Opinion

When protecting Jewish students on campus, facts matter

Correcting the record on a professor’s retaliation against Jewish students who dared to complain about her antisemitic conduct.

The entry gate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The entry gate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Carly Gammill
Carly Gammill

It has been widely reported that StandWithUs has filed a complaint with the Department of Education under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 due to George Washington University (GWU)’s failure to protect Jewish students from a pervasively hostile environment and discriminatory retaliation in its Professional Psychology Program.

In response, Prof. Lara Sheehi, the GWU professor whose conduct is at the heart of the complaint, has published an article in which she claims that the purpose of the complaint is to smear her because of her Arab background and her anti-Israel political activism.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The goal here is not to engage in a war of words, but rather to set the record straight in order to prevent the protection of students’ civil rights from being minimized, trivialized or overshadowed by distortion or personal agendas.

Contrary to Prof. Sheehi’s assertions, StandWithUs did not file its Title VI complaint in service of any political conspiracy—right-wing or otherwise. StandWithUs is a non-partisan, nonprofit educational organization whose work is aimed at combating antisemitism when and where it occurs, regardless of the source, and educating people about Israel.

As part of that mission, StandWithUs educates people about antisemitism in its many forms, including those that target the State of Israel with demonization, delegitimization and the application of double standards rather than legitimate criticism.

Nor is the Title VI complaint about whether Prof. Sheehi is permitted to express her hatred of Israel. Prof. Sheehi is entitled to voice her political obsessions and express her “liberatory fire.” The basis of the complaint is Prof. Sheehi’s unlawful antisemitic conduct. That is, her mistreatment of students in her class based on their Jewish and Israeli identities, and her retaliation against them when they complained to university administrators about her discriminatory treatment.

By now, most followers of the situation are familiar with the facts: Jewish and Israeli students were subjected to antisemitic discrimination and harassment by Prof. Sheehi in her mandatory first-year diversity class. She denigrated their Jewish and Israeli identities and gaslit them when they were courageous enough to name the antisemitism they were experiencing.

When the students raised concerns with administrators and asked for an alternate way to satisfy the diversity requirement, Prof. Sheehi began retaliating against them: She permitted their classmates to disparage their identities—ironically, in a course allegedly focused on learning to empathize with and understand different identities—slandered the Jewish students’ reputations to other faculty within the department and launched baseless disciplinary proceedings against the students.

Unfortunately, even after the filing of the Title VI complaint, rather than acknowledge the seriousness of the students’ concerns, Prof. Sheehi has published an article riddled with distortions, misrepresentations and outright falsehoods about the allegations in the complaint.

For example, while Prof. Sheehi takes umbrage at the publication of her remark to an Israeli student on the first day of class that the student is not at “fault” for being born in Israel, she does not deny that she made the statement, which blatantly shamed a student’s national identity.

Prof. Sheehi also confirms that she organized and hosted the brown bag lecture described in the complaint and that its focus was exclusively on Israel. She does not deny that the lecturer disparaged the humanitarian efforts of Israelis and Jews. Rather, she doubles down on the speaker’s slanderous message that humanitarian efforts by Israel are not philanthropic but merely a manipulative “means of developing soft power.”

Professor Sheehi’s blatant falsehoods about what occurred in the class sessions at issue are numerous. Among the most egregious of these is her claim that one or more of the Jewish students called the brown bag speaker a “terrorist.” This never happened. The Jewish students also never claimed that Palestinian children are “terrorists-in-the-making.” Nor did they yell at or berate the professor.

Instead, the students spoke consistently in moderate tones as they sought to identify the antisemitism they were experiencing. They never disparaged members of any racial or ethnic group. None of them ever disrupted class, but rather shared their perspectives in response to the professor’s repeated request to take the “pulse” of the class. None of them ever claimed that mere criticism of Israel is in itself antisemitic. Sheehi’s assertions to the contrary are simply false.

Prof. Sheehi’s response also includes numerous distortions and misrepresentations about Jewish identity and her treatment of her Jewish students. She says she “categorically agree[s] that antisemitism is undeniably real.” In truth, however, she only recognizes some antisemitism as real. She denies that any targeting of the Jewish State of Israel could ever be antisemitic or that the antisemitism described by her Jewish students is valid.

When other students described uncomfortable situations concerning their identities, Professor Sheehi validated their definition of oppression against their identity groups with compassion and understanding. When Jewish students did the same regarding their identity, she told them to “lean in” and sit with the discomfort.

Finally, Prof. Sheehi claims that the remediation process to which she subjected her Jewish students is “non-punitive.” The timing of her initiation of this process—just after the Jewish students took their concerns about antisemitism in her class to university administrators—calls that claim into serious question.

More importantly, the substance of the process demonstrates its punitive nature. The students placed on remediation were put to an impossible test. To successfully complete the remediation, they were required to admit to conduct in which they had not engaged. Failure to admit wrongdoing would result in probation—a status that comes with a permanent black mark on one’s academic record.

There was no way for the students to tell the truth—that they were being punished for having complained to administrators about the antisemitism they were experiencing—without suffering further punishment. For graduate students, the repercussions of such proceedings extend far beyond their transcript and into potentially negative prospects for their future careers.

Lest any confusion remains, let this be crystal clear: StandWithUs’ Title VI complaint is not about Prof. Sheehi’s politics, speech, hatred for Israel or Arab identity. It is about her discriminatory and retaliatory misconduct towards her Jewish and Israeli students, the failure of the GWU administration to take appropriate corrective action and, therefore, the need for the Department of Education to step in to investigate and remedy the resulting hostile climate of antisemitism.

The ability of all students to enjoy the full and equal benefits of federally funded educational programs is paramount, and that is the issue that must remain the focus here. We trust that those investigating this matter will see through any smokescreens that seek to minimize or distort the allegations in the complaint and take appropriate steps to protect the Jewish students in GWU’s Professional Psychology Program.

Carly Gammill is the founding director of the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism.

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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