Federal complaint takes on anti-Palestinian racism at US college

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Anti-Palestinian racism has been allowed to thrive at George Washington University, civil rights experts say.

ImageBroker Uwe Kraft

Civil rights group Palestine Legal has filed a federal complaint to the Department of Education against George Washington University in Washington, DC.

The group is demanding that the government’s top civil rights office investigate numerous instances of racist abuse and hostility against Palestinian students and faculty who support Palestinian rights.

Palestine Legal says it is representing three students who have each been the target of anti-Palestinian discrimination and harassment.

Filed under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the complaint alleges that “Palestinian students and students perceived to be Palestinian have been denied access to mental health services, falsely accused of committing crimes, disproportionately investigated by campus police, put through months-long disciplinary processes for infractions that non-Palestinian students admitted to and subjected to racist anti-Palestinian comments in class.”

“There is a severe and pervasive atmosphere of anti-Palestinian racism at George Washington University that’s been happening for years,” Radhika Sainath, senior attorney at Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.

“It’s not about any one incident; we’ve been involved in representing people going back to 2015. This [federal complaint] is a long time coming,” she said.

The complaint notes the recent defamation campaign against a George Washington University professor of clinical psychology, Lara Sheehi.

Sheehi has been subjected to relentless racist attacks and smears after she invited a professor at Hebrew University – who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel – to speak at an optional “brown bag” lunch event about mental and public health initiatives last fall.

After the event, anti-Palestinian students took over Sheehi’s class, “making numerous anti-Palestinian statements, including that the Palestinian speaker ‘would dance on [the student’s] niece’s grave,’ that Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli army are terrorists, and that Trump had made it illegal to criticize the political ideology of Zionism,” Palestine Legal wrote in its complaint.

StandWithUs, a right-wing Israel lobby group notorious for its harassment and targeting of students and scholars who support Palestinian rights, stepped up the smear campaign by filing its own Title VI complaint to the Department of Education in January.

The lobby group claimed that first-year Jewish and Israeli students in the professional psychology program at George Washington University experienced “anti-Semitic discrimination and retaliation,” and accused Sheehi of “anti-Semitism.”

It is a standard trope promoted by Israel lobby organizations to claim that supporting Palestinian rights is tantamount to anti-Jewish bigotry. The claim is solely aimed at silencing activism and disrupting discussion about Israel’s human rights record.

Instead of protecting her academic freedom, the university colluded with StandWithUs “by being silent about a number of key issues of which they are well aware and about which they have supporting documentation that could have been used to publicly dispel these allegations,” Sheehi wrote in Counterpunch in early February.

The university has further empowered these attacks by calling for an independent investigation into the spurious claims against her, according to her lawyers at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

But George Washington University is also facing a broad coalition of human rights groups and academic associations in defense of Sheehi and the right to criticize Israel.

In a statement to the university, a group of nearly 250 Jewish clinical psychologists, psychoanalysts, social workers, psychiatrists, and psychoanalytic scholars admonished the attacks against Sheehi and the conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.

“Criticism of Israel in the name of justice should not be conflated with anti-Semitism, a practice that hurts everyone. We refuse to allow anyone to use our ethnicity or our values as a blanket political shield to carry out these attacks on Dr. Sheehi,” the clinicians wrote in January.

Sheehi, they noted, “is just the latest of far too many professors and clinicians to become the victim of these tactics, which dovetail with a wider, programmatic attempt by pro-Israeli lobbies to influence the activities of the Department of Education.”

Meanwhile, Psychologists for Social Responsibility issued a statement condemning the attacks against Sheehi amidst “the onslaught of aggressive attempts to intimidate academics and clinicians into silence about the settler-colonial violence of apartheid Israel.”

These attempts, the group adds, “often amount to gaslighting academics and clinicians by wrongly equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.”

Jewish Voice for Peace’s Health Advisory Council issued a statement on 30 January, demanding that George Washington University “immediately cease this unfounded probe into Dr. Sheehi’s teachings.”

The charges against Sheehi, the council explained, “follow a scripted pattern that is becoming known as the ‘Exception of Palestine.’ It goes like this: Adherence to rigorous scholarship, public speaking and writing on the importance of universal human rights is applauded, funded and lifted up until such work is applied to the government of Israel when illuminating the injustices of its policies and treatment of Palestinians.”

“Deep-rooted bigotry”

Palestine Legal’s complaint to the Department of Education also highlights how the university’s decision to officially close the student trauma services center has affected students seeking care.

The center was shut after Israel lobby groups complained that Palestinian students were accessing mental health care following Israel’s 2021 attacks on Gaza.

“By canceling the processing space, GW denied a Palestinian student who had been shot by an Israeli soldier while studying remotely from her home in the West Bank the chance to access much-needed mental health services,” Palestine Legal wrote in the complaint.

These are products, the civil rights group says, of “both deep-rooted, dehumanizing bigotry against Palestinians” and systematic efforts “by anti-Palestinian groups and their allies to suppress speech supporting Palestinian rights on college campuses.”

In another incident, the president of the campus’ chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine was falsely accused of vandalism last year by the director of GW Hillel, which is affiliated with Hillel International, a Zionist institution that explicitly prohibits campus Hillel chapters from partnering with or hosting any organization that “delegitimizes, demonizes, or applies a double standard” to Israel.

The student was “forced to answer for an infraction that a white, Jewish student already admitted to,” explains Palestine Legal.

The student “later learned that it was GW’s own [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] Vice Provost who called the police on SJP and initiated the complaint process. Hillel and GW have refused to apologize,” the group says.

A George Washington University student, who did not wish to be named due to fear of retaliation, told The Electronic Intifada that the situation on campus has been tense and demoralizing for those who advocate for the rights of Palestinians.

With Palestine Legal’s complaint, the student said that it is important to “make a point that not only are these attacks [on Sheehi and against Palestinian students] morally wrong, but they also violate federal civil rights law and academic free speech laws – and they normalize anti-Palestinian discourse.”

The student emphasized that scholars “have a legal right to collaborate, to learn from each other, to exist in these spaces and to speak on these issues that are real and salient to us.”

Standing firm

George Washington University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine expressed their support for Palestine Legal’s federal complaint.

The students demanded that their university “take measures to remedy the harm done to Palestinian students and faculty and to protect community members from future anti-Palestinian actions.”

The complaint “is pretty far-reaching,” Palestine Legal’s Sainath told The Electronic Intifada.

“We’re asking for the [Department of Education’s] Office for Civil Rights to take a number of concrete actions to ensure that the university is in compliance with the law,” she said. This would include re-opening the trauma support services office for students and to stop discriminatory investigations of students and student groups.

The complaint also asks for the administration to issue a statement condemning anti-Palestinian racism, and for the staff to be trained on combating anti-Palestinian discrimination.

It asks that the university not adopt, enforce or rely on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Anti-Semitism (IHRA) or its contemporary examples of anti-Semitism.

Promoted by Israel and its lobby, the IHRA definition conflates criticism of Israel, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish bigotry, on the other.

It has become the Israel lobby’s key weapon in North America and Europe to enforce censorship about Israel’s crimes against Palestinians.

This false conflation, Palestine Legal’s complaint says, places anyone “charged with implementing the definition in the position of engaging in anti-Palestinian bias.”

Application of the IHRA definition, it adds, “would drive GW administrators into a morass of national-origin based distinctions in violation of Title VI.”

If the complaint leads to an investigation of the college’s lengthy history of anti-Palestinian racism and discrimination, “it could allow our grievances to be legitimately heard and acknowledged; and for something to be done about it,” said the unnamed student.

They said that while the administration routinely sends out emails about alleged anti-Semitism incidents on campus and beyond, “there hasn’t been a single email sent out by the administration regarding racist rhetoric against Palestinians or against Dr. Sheehi.”

“It feels like we’re invisible and being painted as bad actors when all we’re trying to say is to be able to speak about the crimes against humanity that are occurring,” the student said.

“At the very least, we’d like an acknowledgment that anti-Palestinian discourse is strongly condemned, and that condemnation of Israel is not anti-Semitism.”

While the federal complaint awaits response from the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights – it has stalled on opening an investigation into a complaint filed two years ago by Palestine Legal and a Palestinian student against Florida State University – students say they will continue to organize against pervasive anti-Palestinian discrimination at their university.

Students for Justice in Palestine said it “stands firmly by our principles and continues to combat Zionism on campus and on all fronts.”


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).