The US Department of Education Must Intervene to Address Ongoing Antisemitism at George Washington University
A person’s identity is one of the most valuable things they possess. One’s identity is not just fundamentally who they are; it connects them to their people and their history. An assault against one’s identity — by undermining it, minimizing it, attempting to redefine it, or retaliating against an attempt to assert it — is an attack of the deepest personal nature.
Unfortunately, the Jewish identity is increasingly under attack, particularly for Jewish students on campus. While identity-based attacks are unacceptable in any context, when they are directed at Jewish students by professors in the classroom — who use their positions to indoctrinate, denigrate, manipulate, and penalize Jewish students because of their identity — administrators must step in and correct this abuse of authority. If they fail in this responsibility, we must call upon the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to do the job for them.
This is precisely why StandWithUs has filed a Title VI complaint with OCR seeking to remedy an egregious assault on the Jewish and Israeli identities of students currently enrolled in the Professional Psychology Program at George Washington University. On the very first day of the fall 2022 semester, in the program’s mandatory diversity course, students were asked to share about themselves, including specifically about their identities. When one student proudly identified their home country as Israel, the professor’s immediate response was to offer a “consolation” because it was not the student’s “fault” that they were born in Israel.
This statement was a foreshadowing of the antisemitism that was to come from this professor towards the individual Jewish students in her class, painting Jews as racists and white supremacists, and towards Israel as the Jewish collective. Importantly, such rhetoric should not be confused — or excused — as a mere political position, which professors generally have a right to espouse in the classroom. Rather, it is flagrant disdain for someone’s national origin — an indisputable and undeniable aspect of their identity. In short, it is blatant discrimination.
After incidents such as the above continued, Jewish students taking the course made several attempts to speak with the professor, Lara Sheehi, and then with the administrators, to address feeling unwelcome and unsafe in this mandatory course about identity. They explained the discriminatory nature of the identity-based attacks they were experiencing — since the only students in the class whose identities were being undermined, denigrated, and redefined were the Jewish students. Their concerns were initially dismissed by administrators and then became the basis for outright retaliation by the professor.
Not content to disparage their Jewish and Israeli identities, this professor openly fostered and encouraged hostility toward these Jewish students by their peers and other faculty members in the department. The professor claimed that the students’ expressed concerns constituted attacks against other racial and religious identities. The professor even went so far as to initiate disciplinary measures against some of them, effectively silencing them from raising further concerns about her discriminatory harassment and attempting to compromise their future positions in the broader program itself.
Antisemitism in the US is rapidly rising, and actions like those of Professor Sheehi only further fuel this dangerous surge. At GW, a student recently made headlines when he published an article stating that his experience with antisemitism at GW was a major factor in his decision to move to Israel upon graduating.
There is no place in our educational institutions for this kind of identity-based harassment and marginalization of Jewish students, especially from those in positions of authority like faculty members, and especially within the classroom and in mandatory courses. When such hostile environments are brought to their attention, administrations that fail to take immediate corrective action are themselves complicit in normalizing and institutionalizing antisemitism on campus.
Those responsible for administering the disbursement to institutions of Federal funding — or any other type of support — must hold administrations accountable for protecting all students, including Jewish and Israeli students, or take the necessary steps to withdraw support. There is no room for equivocation or delay in ensuring the ability of all students to fully participate in educational programs and activities free from identity-based discrimination.
Roz Rothstein is the CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs, an international, non-partisan education organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism. Contact Roz about this case at [email protected]; learn more about this campaign at https://www.standwithus.