Column: GW’s suppression of Palestinian voices violates academic freedom

Clinical psychology professor Lara Sheehi, who is the subject of a federal civil rights complaint for allegedly engaging in “erasive antisemitism,” is not teaching courses at GW this semester. But at the core of the complaint that Zionist nonprofit StandWithUs filed with the Department of Education last month is the purposeful blurring of criticism of Israel with allegedly antisemitic behavior. Anti-Zionism and antisemitism are not the same, but StandWithUs aims to remove Sheehi from her position and send a chilling message to supporters of Palestine by conflating the two forms of speech. The complaint against Sheehi follows a several decadeslong systematic effort by Israel-backed lobbyist organizations to repress speech critical of the Israeli government on college campuses.

StandWithUs and these lobbying, watchdog and media organizations either receive funding or work with the Israeli government to conflate anti-Zionism as antisemitism to suppress this kind of free speech through similar federal complaints and legal action. In 2010, the previous Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel asserted the country uses StandWithUs and other organizations to “amplify our power.” These organizations also harass and surveil Palestinian activists and dedicate significant resources to combat efforts they consider to “delegitimize” Israel, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu identifies as one of the country’s priorities.

Academic institutions like GW have traditionally been hubs for anti-Zionist activism. But instead of protecting free speech, GW has institutionally discriminated against Palestinians and supporters of Palestine on campus, punishing students, faculty and staff perceived to be critical of Israel or supportive of Palestine. Despite removing faculty for their views, punishing students, threatening to fire staff and close offices and enabling outside organizations to intimidate students, the University has never acknowledged it has suppressed academic freedom for those seeking to discuss Palestinian rights.

In 2015, the administration and GWPD threatened and disciplined a student for hanging the Palestinian flag in their dorm window. In 2018, following a Student Association resolution urging GW to divest from nine companies contributing to Palestinian oppression in the West Bank, Canary Mission – a Zionist blacklisting site – doxxed and harassed supporters of the resolution on campus. In 2019, GW Hillel refused to disaffiliate from the Israel on Campus Coalition – another Zionist nonprofit that doxxes Palestinian student activists, receives funding from Canary Mission and funds StandWithUs. Hillel International only allows campus affiliates like GW Hillel to partner with organizations supportive of Zionism as a matter of policy, in turn excluding voices in the anti-Zionist Jewish community.

Just last semester, the University investigated Students for Justice in Palestine following a postering campaign leading up to a protest outside the GW Hillel building against an event inside featuring a former IDF commander of a military unit notorious for its authoritarian and abusive surveillance of Palestinians. The University disciplined SJP President Lance Lokas following an unsubstantiated allegation that he caused “tens of thousands of dollars in damage” by attaching a sign reading “Zionists f*** off!” to a concrete bench outside of the Hillel building. Interim University President Mark Wrighton quickly condemned the postering as “disturbing” and “antisemitic.” The charges against SJP and Lokas were dropped after Lokas’ hearing in December.

In 2020, GW replaced Dr. Ilana Feldman as the interim dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs after GW for Israel and other Zionist organizations alleged she was an antisemite for supporting Boycotting, Sanctioning and Divesting from Israel in the past. BDS, which civil rights activist Angela Davis called an “ethical imperative” to implement across academic institutions, is a nonviolent cause that advocates for political and economic institutions divesting from Israel as a means to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The University posted a statement affirming its institutional stance against BDS after replacing Feldman.

In 2021, then-University President Thomas LeBlanc threatened to close the Office of Advocacy and Support in response to its plans to host a “virtual processing space” for Palestinian students after an IDF attack in Gaza killed 260 Palestinians, including 66 children, to further Palestinian evictions from the territory. Assistant Vice President of Health and Safety Kathleen Fox also threatened to fire OAS staff if they did not cancel the event, according to Palestine Legal. To date, the University has not allowed trauma support events for Palestinian students, and two of the three permanent OAS staff members have resigned.

The complaint against Sheehi from last month alleged she facilitated an unsafe environment for Jewish students by inviting an internationally renowned Palestinian legal activist to deliver a guest lecture that criticized Israel’s weapons and pharmaceuticals testing on Palestinian prisoners and children. Sheehi defended the lecture, arguing that criticism of Israel was not antisemitic, a distinction the allegations against her purposefully blur. While the complaint alleges Sheehi made comments targeting students for their Israeli identity, which is clearly inappropriate if true, StandWithUs wrongly argues that legitimate criticism of Israel is antisemitic.

Conversations around Israel’s occupation of Palestine are extremely contentious and controversial, but that is precisely the kind of speech that requires the most protection. GW must publicly acknowledge and apologize for its patent violations of its own policy on academic freedom to afford University community members “the broadest possible latitude to inquire, speak, write, listen, challenge and learn” without threat of being punished, harassed or fired – and extend these freedoms to speech critical of Israel.

The University must clearly distinguish antisemitism from anti-Zionism in its nondiscrimination and nonretaliation policies. And officials must begin repairing the harm they have done to Palestinian students by reinstating trauma support services for them and reversing the University’s policy on BDS.

It is incredibly irresponsible for academic institutions to repress speech for fear of bad press or retaliation. When our political institutions fail to promote rigorous civic engagement with dissenting views, academic institutions must step up to the task of fostering that environment – and it is about time GW stepped up.

Karina Ochoa Berkley, a senior majoring in political science and philosophy, is an opinions columnist.

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