The Volokh Conspiracy

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Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Open Letter re Allegations of Antisemitic Bias by GW Prof Lara Sheehi


I have been following from a distance a controversy over the alleged conduct of Prof. Lara Sheehi, who teaches a mandatory DEI class to psychology grad students at George Washington University. The key allegations amount to her denigrating, bullying, and otherwise mistreating students who are Israeli, Jewish, and/or pro-Israel. Professors who should know better claim that she's being targeting for her pro-Palestinian views. The allegations suggest otherwise, and also raise the question as to why a professor would be bringing her views of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into a psychology DEI class to begin with… Note that even those of us, like blogfather Eugene and me, who are quite skeptical of hostile environment law based on speech in general, draw a clear line at hostile speech by faculty that is individually targeted at specific students.

In any event, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East has put out an open letter on the controversy, and I thought it was quite good (though as you might expect I have a few quibbles, so I'm not adopting the entire letter as my own perspective), so I'm sharing it.

Open letter to George Washington University (GWU) regarding allegations of antisemitism

We, the undersigned, are mental health clinicians and educators, practitioners of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, and scholars of antisemitism from several disciplines. We are a diverse group, including those from the political left, right, and center; Jews and non-Jews, and those with varied views on Zionism.

We are deeply concerned about allegations regarding Dr. Lara Sheehi, the newly elected President and former Secretary of the Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology (Division 39 of the American Psychological Association) and chair of the American Psychoanalytic Association's Teachers' Academy. Dr. Sheehi teaches a required Diversity course for graduate students in psychology at The George Washington University. A formal complaint has been made on behalf of several of her Jewish and Israeli students describing a series of failures on her and the University's part to treat all students equally and with respect. (We urge the reader to review the entire StandWithUs complaint to grasp the magnitude of the accusations.) These allegations are alarming and, if true, expose an egregious abuse of the trust customarily placed in educators and constitute a clear violation of Title VI, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin and other characteristics in institutions receiving government support.

Since this complaint appeared, several letters in defense of Dr. Sheehi have circulated, and gained wide support, claiming that concerns about her teaching and her online presence – which is rife with profanity and hateful rhetoric against Zionism and Israelis – are the result of a right-wing Zionist conspiracy. It is shocking to reflect that those signatories signed letters that did not even consider the possibility that the students' allegations might be true, nor demand they be given respectful consideration. Would this be the case if the students were not Jewish or Israeli? Imagine the scandal that would erupt if a group of students from another background – Black students, Muslim students, or LGBT students – alleged that their professor excluded and shamed them based on their religion, ethnicity, national origin, or sexual orientation in a required course on diversity. The calls for such a professor's resignation or removal would be swift and severe. And while these remain allegations at present, Dr. Sheehi's tweets and online interviews regarding Israelis render the allegations quite plausible, with more than enough reason to warrant careful scrutiny. (Her deleted twitter account included statements such as the following: "Israelis are so f***ing racist," "Zionists are unhinged," "you can't be a Zionist and also a feminist" "F*** Zionism, Zionists…" "F*** every person who is not yet an anti-Zionist," and "Zionists are so far up their own a****".)

Therefore, compelling Jewish and Israeli students to take a course with Dr. Sheehi while these complaints are being investigated is highly inappropriate. As precedent, consider the case of Professor Amy Wax, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who made hostile remarks about Black students in a required course and was then removed from this teaching role.

Letters written in support of Dr. Sheehi have claimed that she is being "silenced" because of her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let us clarify that this is simply not the case. She remains free to express her political and academic views, which are not relevant here. Her classroom conduct is. If the complaints against her are supported by the facts, then her willingness to bully, belittle, and retaliate against students of a particular religious and ethnic background and national origin are highly unprofessional. That being so, we are dismayed by the totally inadequate response to the students' concerns displayed by the faculty in GWU's psychology program and by the administrators at higher levels of leadership. In a time when considerable resources are poured into promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, singling out Jews and Israelis as undeserving of those protections is nothing short of antisemitic. Moreover, it is ironic to see Jewish Voice for Peace criticizing StandWithUs, the organization that filed the complaint on behalf of the GWU students, for "…conflating some Jewish students' emotional discomfort with targeted harassment…." This is especially disingenuous when diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts argue that impact supersedes intent in matters of racism and discrimination. The particular politics of StandWithUs as an organization have no bearing on the issue of whether the students' allegations should be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, the many letters circulating in support of Dr. Sheehi deflect from the important matter and claim that concerns about her alleged classroom conduct are simply attempts to restrict her academic freedom, encourage threats to her safety, advocate for "doxxing," and/or come from a right-wing "playbook." These claims are baseless. Indeed:
We deplore any threats to Dr. Sheehi's safety (or those close to her) in the strongest possible terms.

We vigorously oppose any attempt to "dox" Dr. Sheehi, or to publish private information about her in a malicious effort to damage her reputation ahead of the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights investigation. The allegations against her are worrisome enough as they stand. There is no need for these reprehensible tactics.

We strongly support academic freedom, though many of us disagree with Dr. Sheehi's framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.We deny that concerns raised about Dr. Sheehi come only from the right wing or from a Jewish conspiracy of powerful individuals and will not dwell on the tired antisemitic trope that this argument represents. The concerns about her conduct and her suitability for specific educational and leadership roles comes from across the political spectrum.

We acknowledge that the allegations in the StandWithUs complaint are, as yet, allegations. We urge the Department of Education and GWU to promptly and dispassionately conduct their own investigations by carefully evaluating the testimony of the Jewish and Israeli students in light of substantial corroborating evidence.

The fact that some extremists are subjecting Dr. Sheehi to doxxing and death threats, while deeply unfortunate, should not be used to silence legitimate concerns about her suitability for teaching or leadership roles. Dr. Sheehi is amply entitled to her opinions, her academic freedom, and, above all, her personal safety. But as a teacher of a diverse group of students and leader of a diverse organization, she must not allow her political views to prejudice her interactions with students, patients, or colleagues. [emphasis added by DB]

We hope that this expression of concern dispels the egregious misconceptions present in the various letters of support Dr. Sheehi has received thus far. We choose to speak out because cases like these involving Jewish and Israeli students being bullied, belittled, and excluded are increasingly commonplace on campuses across the United States and seldom get the scrutiny and impartial treatment they deserve. They not only feed a global resurgence of antisemitism but fuel a dangerous turn in the mental health field where activism is entering the consulting room, where "anti-discrimination" efforts covertly condone discrimination, and where frankly unprofessional and unethical behavior masquerades under the guise of academic freedom.

In conclusion, we call upon GWU to relieve Dr. Sheehi of teaching roles in required courses until this matter is adjudicated. In light of the online material available, if the allegations against Dr. Sheehi are corroborated in part or in whole, this may also cast doubt upon her suitability to train psychotherapists in general.

Respectfully and sincerely signed,