Skip to main content

US university faces investigation into antisemitism complaint from pro-Israel group

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will open a probe after an independent investigation previously dismissed the allegations
The campus of George Washington University in Washington, DC on 7 May 2020.
The campus of George Washington University in Washington, DC, on 7 May 2020 (AFP)

George Washington University is facing a federal investigation over antisemitism accusations levelled against a psychology professor by a pro-Israel group, just a week after an independent probe had dismissed the allegations saying they had no support or evidence.

StandWithUs, a pro-Israel organisation in the US, said this week that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) informed the group that it will be spearheading the investigation into the federal discrimination complaint brought against the university.

“We thank OCR for opening a full investigation into our complaint against GW and sending the clear message that whatever the bounds of academic freedom may be, they do not extend to professors mistreating and retaliating against students based on their Jewish and Israeli identities under the guise of political expression,” StandWithUs legal department director Yael Lerman said in a statement.

In January, the group filed a federal complaint against the university, alleging that psychology professor Lara 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.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Last month, however, an independent probe commissioned by George Washington University cleared Sheehi of accusations of antisemitism.

The independent investigation found that the claims levelled against the professor 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".

How a Palestinian activist's appearance at a US school triggered a smear campaign
Read More »

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

The definition of antisemitism has been a prevalent issue in American academia 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, yet the definition has been criticised as an attempt to suppress free speech, including by Jewish scholars and the Progressive Israel Network.

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

Meanwhile, George Washington University has also faced complaints from Palestinian students and faculty, including in February when several students filed a civil rights complaint against the university, demanding an investigation into what they say has been a years-long "hostile environment of anti-Palestinian racism".

The complaint was filed on behalf of three students by Palestine Legal with the OCR and states that the university denied services to Palestinian students for processing trauma related to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.