George Washington University Gaslights Jewish Students and Denies Antisemitism
by Roz Rothstein
StandWithUs was unsurprised to learn that George Washington University (GW) has exonerated itself from all culpability after hiring a third-party law firm to investigate the allegations in StandWithUs’ Title VI complaint about antisemitic discrimination in a mandatory psychology course.
GW’s description of the firm’s findings has no bearing on StandWithUs’ Title VI filing, which remains open for the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to evaluate and investigate. Neither StandWithUs nor the impacted students nor the Department of Education requested this investigation by GW, and we did not have high expectations that the results would be anything other than findings apparently vindicating GW and the professor at the center of the complaint, Lara Sheehi.
Here’s why: GW’s investigation was carried out by a law firm that GW selected and paid for, choosing investigators who openly state that their expertise is in helping employers defend themselves against compliance issues, such as Title VI and other civil rights allegations. This raised serious questions from a truth-seeking standpoint that the outcome would be anything but biased.
Second, GW’s assertion that StandWithUs and some of the students have promoted the use of an “expansionist” definition of antisemitism speaks volumes about the alleged finding that no antisemitism occurred in the psychology course. As stated in the Title VI complaint against GW, StandWithUs relies upon the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA definition) — the most widely accepted definition among Jews, adopted for use by more than 1,000 entities worldwide, including countries and other universities. Its use would have been especially appropriate in GW’s investigation, as this is the precise definition that the Department of Education’s OCR is required to consider when investigating allegations of antisemitic discrimination in violation of Title VI. GW’s characterization of this definition as “expansionist” demonstrates yet again its unwillingness to meaningfully address antisemitism in all its modern iterations.
Third, rather than releasing the actual report, which the administration refuses to do, GW instead released its own summarized “findings.” One can only wonder what GW is hiding (and it cannot be private student information, as this is easily redactable). What is clear is that GW’s description of the report includes multiple factual inaccuracies (see StandWithUs’s statement describing some of them). In short, this was an investigation with no transparency, no accountability and consequently — but unsurprisingly — resulting in a public statement by GW absolving itself of culpability.
GW continues to have an antisemitism problem because it repeatedly refuses to recognize and properly address antisemitism occurring on its campus. The university’s failure to act and its reliance on a report that it sponsored to exonerate itself unfortunately mean that the situation on campus will likely worsen for Jewish students. The takeaway message is that the university has chosen to abandon its Jewish students — multiple students who came forward and courageously shared their “lived experience” of antisemitism, first with university administrators and then with the investigators.
Rather than provide these students with any support — such as finding an alternate way for them to satisfy the mandatory course requirement with a different professor or grader — the university chose instead to gaslight the students, deny the antisemitism they experienced, and ignore the harm they suffered.
The university forced the students back into the hostile environment with the very professor who was responsible for the harassment and discrimination. And the university now has the audacity to suggest in its summary of the report that the retaliatory disciplinary process it imposed on the students was for the students’ own good. This is appalling, as the students have now been victimized three times: first by the professor’s discriminatory treatment; then by the administrators who sent them back to the professor’s class and subjected them to the retaliatory remediation; and now a third time by the university president’s (a) denial that what the students experienced was antisemitism, (b) audacious redefinition of antisemitism for the Jewish students, to preclude culpability by the university, and (c) assertion that the retaliatory remediation did not punish the students in any way. We continue to stand by these courageous students striving to hold accountable those who engage in antisemitic conduct, and we will not let the university hide behind a bogus report that fools no one.
We are so grateful that Jews in America have legal avenues other than relying on universities to self-monitor and correct when faced with claims of antisemitism. Jews in the past have not been so fortunate. We are particularly appreciative for the existence of Federal laws like Title VI and its enforcement by OCR which, unlike GW’s self-serving tactics, is designed to provide students with the impartial investigation they deserve. We remain hopeful that OCR will decide to open a thorough and fair investigation into this matter and that the day will soon come when GW will have to take real steps to address the antisemitism that continues to manifest on its campus.
Roz Rothstein, co-Founder and CEO StandWithUs, a non-partisan organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism