University clears anti-Zionist professor after discrimination claim
An independent investigation commissioned by George Washington University cleared Lara Sheehi, a psychology professor, of antisemitism charges following a claim that her views on Israel had created a hostile environment for Jewish students.
The inquiry came after StandWithUs, a pro-Israel group, filed a complaint in January. The group claimed that Sheehi had discriminated against several Jewish students over their Israeli and Zionist identities during a class last fall.
Cowell & Moring, the law firm hired to conduct the school’s investigation, found no evidence that Sheehi had discriminated against the students, or retaliated following their complaints.
“Many of the statements the complaint alleges were made by Dr. Sheehi were, according to those who heard them, either inaccurate or taken out of context and misrepresented,” the university said in a summary of the law firm’s findings Monday.
StandWithUs said in a statement that it disagreed with the university investigation’s findings. Its complaint was filed with the federal Education Department, not the university, and could still proceed.
“If the university wants its description of the results of the investigation to be taken seriously, it should release a full copy of the report, rather than the summarized ‘findings’ publicized by GW itself,” Roz Rothstein, who runs StandWithUs, said in a statement.
The investigation summary noted that the dispute in Sheehi’s course, which is mandatory for psychology students, centered on how to define antisemitism. StandWithUs “and a few of the students in the class, advocated for an expansive view of the definition of antisemitism, which, if accepted in the university environment, could infringe on free speech principles and academic freedom,” the summary stated.
Sheehi, a psychoanalyst, has publicly shared her staunched opposition to Zionism outside the classroom. StandWithUs claimed Sheehi made offensive comments to students during the course, including telling one, “it’s not your fault you were born in Israel,” and suggesting that Zionism itself might be antisemitic.
Latest dispute at GW
GW, a liberal arts college in Washington, D.C., that national groups have held up — some say erroneously — as an example of a campus plagued by antisemitism, announced an investigation following StandWithUs’ complaint. Sheehi did not immediately comment on the claims against her. But in February she published a defense in the online magazine Counterpunch, arguing that StandWithUs was seeking to “manufacture controversy about my scholarship and activism around Palestine.”
She said the students who participated the complaint against her had displayed “an alarming level of anti-Black and anti-Arab racism,” and that she had featured a thorough discussion and condemnation of antisemitism in her course, which is focused on diversity.
The summary of the investigation found that Sheehi had “denounced antisemitism as a real and present danger.”
More than 200 Jewish psychology scholars defended Sheehi following the complaint from StandWithUs, which she said led to threats and harassment.
The Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee represented Sheehi during the investigation. Abed Ayoub, director of the organization, said hailed the results and said on social media “this was a smear campaign by StandWithUs.”
“This whole ordeal exposes the lengths groups like StandWithUs will go to smear pro-Palestinian academics,” Ayoub said. “The findings by GW should set a precedent across all campuses.”
StandWithUs called the investigation “blatant whitewashing, yet again, of the discriminatory treatment of Jewish students.”
GW has been roiled by dueling accusations that the administration tolerates an unacceptable degree of antisemitism related to Israel, and of anti-Palestinian racism. In December, the university cleared Lance Lokas, the president of the campus Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, of vandalism charges following a protest outside the Hillel building against a former Israeli military commander who was speaking inside.
Mark Wrighton, the school’s president, endorsed the investigation clearing Sheehi in a letter to the community Monday.
“Looking forward, we will continue to work closely with our community members as well as campus and national partners to best support our Jewish and Arab communities,” he said in the statement.