The Israel education organization StandWithUs has filed a complaint against George Washington University with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The complaint alleges “a pervasive, hostile, and discriminatory environment for Jewish and Israeli students within the Professional Psychology Program” at the university in the U.S. capital, the NGO announced on Thursday.

The complaint says Prof. Lara Sheehi, a facilitator of the program’s mandatory diversity course, targeted Jewish and Israeli students in a pattern of persistent, discriminatory and retaliatory acts. It alleges that this denies students, on the basis of their identities, the right to equal educational opportunity and treatment.

“A professor singling out and targeting Jewish and Israeli students for adverse treatment because of their identity is textbook antisemitic discriminatory conduct,” said StandWithUs CEO and co-founder Roz Rothstein.

SWU alleges that during the Fall 2022 semester, Sheehi repeatedly targeted Jewish and Israeli students in the program’s diversity course by disparaging and attacking their identities and encouraging others in the program to do the same. In one particular instance, Sheehi invited and supported a guest lecturer who invoked age-old antisemitic tropes about Jews being dishonest and using their influence for nefarious purposes. The lecturer also expressed support for violence against Israeli civilians.

When the students raised concerns about the antisemitic harassment they were experiencing, Sheehi denied that what the students experienced was antisemitism and accused the Jewish students of attacking other identity groups. StandWithUs says that Sheehi only treated Jewish and Israeli students in a discriminatory manner, depriving them of the opportunity to define their own identity.

Retaliation against Jewish students

Sheehi later retaliated against the Jewish students when they brought her disparaging and differential treatment to the attention of university administrations, by targeting the most vocal students among them and slandering their reputations to other faculty members in the department. Sheehi also subjected the students to baseless disciplinary proceedings, while the university took no steps to protect the students and their reputations from retaliation by the professor.

StandWithUs says that the university enabled the retaliatory punitive proceedings to proceed without any investigation into their merit.

“George Washington University has failed to provide adequate protection for the Jewish and Israeli students seeking redress from Professor Sheehi’s persistent antisemitic bigotry in and out of the classroom,” said Yael Lerman, founding director of the SWU Legal Department. “Instead, George Washington administrators disregarded the students’ allegations and enabled a professor to retaliate against those students after they sought the administration’s help in fighting discrimination.

“In doing so, the university has violated its obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and indicated that it permits institutionalized antisemitism against its Jewish and Israeli students,” Lerman said.

The StandWithUs complaint outlines the following measures the university should undertake to remedy this situation: 

  1. Reverse all punitive and retaliatory measures taken against the Jewish students who expressed concern about a hostile education.
  2. Offer those students an alternative professor or accommodation to fulfill program requirements that take them out of Sheehi’s orbit and influence.
  3. Open a full and immediate investigation into all student complaints about antisemitism by Sheehi and take all appropriate remedial action.
  4. Institute mandatory bias and sensitivity training for all students, faculty and staff in the program.
  5. Adopt the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism and require that members of the program utilize it when evaluating claims of antisemitism both in and out of the classroom.

“The hostile environment at the George Washington Professional Psychology Program and the failure of the administration to act to correct it are unacceptable,” said 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,” Gammill said.

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