An Arab professor and lecturer in diversity has accused George Washington University of “colluding” with a rightwing pro-Israel group over a federal complaint accusing her of antisemitism.
The group, StandWithUs (SWU), filed a complaint with the US education department’s civil rights office claiming that Lara Sheehi, an assistant professor of clinical psychology, discriminated against Jewish students by refusing to accept their definitions of antisemitism.
The complaint, filed last month, also accused Sheehi of hate speech about Israel and Zionism, and alleged that the university failed to properly investigate a history of complaints against the professor.
Sheehi, who was born in Lebanon, said she has been targeted by SWU for her activism on behalf of Palestinians outside of the classroom in an attempt to silence and intimidate academic opponents of Israeli policies by conflating criticism with antisemitism.
“One only need look at its stated mission to see that it is a shameless fringe political activist group prosecuting a right-wing pro-Israel agenda,” she wrote in a lengthy defense in Counterpunch.
SWU, founded in California 2001, has worked closely with the Israeli foreign ministry, including to oppose pro-Palestinian boycotts among students. It maintains a team of dozens of lawyers “to fight antisemitism” and criticism of Israel, principally at universities and high schools. The SWU trains students to record lectures to document alleged anti-Israel bias.
Although the SWU’s American founder, Roz Rothstein, claims the organisation is nonpartisan, she has expressed support for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and denounced Israeli soldiers who criticise the occupation even though she has not served in the Israeli military.
A 2015 report by Jewish Voice for Peace identified SWU as among a number of groups that “intervene on campuses in efforts to muzzle political criticisms of Israeli policies”.
The SWU complaint to the US education department describes a fractious relationship between Sheehi and some Jewish students, and claims that during lectures on diversity she rejected their definitions of antisemitism while accepting how Black and other minority students defined racism.
“In a class designed to educate future therapists about different identities and sensitise the students to bias experienced by those identities, Dr Sheehi singled out the Jewish students and deprived only them of an opportunity she afforded all other students – defining their own identity and what it means to experience discrimination based on that identity,” the complaint said.
The SWU also claimed that Sheehi took offence at a student’s use of the term “terrorist attack”, and alleged that she invited a speaker who “demonised Israel” and said that “appropriate resistance includes throwing stones”. The complaint said one Jewish student was left “crying” and feeling “deeply unsettled and unsafe” by the talk.
Sheehi has accused the SWU of intentionally conflating criticisms of Israel and Zionism with antisemitism. She has also accused Jewish and Israeli students cited in the complaint of using “racist language against black people and Arabs”.
The professor, who is coauthor of the book Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine, said she had been “targeted specifically because I am an Arab woman” who advocates for Palestinians. She called on SWU to release an illicit recording she believes the group has of her class, saying “the transcript would reveal that I absolutely and categorically agree that antisemitism is undeniably real”.
The complaint also cites Sheehi’s actions outside of the classroom including tweets from her now deleted account that said “destroy Zionism”, calling the Israeli military “genocidal fucks” and saying “Israelis can and will be cruel”.
Sheehi has defended the tweets as a reflection of her anger at Israeli military actions in Lebanon when she was growing up and her treatment at the hands of the Israeli army while conducting research in the occupied Palestinian territories.
“My anger, in those tweets, and in what fuels my liberatory fire, is justified,” she wrote. “My anger against an occupying army and occupying state that has stolen so much from me, my people and my Palestinian siblings is not contextless, capricious or religiously based. It is a political anger.”
Sheehi has accused George Washington University of failing to defend her.
“GW has now colluded with StandWithUs’s misrepresentation of my classroom by being silent about a number of key issues of which they are well aware and about which they have supporting documentation that could have been used to publicly dispel these allegations,” she said.
The professor is legally represented by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which accused the university of a “prejudicial response” to a complaint it said is part of “a larger campaign that is politically and ethnically motivated against Dr Sheehi because of her scholarship and political activism outside the classroom”.
The university said in a statement that it is “committed to conducting such a thorough examination through an investigation by a third party” and that it was therefore “not prudent” to comment on the allegations.
It said the university “strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred, discrimination, and bias in all forms” but “also recognises 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”.
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