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GWU Prof Accuses StandWithUs of Misrepresenting Facts. SWU Defends Its Complaint.

George Washington University (GWU) Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Lara Sheehi wrote a lengthy piece in CounterPunch on February 3 claiming the complaint filed by StandWithUs a month earlier “willfully misrepresents facts.”
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February 28, 2023

George Washington University (GWU) Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Lara Sheehi wrote a lengthy piece in CounterPunch on February 3 claiming the complaint filed by StandWithUs a month earlier “willfully misrepresents facts.” StandWithUs responded with their own op-ed in Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) saying that Sheehi’s defense was “riddled with distortions, misrepresentations and outright falsehoods.”

Sheehi called the Title VI complaint that StandWithUs filed against her and the university “contrived” and argued that it was “a textbook example of how right-wing advocacy groups take advantage of today’s political climate with impunity,” calling the pro-Israel education group “a shameless fringe political activist group” that is simply targeting a pro-Palestinian “Arab woman.” StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism Founding Director Carly Gammill responded in a February 22 JNS op-ed, saying that there was no “political conspiracy” involved in the StandWithUs complaint. “StandWithUs is a non-partisan, nonprofit educational organization whose work is aimed at combating antisemitism when and where it occurs, regardless of the source, and educating people about Israel,” Gammill wrote. “As part of that mission, StandWithUs educates people about antisemitism in its many forms, including those that target the State of Israel with demonization, delegitimization and the application of double standards rather than legitimate criticism.” This includes Sheehi’s alleged “antisemitic conduct” outlined in the complaint, such as the allegations that she disparaged Jewish and Israeli identities of students and then retaliated against them when they complained to university administrators.

Sheehi and Gammill provided differing accounts of the allegations. “Take for example the tag line they have chosen for me, allegedly telling an Israeli student it was not her fault she was born in Israel,” Sheehi wrote. “This salacious tagline is plastered across right-wing media sites, begging the question of my guilt.” Gammill noted that “while Prof. Sheehi takes umbrage at the publication of her remark to an Israeli student on the first day of class that the student is not at ‘fault’ for being born in Israel, she does not deny that she made the statement, which blatantly shamed a student’s national identity.”

Another source of contention was the complaint’s allegation that Sheehi encouraged students to go to a brown bag lecture featuring guest speaker Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, claiming that Jews and Israelis commit acts of charity to hide their “sinister activity,” and that “violent resistance” is a legitimate recourse to “white Israeli racism.” “StandWithUs not only fails to mention that the brown bag was not mandatory, but also, that it was specifically held in the GW Elliot School of International Affairs building (not in our program’s space) so students would not otherwise feel obliged to attend,” Sheehi wrote. She added that Shalhoub-Kevorkian is Israeli herself and that Shalhoub-Kevorkian made the point that “the state of Israel, through IsraelAID (like USAID), launches mental and public health initiatives in the Global South as a means of developing soft power.” “Students across cohorts lauded how the brown bag spoke to the ethical responsibility of clinical psychologists to recognize how they may be mobilized, even inadvertently, to serve state projects, no matter the state,” Sheehi wrote. Gammill argued that by saying this, Sheehi confirmed “that she organized and hosted the brown bag lecture described in the complaint and that its focus was exclusively on Israel. She does not deny that the lecturer disparaged the humanitarian efforts of Israelis and Jews. Rather, she doubles down on the speaker’s slanderous message that humanitarian efforts by Israel are not philanthropic but merely a manipulative ‘means of developing soft power.’”

The complaint also alleged that Sheehi told students who said in the subsequent class that Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s lecture made them feel “unsafe” that they were being Islamophobic and should “lean into” feeling uncomfortable. Sheehi claimed in CounterPunch that she acknowledged that antisemitism is a legitimate concern but that the students were making inappropriate and relentless anti-Arab, Islamophobic, and anti-black tropes” including one student saying that Shalhoub-Kevorkian “would readily dance on the grave of my seven-year-old niece” and others suggesting that she “was advocating violence against Jews.” “Their fear was linked to the fact that Palestinian children are terrorists-in-the-making because they throw stones at Israelis; and stones thrown by Palestinian children have been known to kill,” Sheehi wrote. “I similarly remained patient and understanding even when the voluntary brown bag was likened to ‘a talk that would discuss how black men commit crimes.’” An anonymous student told The GW Hatchet student newspaper that “several classmates allowed their discomfort to turn into defensiveness that then proceeded to actively harm and speak ill of groups of people.” But Gammill wrote that the students never once called the brown bag speaker a “terrorist” or in any way disparage “any members of any racial or ethnic group.” “None of them ever disrupted class, but rather shared their perspectives in response to the professor’s repeated request to take the ‘pulse’ of the class,” she argued.

Sheehi also wrote that she acknowledged during the class that “antisemitism is undeniably real” and that a “one student erroneously insisted that the IHRA definition of antisemitism was the official adopted definition globally, citing President Trump” and that “a select few students claimed criticism of the State of Israel is in itself antisemitic, in any and all contexts.” Gammill’s response? “None of them ever claimed that mere criticism of Israel is in itself antisemitic. Sheehi’s assertions to the contrary are simply false,” Gammill wrote, later adding that “in truth, however, [Sheehi] only recognizes some antisemitism as real. She denies that any targeting of the Jewish State of Israel could ever be antisemitic or that the antisemitism described by her Jewish students is valid.

As for the allegations of retaliation, Sheehi flatly denied them, pointing to the fact that none of the students making the allegations in the complaint received lower than an “A.” Sheehi wrote that the students were put through a “remediation process” as a result of being “disruptive,”  berating “a professor twice” and using “explicitly pejorative, demeaning, inflammatory and racist language against black people and Arabs.” Even still, Sheehi argued that remediation does not go on a student’s academic record and that they can appeal the process. “As they are nothing but a one-issue pro-Israel activist group, StandWithUs was unwilling or unable to do due diligence to counter-check these allegations against me and the University. StandWithUs’ explicit and intentional misrepresentation of ‘disciplinary charges’ and retaliation are extremely unethical and the University’s failure to clarify this falsity and process is irresponsible and opportunistic,” she wrote. But Gammill argued that “the timing of her initiation of this process—just after the Jewish students took their concerns about antisemitism in her class to university administrators—calls [Sheehi’s] claim into serious question.” She added that “the students placed on remediation were put to an impossible test. To successfully complete the remediation, they were required to admit to conduct in which they had not engaged. Failure to admit wrongdoing would result in probation—a status that comes with a permanent black mark on one’s academic record. There was no way for the students to tell the truth—that they were being punished for having complained to administrators about the antisemitism they were experiencing—without suffering further punishment.”

Toward the end of her CounterPunch piece, Sheehi criticized GWU for choosing to “hot potato” the matter to a third-party investigator because doing so “rewards the hackneyed right-wing strategy to use political activism outside the classroom and, in my case, personal tweets to incriminate targeted scholars and ‘prove’ unrelated allegations.” Sheehi claimed that StandWithUs released “a handful of salaciously decontextualized tweets.” She appears to be referencing a couple of tweets highlighted by the Free Beacon: a 2019 thread where Sheehi accused Israelis of being “f—ing racist” and a 2020 tweet where she called the Israel Defense Force (IDF) “genocidal f—s.” Sheehi explained in CounterPunch that in the former, she was explaining how “a male Israeli agent, acting as representative of the State—hence my use of blanket ‘Israeli’—specifically threatened to hit me if I did not sit down. After I told him to not talk to me like that, two other male agents threatened, demeaned, and harassed me. One specifically yelled at me, ‘I will send you back to Lebanon so that you can be raped and beaten by Hizbullah who will hang you by your hair from the ceiling.’” And in the 2020, Sheehi claimed that the day of the tweet, August 4, “is the tragic and catastrophic day of the Beirut blast that killed hundreds of people and displaced hundreds of thousands in its wake.” She then recalled watching the Israelis bomb Lebanon––she claims the Jewish state “illegally occupied” the country––before eventually evacuating the country with her family in 2006.

“My anger, in those tweets, and in what fuels my liberatory fire, is justified,” Sheehi wrote. “My anger at an Israeli who threatens to have me raped and beaten angers me. My anger towards an Israeli male who threatens to hit me if I do not listen angers me. My anger against an occupying army and occupying state that has stolen so much from me, my people and my Palestinian siblings is not contextless, capricious or religiously based. It is a political anger.”

Sheehi’s Twitter account, @blackflaghag, has since been deleted, but the Journal has found several other apparent tweets of hers that seem to also reflect her “political anger.” One tweet from September 2021 featured a photo of an Arab woman in the process of throwing a molotov cocktail; another from September 2020 featured her promoting a talk given by former Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine member Leila Khaled, who was among the terrorists who hijacked commercial jetliners in 1969 and 1970. Her attempt to detonate grenades on the 1970 flight were thwarted, and no one was injured or killed in either incident.

Sheehi also retweeted a Mohammed El-Kurd tweet from September 2021 where he says “glory to the martyrs” involved in the Second Intifada. She also tweeted in October: “And f—ers are still arguing about whether or not zionism is a form of fascism white supremacy. Ok.” in response to a tweet accusing psychologist Jordan Peterson of “trespassing” the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Additionally, in a January 2022 appearance on the “Millennials Are Killing Capitalism” podcast, Sheehi was asked if “political organizing in resistance itself is a mental health necessity for oppressed people.” She replied that she wanted to push back on “this being somehow an ableist notion of what struggle looks like. Like somehow you need to be in the street and demonstrating and throwing rocks, f— yeah do that if you can and if you are safe enough to do that and if you are able to do that, there are people in Palestine who will do that despite the fact that they are surveilled at a higher rate and we also know that there are vulnerable communities everywhere.”

StandWithUs CEO and Co-Founder Roz Rothstein said in a statement to the Journal that Sheehi’s past comments and tweets are “hateful” and “whitewash antisemitic terrorism .”

Gammill’s piece concluded: “Lest any confusion remains, let this be crystal clear: StandWithUs’ Title VI complaint is not about Prof. Sheehi’s politics, speech, hatred for Israel or Arab identity. It is about her discriminatory and retaliatory misconduct towards her Jewish and Israeli students, the failure of the GWU administration to take appropriate corrective action and, therefore, the need for the Department of Education to step in to investigate and remedy the resulting hostile climate of antisemitism.”

Mark Rotenberg, Vice President of University Initiatives and Legal Affairs at Hillel International, told the Journal, “We don’t know what the facts are; we know what the allegations are. We are deeply concerned about those allegations that appear in the complaint … we reject and deplore any effort by George Washington University to target or demean Jewish students in any aspect of their identity and that includes Jewish students who may be Zionist, who may have national origin in Israel, who may have religious and/or cultural connections to Israel, its people, the land, its archaeology, its religious meaning and so forth. It is unlawful and inconsistent with GWU’s moral and ethical commitments, which include diversity and inclusion for Jewish students. The university is responsible for impartially and expeditiously investigating the claims in the complaint and holding those people responsible.”

Sheehi did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment.

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