A civil rights group has filed a legal complaint against George Washington University in Washington, DC, after college officials banned campus mental health services from serving Palestinian students following Israel’s attack on Gaza.
The university could shut down the entire office dedicated to supporting students’ emotional well-being over complaints from Israel advocates.
In a June Instagram post expressing solidarity and support for Palestinian rights, George Washington University’s Office of Advocacy and Support (OAS) offered trauma support services to Palestinian students affected by Israel’s attacks on Gaza the month prior.
During its 11-day bombardment of Gaza in May, Israel attacked residential buildings killing entire Palestinian families, sometimes wiping out several generations.
But those services were quickly canceled by the university administration after the campus chapter of Hillel, which is affiliated with Hillel International, a Zionist institution, claimed that the OAS offer was harmful to Jewish students.
A top administrator contacted the director of OAS and “implied an ultimatum” to the office, civil rights group Palestine Legal asserts in the complaint.
OAS could either take down the Instagram posts offering support to Palestinian students at the university, or the director would be fired, according to the complaint. OAS leadership “considered this threat credible,” Palestine Legal states.
OAS was pushed by the administration to publish a statement saying that the post “did not create a safe space for all members of our community” and to revoke the services for Palestinian students.
A student-run group, Students Against Sexual Assault, had also posted to Instagram offering peer trauma support for Palestinian students. The administration ordered the group to remove their post as well, under the same pretext that it was “harmful and exclusionary.”
George Washington University then launched an “audit” of OAS. Members of the office are no longer allowed to publish on social media or communicate with professors on behalf of students experiencing trauma, Palestine Legal says.
Depending on the outcome of the investigation, the entire office and its support services could be closed to all students.
Radhika Sainath, senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada that the situation at GW reminded her of segregated swimming pools in the 1960s: When civil rights laws were passed mandating that public spaces be accessible for everyone, some municipalities opted to shut down the pools altogether rather than comply.
OAS advocacy specialist Nada Elbasha told The Electronic Intifada that her office has historically offered support services to students affected by state violence, racism and discrimination.
She and her colleagues had been involved in conversations “about incorporating more advocacy and more support for populations and experience of trauma that fit into the racial or ethnic discrimination category, in order to [expand] the office as more of a safe space for those communities,” she said.
When Israel began attacking Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza in May, Elbasha said that her colleagues initiated discussions about how to support Palestinian students affected by what they were seeing.
But Elbasha’s office was prevented from doing so by the administration.
“I was not given any opportunity to ask questions or give my thoughts,” Elbasha told The Electronic Intifada.
The administration’s move codified Hillel’s false allegations that any mention of Palestine or Palestinians is offensive and somehow injures Jewish people.
“In the way that it was translated to me, in the conversation between Hillel and my supervisor, which happened before the instructions by the administration, Hillel asserted that OAS is ignorant of the issue and we are just following a social media trajectory without understanding what’s really going on [in Palestine],” Elbasha explained.
“There was no invitation for dialogue. That’s how I perceived it.”
From the administrative end, she added, “the argument was that our language [in the Instagram post] was too extreme or not representative of GW, meaning that the phrase ‘Free Palestine,’ and the words ‘oppression’ and ‘imperialism’ and ‘apartheid’ were too vague for this prestigious academic institution.”
The Electronic Intifada reached out to the university’s Hillel chapter to ask how the OAS’ statement of support for Palestinians could be seen as bigotry against Jewish people, but did not receive a response.
Pro-Israel organizations often claim that support for Palestinian rights is equal to anti-Jewish bigotry in order to shield Israel from criticism and accountability – especially on campuses.
It goes back to a fundamental Zionist framework “that Palestinians attempting to just assert their humanity and ask for equal treatment is somehow anti-Jewish, and it’s wrong. Palestinians are pushing back against that,” Sainath said.
On Elbasha’s behalf, Palestine Legal filed a complaint against the university in November, asserting that this denial of services constitutes national origin discrimination under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.
“Our demands are minimal: ensuring that Palestinian students are treated equally and that GW is complying with the law, that they apologize for the denial of services,” Sainath said.
The DC’s Office for Human Rights can impose sanctions on the university if it is found to have violated the law, including financial penalties.
“We’re not asking for that here. Nada Elbasha is asking for something that shouldn’t be very hard to do,” Sainath added.
“We’re just asking the university to do the right thing.”
Students fight back
And students marched on campus to demand that the university protect Palestinians and end discriminatory treatment.On 22 November, GW president Thomas LeBlanc issued a public statement recognizing “the concerns and frustrations some in the Palestinian community are feeling.”
He acknowledged the investigation sparked by Palestine Legal’s complaint, but failed to disclose any plans to reverse discriminatory actions. He asserted however that the university is committed to providing students with support services “without regard to their national origin.”
Law Students for Justice in Palestine at GW called the president’s response “vague, inadequate and ineffective.”
The statement “bizarrely and merely redirects Palestinian students seeking support to go to the very same office which was prohibited from doing so by the university,” the group added.
History of discrimination
The university has a history of discrimination against Palestinians.
In 2015, administrators forced a student to remove a Palestinian flag from a dorm room window while other flags were allowed to be displayed.
After Palestine Legal intervened, the university president apologized to the student.
And in 2018, GW students were cyberbullied and targeted by the Israeli government and Israel lobby groups over a divestment campaign.
Campus security officers refused to remove Israel advocates who intimidated and harassed students during a student government hearing on divestment.
Sainath told The Electronic Intifada that these highly visible instances are “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the actual number of GW students her legal team has talked to about anti-Palestinian racism there.
While Palestine Legal, students, alumni and human rights activists continue to press the administration to reverse course and apologize in this instance, Elbasha said that she is hoping to rebuild trust with her students.
For her, the administration’s draconian censorship of her work indicates that its priority “is not necessarily with the students, or with learning, or with well-being, or actual diversity” as the university claims.
What’s most troubling, Elbasha said, the university’s actions have only “validated students’ thoughts that they are not safe or welcome on the campus. How does that impact their academic success?”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.