University’s Investigation Into Antisemitic Remarks Exonerates Controversial Professor, Gaslights Jewish Students

In January, the organization StandWithUs filed a complaint against George Washington University (GW) alleging that psychology professor Lara Sheehi repeatedly harassed and demeaned the Jewish students who were required to take her class. When those students reported her actions, the University retaliated by instituting baseless disciplinary proceedings against them. 

Last week, GW released a self-serving statement purporting to exonerate themselves, based on an investigative report that they still refuse to share. The president of the university did, however, share a brief “summary” of the findings, and it is incredible just how many offensive things they could fit in so few paragraphs. The exculpatory rubber stamp from a firm that specializes in defending universities from civil rights complaints is miserable for three reasons: First, it contains blatant falsehoods. Second, it is intentionally misleading. Third, it ignores any and all application of the relevant laws and standards. 

In terms of outright lies, the summary claims that “[n]o student-interviewees recalled Dr. Sheehi denying that antisemitism exists or denying the students’ lived experiences.” This is patently untrue and some of the interviewees have already come forward to say it isn’t so. The law firm also allegedly “found” that Sheehi’s wildly antisemitic tweets were only briefly visible to the public. Again, even if this would excuse them that assertion is just false, and a mere five minutes of cursory internet research make clear that they were available to the public for years, and were taken down only after the complaint was filed. The firm also “found” that no students interviewed were aware of any of the tweets during the course- but again, according to the students themselves, this is not true. The level of abject carelessness in investigating even the simplest of claims calls into question the entirety of the actual report— if, of course, a full report really exists. 

Next, the school’s statement completely misrepresents the heart of the complaint. It says that, “[M]ost of the concerns expressed in the complaint arose from the comments of a guest speaker at a ‘brown bag’ event to which students were invited, but not required, to attend.” In fact, while many of the concerns did arise in some sense of the word from the antisemitic comments of that speaker, the actual complaint is focused on the behavior of the professor, who repeated and defended those statements in class, all while shutting down any opposing viewpoints, stifling discussion, and distorting the students’ statements to paint them (the victims of the discrimination) as the “real” aggressors.

In perhaps the most insidious revelation of why this report was poisoned from the start, the summary then explains that “Underlying much of the discourse that arose in the class is the issue of what is appropriately defined as antisemitism – that is, whether structural critiques of the State of Israel, including actions by the Israeli government, constitute antisemitism. This issue is being debated in college campuses across the country, and in many other arenas. SWU 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.” This is a sickening example of deceptive gaslighting which needs to be called out.

There is no allegation whatsoever in the entirety of the complaint that structural critiques of the State of Israel, including actions by the Israeli government, constitute antisemitism. Sheehi harassed and demeaned innocent American Jews, who identify as Zionists, because of her hatred for Israel and for Zionists. Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the Jewish State that you don’t like is antisemitic. And conflating the two to gain sympathy and pretend that when Jews complain of antisemitism it is really just a way of trying to shut down critiques of Israel is the by now classic move of the modern antisemite. GW should be utterly ashamed. This is not about the professor’s speech at all. It is about her conduct.

Of course, the statement does not elaborate on its feeble attempt at speciously linking what Sheehi did to academic freedom and principles of free speech— because both vague assertions are wrong. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit succinctly explained in Bonnell v. Lorenzo (2001), “While a professor’s rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression are paramount in the academic setting, they are not absolute to the point of compromising a student’s right to learn in a hostile-free environment.” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits institutions of higher education from creating a discriminatory or hostile environment for any student on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Per the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights’ guidance, speech crosses over from protected territory into harassing conduct when it is “sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a [university].” That is what is alleged to have happened here— along with retaliatory conduct. The students could not get the full benefit of the class, particularly the portion that involved self-introspection with the teacher’s guidance, because they knew the professor was hostile toward their identity. They could not safely engage openly and honestly in their journals with the professor because they were consistently gaslighted, mocked and dismissed. And despite all this, when they complained, the university sent all the students – 20% of the cohort – right back to class- and then punished them for complaining. (Of course, the statement completely whitewashes that part too: GW’s stated position is that the very students who complained simply needed “remediation” because they just so happened to have suddenly developed “a deficiency in a skill or subject matter area.” The faculty would not tell them what the deficiency was, but required them to “admit” the “harm” they caused when they spoke about antisemitism or risk a permanent disciplinary notation in their file.)    

For the record, the “expansive” definition of antisemitism alluded to in the statement is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, the only near universally accepted definition of antisemitism that there is, or ever has been. It has been adopted by over 1,100 governments and other entities worldwide, including 30 states and the federal government, in both the State Department and the Department of Education. It is true that some anti-Zionist groups do not like the fact that the definition includes helpful examples for when anti-Israel rhetoric crosses the line into antisemitism, but in its desperate and pathetic attempt to graft onto that “debate” and lend some legitimacy to their position, GW ignores the fact that what Sheehi is alleged to have done does not even fall under thecontroversial” part of IHRA. Which leads directly to the next point:

Even if the law firm and GW do not like the IHRA definition, they do not get to decide that they will use their own undefined and undisclosed metric to determine what is and is not antisemitic. The IHRA definition is what all schools that take any federal funds are affirmatively required to proactively consider when formulating policies to create a safe environment on campus. Whether GW likes it or not, the IHRA definition is the one against which educational institutions are evaluated by the federal government when it investigates claims of discriminatory conduct. In that light, their statement reads like an admission: if they are willing to allow students to be harassed, with conduct motivated by intent that would be considered antisemitic under IHRA, then they best be prepared to lose their funding.

Dr. Mark Goldfeder, Esq. is Director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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