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US university dismisses antisemitism claims against psychology professor

Independent probe commisssioned by George Washington University concludes no evidence to support antisemitism claims against Lara Sheehi
George Washington University itself has also been at the centre of several cases of alleged discrimination, including from Palestinian students and staff members.
George Washington University has also been at the centre of several cases of alleged discrimination (AFP/File photo)
By MEE staff in Washington

An independent probe commissioned by George Washington University has cleared psychology professor Lara Sheehi of accusations of antisemitism brought against the academic by a pro-Israel group earlier this year.

The summary of the probe's conclusions, released on Monday, stated that the antisemitism claims against Sheehi not only had no evidence or support, but that Sheehi had "repeatedly acknowledged the students’ feelings, gave the students space to express their concerns, and denounced antisemitism as a real and present danger".

"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," stated the investigation report, conducted by the law firm, Crowell and Moring LLP.

In a statement released by the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), Sheehi welcomed the findings and said she is hopeful the findings of the report will "send a clear message" to groups trying to "harass and silence" academics like her.

"I am grateful to the investigators and the labor that was expended to meticulously document what I have known since day one: those of us who fight for Palestinian liberation do not do so on the backs of our Jewish siblings, nor do we discriminate, retaliate or isolate Jewish or Israeli students in our classrooms," she said.

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Sheehi is an assistant professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University and has co-authored the book, Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine.

The investigation came after StandWithUs (SWU), a pro-Israel organisation, filed a federal complaint against the university in January. The complaint alleged that Sheehi had created a hostile environment for Jewish students during a mandatory course on diversity during the Fall 2022 semester.

The complaint centred around the definition of antisemitism, claiming that Sheehi had made offensive remarks and denied the students experienced antisemitism.

However, the investigation by Crowell stated: "No student-interviewees recalled Dr Sheehi denying that antisemitism exists or denying the students’ lived experiences.

"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 investigation summary stated.

"While we respect the right of individuals to disagree, we strongly denounce the hateful messages and threats directed to Dr Sheehi and her family that have occurred since SWU publicized its letter to OCR."

Antisemitism allegations on US campuses

While the independent probe cleared her of the antisemitism allegations, the complaint from StandWithUs was filed with the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) - not the university - so the case may continue.

StandWithUs said in a statement on Monday that it disagreed with the findings and called on the university to release a full version of the report.

Students accuse US university of anti-Palestinian climate
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Following the complaint from StandWithUS, an Israeli group of more than 700 academics sent a letter to the university in solidarity with Sheehi, saying that the academic was being targeted "precisely because she stands in solidarity with Palestinians".

Sheehi also took to defend herself in February, arguing in an article in CounterPunch magazine that the allegations of antisemitism against her were an attempt to "​​manufacture controversy about my scholarship and activism around Palestine".

The definition of antisemitism has been a prevalent issue in the US over the past few years, as many pro-Israel groups have been pushing for universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) definition, which has already been adopted by the governments of more than two dozen countries, including the US.

The IHRA definition lists 11 examples of antisemitism, seven of which relate to Israel, and the definition has been criticised as an attempt to suppress free speech, including by Jewish scholars and the Progressive Israel Network.

In January, the OCR announced it would delay a decision as to whether it would adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The OCR has served as a battleground for pro-Israel groups, which have lodged numerous federal complaints against US universities over allegations of antisemitism.

George Washington University has also been at the centre of several cases of alleged discrimination, including from Palestinian students and staff members who say the school has discriminated against them based on "national origin discrimination".

In February, several students filed a civil rights complaint with the OCR, stating that the university denied services to Palestinian students for processing trauma related to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In 2021, Palestine Legal filed a similar complaint against George Washington University, that time on behalf of a staff member who said they were also denied access to trauma services provided by the school.

In 2015, campus police ordered a student to remove a Palestinian flag from his window. The university's president later apologised for the incident.

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