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George Washington University’s antisemitism problem

Jewish students must conceal their identity to avoid being "confronted or heckled" on campus.

Georgetown University's main campus. Washington National Cathedral is visible above campus, and the Washington Canoe Club is in the lower right on the Potomac River. Credit: Patrickneil via Wikimedia Commons.
Georgetown University's main campus. Washington National Cathedral is visible above campus, and the Washington Canoe Club is in the lower right on the Potomac River. Credit: Patrickneil via Wikimedia Commons.
A.J. Caschetta
A.J. Caschetta
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow.

George Washington University (GW) has an antisemitism problem. As GW alumnus Avi D. Gordon, executive director of Alums for Campus Fairness, said, his alma mater has long “fostered a hostile environment for Jews.”

Gordon isn’t alone. A recent staff editorial in GW’s student newspaper argued that antisemitism “fit a pattern of discriminatory classroom conduct” at the prestigious university. Things have gotten so bad that, in January, the student association passed an Ending Antisemitism Order, which prompted Mark Wrighton, then-president of GW, to form a “Special Presidential Task Force to Combat Antisemitism.” In March, a sophomore on the task force, Sabrina Soffer, wrote that she has friends who “conceal” anything that identifies them as Jewish so they won’t be “confronted or heckled” on campus.

But GW is under new leadership and last month it terminated its relationship with the anti-Israel Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which bills itself as a “learned society” but acts like a slightly more literate version of every other anti-Israel activist group.

Expelling MESA was a good first step, and it could mark the beginning of the end of GW’s antisemitism problem, but there is more to do. With a new president at the helm, the university is at a crossroads.

GW’s BDS problem

The anti-Israel BDS movement is an accurate gauge of the problem.

In April, the GW student senate passed “The Protection of Palestinian Human Rights Act,” demanding the university divest from companies it claimed contributed to human rights abuses against Palestinians. President Thomas J. LeBlanc’s administration pushed back, but not very hard. It rejected any institutional participation in the BDS movement and mildly condemned it, but it also defended BDSers’ right to express their “academic freedom.” Thus began a pattern of attempting to mollify all parties involved.

In 2020, a BDS-supporting professor named Ilana Feldman was appointed interim dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs. Under then-new GW president Mark Wrighton, the university issued a statement that once again tried to please everyone, denouncing the BDS movement but keeping Feldman in the position as interim dean while excluding her as a candidate for a full-time position.

One of the chief instigators of GW antisemitism is the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the student voice of the BDS movement.

Not only does the GW chapter of SJP have a reputation for bullying Jewish students on campus, but it also claims that the university itself has “a long history of Zionist, anti-Palestinian repression.”

The Lara Sheehi affair

An assistant professor of clinical psychology named Lara Sheehi became notorious in Jan. 2023 when the pro-Israel group StandWithUs filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of Sheehi’s students, alleging that her “diversity” class, required for first-year graduate students in the professional psychology program, was a hostile environment for Jewish students and that she retaliated against two students who complained to the chair and dean.

As before, GW wanted to have it both ways. A spokesman told the Free Beacon that the university “strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred” but “also recognizes and supports academic freedom.”

Behind the scenes, however, things got strange. The faculty voted to discipline the students who complained, but didn’t tell them what their alleged offenses were. Yet it bafflingly required them “to describe what they believed they had done wrong,” according to the Free Beacon. This Kafkaesque presumption of guilt is anathema to due process.

It should have been evident that satisfying everyone would not be an option in the Sheehi affair. Nevertheless, GW tried to do precisely that, announcing in January that it had opened an investigation while turning it over to a third party, the law firm Crowell & Moring LLP.

In March, Wrighton’s office announced that Crowell & Moring had “found no evidence substantiating the allegations of discriminatory and retaliatory conduct,” called the case closed and refused to release the report.

It also felt the need to “strongly denounce the hateful messages and threats directed to Dr. Sheehi and her family” and acknowledge the difficulty of navigating “strongly held views on the extremely complex issues relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict.” Someone should tell GW that there is no country called “Palestine.”

Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights confirms ongoing investigation

Shortly after GW pronounced Sheehi innocent, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened its own investigation. The Office confirmed to me that the “investigation of George Washington University under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964” is ongoing but would not comment on it or give me any indication when it would be concluded. Fall semester begins tomorrow (August 24), and Sheehi’s name does not appear on the list of professional psychology classes offered.

Sheehi publicly defended herself by claiming that her profane, antisemitic Twitter account @blackflaghag, which she deleted, had been subject to “unethical cherry-picking” in order to defame her because she is “an Arab woman … a woman of color and a decolonial scholar of race and oppression.”

She also blamed her students, claiming that they had used, “inappropriate and relentless anti-Arab, Islamophobic and anti-black tropes.” She dismissed charges that she created a hostile environment for Jewish students as part of “a long tradition of fomenting racially motivated hate against Arab scholars (especially Arab women scholars) who are engaged in Palestine solidarity work.” In the words of one critic, “Sheehi’s response boils down to if you criticize me, you are a racist” (emphasis original).

The problem with Sheehi is not her speech, but her conduct. Discriminating against students for their national or religious identity, as she is accused of doing, crosses the line dividing speech and conduct. Because Sheehi equates Zionism with white supremacism, she treats Israeli and Zionist students in ways that she would not dare to treat other students, denying their identity, assigning to them collective guilt and then retaliating when they object.

Like many on the Left, Sheehi denounces her critics as “right-wing trolls,” but one of her critics is Cary Nelson, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former president of the American Association of University Professors, who is no right-wing ideologue. In a devastating thirty-six-page exposé titled “Lara Sheehi’s Joyous Rage: Antisemitic Anti-Zionism, Advocacy Academia and Jewish Students’ Nightmares at GWU,” Nelson documents Sheehi’s pattern of “aggressive and profane tweets” that “overshadow and merge with her teaching.”

Nelson concludes that Sheehi’s tweets “also constitute the hate speech that underlies Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine,” a book she co-wrote with her husband, Steven Sheehi. Together the Sheehis fancy themselves “guerilla scholars” whose “resistance” strategies include both inflammatory rhetoric and physical violence.

In Nov. 2022, the Sheehis traveled to South Africa to speak to the Institute for Social and Health Sciences at the University of South Africa. Starting at the one-hour and five-minute mark in the video of that talk, Steven Sheehi confesses to his “privileged” status as an academic but quickly adds that he also follows the advice he gives others to “live our principles.” He then admits to having committed “bodily harm,” just like those less privileged than he who “engage in armed struggle.” His wife, meanwhile, sits next to him smirking, a sticker on her laptop proclaiming “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

A New Leader

The new President of GW Ellen Granberg will have to determine where antisemitism runs afoul of academic freedom and draw a line between speech and conduct. She could start by firmly and unequivocally denouncing the BDS movement, releasing the Crowell & Moring report on the Sheehi investigation and reminding students and faculty alike that conduct and speech aren’t the same. Most of all, she could assure the Jewish students that under her leadership that GW will solve its antisemitism problem.

Originally published by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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