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Jewish students say anti-Zionist professor created hostile environment

A psychology professor at George Washington University allegedly dismissed concerns that her hostile anti-Zionism was antisemitic, and retaliated against Jewish students who complained

An Israel advocacy group is alleging that an anti-Zionist George Washington University professor created a hostile environment for Jewish students who support the country. StandWithUs filed a federal complaint against the school Thursday, arguing that Zionism is an integral part of Jewish identity.

The filing claims that Lara Sheehi, who teaches a mandatory course on diversity, discriminated against several Jewish students because of their Israeli and Zionist identities in her class during the fall semester.

“It’s not your fault you were born in Israel,” Sheehi allegedly told one student after she introduced herself.

Sheehi did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Much of the complaint focuses on Sheehi’s disagreements with students over whether hostility toward Israel and Zionism is antisemitic. Many pro-Israel organizations, including Hillel, have argued in recent years that institutions such as universities must treat Zionism — support for a Jewish state in Israel — as an integral part of Jewish identity, and one that is protected from discrimination in the same manner as race, religion, gender and other protected categories.

Opponents of this approach say that Zionism is a political ideology that must be open to debate, and that shielding it from criticism will have a chilling effect on Palestinian activism.

In its account of Sheehi’s course, which is mandatory for psychology students at George Washington, StandWithUs wrote that it had identified an extreme case of a faculty member’s hostile anti-Zionism leading to discrimination against students.

“A professor singling out and targeting Jewish and Israeli students for adverse treatment because of their identity is textbook antisemitic discriminatory conduct,” Roz Rothstein, the head of StandWithUs, said in a statement.

Julia Metjian, a spokesperson for George Washington, said the school was aware of the complaint.

“George Washington University strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred,” she said in an email. “The university also recognizes and supports academic freedom, and the right of all members of our community to speak out on issues of public concern.”

The organization’s civil rights complaint, which was filed with the Department of Education, highlights an optional guest lecture for the class delivered by Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has generated controversy over her research on the Israeli military.

Complaint stems from lecture

At the lecture, Shalhoub-Kevorkian “demonized Israel, and Israelis in general,” according to the complaint, and claimed that Israeli philanthropy and humanitarian aid was meant to cover up human rights abuses. It also said that she defended the act of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

Dr. Lara Sheehi. Photo by George Washington University

During the first class following the talk, the complaint states that several Jewish students told Sheehi they believed Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s lecture was antisemitic, with one saying she “felt like it was an excuse to bash Jews.”

Sheehi reportedly responded that “in no uncertain terms, anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.”

“There are many people who say that Zionism in and of itself is an antisemitic movement,” she allegedly responded. “Why? Because it locates that Jewish folks are that much more different that they need to have a space unto themselves.”

The complaint states that Sheehi, the author of Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine, had previously made a series of remarks on Twitter that included hostile anti-Zionism, including: “Israelis are so f****ing racist” and “F*** every person who is not yet an anti-Zionist.”

(The Twitter account referenced in the report has since been taken offline. It did not include Sheehi’s name, but it repeatedly referenced her authorship of the psychoanalysis book, which won a 2022 Palestine Book Award.)

Elsewhere, Sheehi has said that psychoanalysts must actively practice anti-Zionism.

She graduated from the American University of Beirut in 2006 and received her doctorate from GW in 2010, during which time she was also active in the “campus anti-war network,” according to her LinkedIn profile. She has been teaching at the school since 2016.

When an Israeli student described her fear of “terrorist attacks” in Tel Aviv, Sheehi allegedly said that the use of that term was Islamophobic.

StandWithUs, which mostly focuses on campus Israel advocacy, also claimed that Sheehi retaliated against two of students who raised concerns with university administrators about Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Sheehi’s overall attitude toward Israel and antisemitism.

The report states that Sheehi subsequently claimed that the students had called Shalhoub-Kevorkian a terrorist, wrote “combative” journal entries for the class, and that they were racist. The students were then informed that the university had initiated disciplinary proceedings against them, and asked them to detail what they did wrong.

The complaint claims that George Washington violated the civil rights of the Jewish students in Sheehi’s class by failing to address her behavior. StandWithUs is calling on the school to investigate the student complaints and use the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism to adjudicate them.

Anyone can file a complaint with the Department of Education, and it is not clear whether the agency will investigate further.

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