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OCR opens investigation into SWU’s Title VI complaint against George Washington University

Among other things, it will include consideration of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which recognizes the variety of forms that antisemitism can take.

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.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) informed StandWithUs on April 4 that it is opening a full investigation into a Title VI complaint alleging antisemitic discrimination and retaliation against Jewish and Israeli students at George Washington University.

StandWithUs filed its Title VI complaint with OCR on Jan. 12, detailing a hostile and retaliatory antisemitic environment within a mandatory psychology course at GW.

As explained in the complaint, Jewish and Israeli students in Professor Lara Sheehi’s compulsory graduate course, which specifically focused on diversity and exploring the students’ identities in an effort to improve their skills as clinical psychologists, had their Jewish identities repeatedly denigrated and belittled, including in front of their peers. They were effectively silenced when they attempted to address these issues within the class context, and when they raised their concerns about antisemitic discrimination with GW administrators, the administration then subjected the impacted students to retaliatory disciplinary proceedings initiated by Sheehi.

Rather than providing any support to these students, including investigating their concerns, GW abandoned them, forcing them back into the hostile environment with the professor and turning the situation on its head, insisting that by complaining about antisemitism, the Jewish students themselves were somehow academically deficient.

After StandWithUs filed its complaint with OCR, alleging violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, GW decided to look into the matter, hiring investigators from a law firm specializing in defending institutions against civil-rights complaints. Unsurprisingly, the published “findings” of this investigation purported to exonerate GW and the professor, concluding that no antisemitism occurred. (GW refuses to release the report itself.)

Fortunately for the impacted students, GW’s investigation and “findings” had no bearing on OCR’s jurisdiction to undertake its own investigation of the matter. Importantly, that investigation will, among other things, include consideration of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which recognizes the variety of forms that contemporary antisemitism can take.

“We thank OCR for opening a full investigation into our complaint against GW and sending the clear message that whatever the bounds of academic freedom may be, they do not extend to professors mistreating and retaliating against students based on their Jewish and Israeli identities under the guise of political expression,” said Yael Lerman, director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department.

Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, said that “while professors may enjoy the right to spew wrongheaded and even hateful ideologies in some circumstances, they do not have the right to subject students to discriminatory conduct based on those views. University administrators have an affirmative obligation to respond adequately when students report allegations of such misconduct. We are pleased that OCR has recognized the need to investigate these allegations in a thorough and unbiased manner.”

“GW has been plagued by antisemitic incidents because it has only paid lip service to the need for a remedy,” said Carly Gammill, director of the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism. “It is no secret that antisemitism has been increasing on campuses across the country in recent years. We are hopeful that, rather than continuing to circle the wagons in an effort to protect its own reputation, GW will finally be required to join the ranks of those administrations who recognize the need to take real, meaningful steps to support Jewish students, and combat anti-Jewish bigotry on campus in its many forms.”

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StandWithUs (SWU) is an international, nonprofit, and nonpartisan Israel education organization that works to inspire and educate people of all ages about Israel, as well as challenge misinformation and fight against antisemitism. Through university fellowships, high school internships, middle-school curricula, conferences, materials, social media, educational films and missions to Israel, StandWithUs supports people around the world who want to educate their schools and communities about Israel. Founded in 2001 and headquartered in Los Angeles, the organization has chapters and programs throughout the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Brazil and the Netherlands. For the last 11 years, StandWithUs has consistently received the highest possible ratings from Charity Navigator and GuideStar, two charity watchdog groups that assess hundreds of thousands of charities in the United States.
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