additionally, the student had received clearance from Sheehi to write about the topic beforehand.
The complaint also mentions an incident on October 31, when Jewish students raised concerns to the class about some of the essays they were required to read. This included an essay that Sheehi wrote describing a Lebanese woman patient telling a “non-Zionist” Jewish psychoanalyst that she has a “violent dream” about her committing “terrorism” and then the analyst discusses how to deal with the “terrorist” in the patient. Sheehi writes in the essay that the analyst’s use of the word “terrorist” is reflective of an “anti-Muslim and anti-Arab ideology.” When Jewish students said during class essays like this were antisemitic, Sheehi “silenced” them and “refused to discuss their concerns,” the complaint stated. Additionally, the complaint alleged that a student then accused the Jewish students of having “white fragility” and called on them to leave. “Professor Sheehi said nothing to support or defend the Jewish students, instead offering them the option simply to leave the class,” the complaint stated. “At that point, the Jewish students who had spoken up felt compelled to leave the classroom.”
Outside facilitators didn’t seem to help, as the complaint mentions how a “restorative circle” was held on November 18, but the facilitators told two of the Jewish students not to attend. But the facilitators didn’t initially communicate that to the rest of the class, resulting in students lambasting the absent Jewish students as being “racist” and having “white fragility,” though the Jewish students that were there did get the facilitators to acknowledge that they asked the two students not to come. Even still, the antisemitism these students experienced was not addressed and was “exacerbated” by the circle, the complaint stated.
By failing to take action against Sheehi and engaging in disciplinary measures that are retaliatory, GWU has violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the complaint argued, calling for the university to end the disciplinary measures against the students, provide a different option than Sheehi’s class, fully investigate the students’ claims against Sheehi and adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition against antisemitism.
“It’s been a really bad year for Jews at GW,” a student told the Journal. “It’s clear that events like the one in my class are related to the string of horrific antisemitic incidents at GW: desecration of a Torah scroll, folks chanting [and] promoting the intifada, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you teach students in class that Jews are powerful, that we’re racist white supremacists, that you should silence our allegations of antisemitism, then of course students will be emboldened to take action against us and that’s exactly what happened.”
The student added that she is “actively pursuing other alternatives as I see how this plays out.” “This has had a very real impact on myself and the other students,” she said. “More than one of us has had to go on antidepressants as a result of this. I had to pause my part-time job, couldn’t keep food down, couldn’t sleep because this is really an assault on my identity in a class that’s supposed to be about accepting identity. It’s been impossible to show up every day when I know my classmates and faculty have been turned against me by my professor. It’s had a real physical and psychological impact.”
“The hostile environment at the George Washington Professional Psychology Program and the failure of the administration to act to correct it are unacceptable,” Carly Gammill, founding director of the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism. “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. Jewish and Israeli students deserve the same level of respect and consideration as all other minority groups when they report cases of bigotry and discrimination.”
A university spokesperson said in a statement to the Journal, “George Washington University strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred, discrimination and bias in all forms, and we are committed to fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment where all feel safe and free of harassment, hostility or marginalization. Resources, avenues for support and complaint mechanisms are available through the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement; Division for Student Affairs; Faculty Affairs and Employee Relations. The university also recognizes and supports academic freedom, and the right of all members of our community to speak out on issues of public concern, understanding that they are not speaking on behalf of the university.”
The spokesperson added that they are aware of the allegations in the OCR complaint and that it reflects “the advocacy group’s perspective.” “The university will respond to OCR regarding any complaint it may receive from OCR,” the spokesperson said. “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.”
Sheehi did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment.