By Andrew Lapin / JTA
George Washington University has cleared a professor of allegations from a federal civil rights complaint that she discriminated against Jewish and Israeli students, in the latest instance of universities and pro-Israel groups wrangling over how to define antisemitism on campus.
The summary of the findings, by an outside law firm, also criticized the pro-Israel group StandWithUs for its “expansive view of the definition of antisemitism,” which the report’s authors said would stifle academic freedom if applied widely. The university shared the summary on Monday.
StandWithUs had brought the allegations against Lara Sheehi, a psychology professor in the university’s graduate program who was born in Lebanon. In its civil rights complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education, the group claimed that Sheehi had made antisemitic comments in class and brought in a guest speaker who shared anti-Zionist views, and that the university hadn’t done enough to address student concerns.
In the last several years, pro-Israel legal groups have used the Department of Education’s civil rights office to file numerous federal complaints against universities for Israel-related speech they have claimed is antisemitic. Built on a recent expansion of the department’s purview into antisemitism-related civil rights violations, these complaints have resulted in some universities pledging to do more to combat antisemitism — and, occasionally, in pushback from activists and administrators who deny the charges.
In George Washington University’s case, the school announced in January it would commission a third-party investigation into the matter, to be conducted by the law firm Crowell & Moring LLP. The Department of Education has not to date opened its own investigation into the case, according to its records. The Middle East Studies Association defended Sheehi and called on the university to support her by ending the investigation; hundreds of academics signed an open letter defending her.
That investigation has now cleared Sheehi of any wrongdoing, while also critiquing StandWithUs and the Jewish and Israeli students it was representing.
Those parties, the firm said, “advocated for an expansive view of the definition of antisemitism, which, if accepted in the university environment, could infringe on free speech principles and academic freedom.”
In a statement, Roz Rothstein, director and CEO of StandWithUs, called the report summary “disappointing” and “self-serving” but did not address its direct critique of her organization’s definition of antisemitism.
“While we had hoped that the GW administration would take this opportunity to begin remedying its pervasive antisemitism problem, its published ‘summary’ demonstrates that it intends only to persist in its course of disregarding the rights of its Jewish and Israeli students,” Rothstein wrote. She called on the university to release the report in full, saying some of its findings were “patently untrue.”
The university endorsed the findings. “After careful review, I believe the summary faithfully represents what the university learned through this third-party investigation,” George Washington University President Mark Wrighton wrote in a letter to the university community. He added, “Looking forward, we will continue to work closely with our community members as well as campus and national partners to best support our Jewish and Arab communities.”
The university declined further comment. It has also dealt with recent antisemitism controversies involving graffiti outside the campus Hillel and a damaged imitation Torah at a Jewish fraternity.
Among StandWithUs’s more eye-catching allegations was that Sheehi had told an Israeli student, “It’s not your fault you were born in Israel.” While the investigation didn’t reference specific alleged quotes, it could not support any claims of antisemitic comments Sheehi had supposedly made in class. Sheehi’s alleged comments were “inaccurate or taken out of context and misrepresented,” the firm’s summary said, citing “those who had heard” the comments (a charge disputed by StandWithUs).
The second major allegation, concerning comments made by guest lecturer Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, could not be substantiated by a recording of the event, the summary found. It also concerned an event students were not required to attend — but even within this context, investigators said, Sheehi “repeatedly acknowledged the students’ feelings, gave the students space to express their concerns, and denounced antisemitism as a real and present danger. No student-interviewees recalled Dr. Sheehi denying that antisemitism exists or denying the students’ lived experiences.”
The findings ruled in Sheehi’s and the university’s favor on other points, too, noting that a Twitter account the professor had used in years past to decry “Israelis” and “Zionists” lay outside the purview of university discipline.
Sheehi did not respond to a request for comment. In a published piece during the investigation, Sheehi accused her employer of having “colluded with StandWithUs’ misrepresentation of my classroom by being silent” about details of the allegations which she said the university could have disproven.