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March 28, 2023 11:33 am

George Washington University Exonerates Professor Accused of Antisemitism


avatar by Dion J. Pierre

George Washington University professor Lara Sheehi. Photo: Twitter.

George Washington University on Monday said there is no evidence to substantiate a civil rights complaint’s claims that one of its assistant professors is antisemitic and discriminated against Jewish students.

In January, an educational nonprofit based in Los Angeles, StandWithUs (SWU), filed with the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights a complaint against George Washington University (GWU) alleging that it neglected to protect students from Lara Sheehi, an assistant psychology professor, after she allegedly created a hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students enrolled in a graduate level psychology program.

SWU alleged that GWU did not intervene when Sheehi, who teaches a mandatory diversity course, hosted an antisemitic speaker, launched a smear campaign against Jewish students, and filed disciplinary charges against them in retaliation for their accusing her of antisemitism.

Immediately following widespread media coverage of the allegations, GWU hired Crowell & Moring LLP, a law firm based in Washington DC, to investigate their veracity. The university summarized the firm’s findings in a statement on Monday.

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“At the conclusion of its review, Crowell found no evidence substantiating the allegations of discriminatory and retaliatory conduct alleged in the complaint,” GWU said. “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.”

Citing an incident in which Sheehi organized a presentation featuring Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who proceeded to allegedly utter antisemitic comments, the university said “the review found that the allegations in the complaint about the lecture are largely inconsistent with the recording of the event or significantly decontextualized.”

The report did not classify comments Sheehi allegedly made in the classroom as antisemitic, claiming that the students based their understanding of antisemitism on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which says “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews…expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

“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,” Monday’s statement continued. “With respect to the interactions that occurred in Dr. Sheehi’s classroom, to be clear, the investigation found no evidence that the discourse crossed the line into antisemitic speech.”

The university added that “we strongly denounced the hateful messages and threats directed to Dr. Sheehi and her family that have occurred since SWU publicized its letter to OCR.” It did, however, denounce “profane language” Sheehi used in tweets discussing Israel, Zionists, and Zionism but claimed the page was public for only a short period of time.

In a statement, George Washington University president Mark S. Wrighton endorsed the report’s findings, saying “many allegations contained in the complaint and subsequently included in media reports were inaccurate or taken out of context and misrepresented.” He declined to “further elaborate on specific findings.”

On Monday, StandWithUs accused the university of “whitewashing” the incidents students reported and denying the validity of their experiences. The group also disputed several aspects of the reports purported findings, including a claim that Professor Sheehi’s Twitter account was only briefly accessible to public and called on the university to release a full copy of the Crowell & Moring report for which the university paid an undisclosed sum.

“While we had hoped that the GW administration would take this opportunity to begin remedying its pervasive antisemitism problem, its published ‘summary’ demonstrates that it intends only to persist in its course of disregarding the rights of its Jewish and Israeli students,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said.

George Washington University has been accused of disregarding the severity of antisemitic behavior motivated by anti-Zionism.

In October, anti-Zionist students staged an anti-Israel demonstration outside the school’s Hillel center on the second night of Sukkot. Days earlier, flyers saying “Zionist f*** off” appeared around campus.

The university subsequently issued a statement condemning “hatred, discrimination, and bias in all forms.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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