A psychology professor responded Friday to allegations of antisemitism from a pro-Israel nonprofit, contesting that its claims are false and used “racist, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian tropes” to disparage her.
Lara Sheehi, an assistant professor of clinical psychology, said in an article published in the liberal-leaning magazine CounterPunch that the allegations – which the advocacy group StandWithUs filed in a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education last month – are a “misrepresentation” of what occurred in the Diversity I course she taught in the fall and “targets” her for being an Arab woman who advocates for Palestinians. The complaint alleges that Sheehi created a “hostile environment” for Jewish and Israeli students and “retaliated” against students who raised concerns about her class discussions, a guest speaker and course materials that addressed the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“The objective and irrefutable facts do not support StandWithUs’ specious claims that I target my Jewish and Israeli students,” Sheehi said in the article. “They do not support the unethical and dangerous allegations that I am antisemitic and retaliatory. What the facts, in glaring clarity do support, is that, like others before me, StandWithUs exploited students’ political beliefs and targeted me because I am an Arab woman who is involved in scholarship and activism for Palestine and Palestinians.”
Sheehi said since StandWithUs filed the complaint last month, she has received racist messages and death threats, and her address, professional license and personal email address were leaked online. She said StandWithUs’ decision to redact every name in the complaint except hers subjected her to racism and sexism over the past month.
Sheehi did not return a request for comment.
Roz Rothstein, the co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, said she and other members of StandWithUs “appreciate” the Jewish students who raised concerns about Sheehi’s conduct and are calling for an “unbiased” investigation after University officials announced a “third party” would investigate StandWithUs’ allegations against Sheehi.
“We are confident that attempts to slander StandWithUs (a nonpartisan organization) will be seen for what they are: a means of shifting the focus away from serious claims of anti-Jewish bigotry,” Rothstein said in an email. “We hope that such attempts will either be disregarded or called out as a diversionary tactic to make this complaint about politics rather than about identity-based, discriminatory antisemitic conduct, such as that experienced by Dr. Sheehi’s Jewish and Israeli students.”
More than 2,000 students, alumni, faculty and advocates signed more than half a dozen statements in support of Sheehi over the past month.
The statements include a letter from more than 100 students and alumni from GW’s Professional Psychology Program where Sheehi teaches, a letter from the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel signed by more than 1,800 people like political activist Angela Davis and a statement from the Health Advisory Council for Jewish Voice for Peace – a progressive Jewish activist organization.
Sheehi said StandWithUs “unethically” represented a guest “brown bag” lecture by Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, the chair of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who discussed how psychologists work can inadvertently contribute to state projects, like the Israeli government’s mental and public health initiatives in the Global South.
Sheehi said the Title VI complaint “fails to mention” students were not required to attend the guest presentation, and the event took place in the Elliott School of International Affairs building, so students would not feel “obliged” to attend outside of the program’s space.
StandWithUs alleges in the complaint that students felt Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s presentation “targeted” Israeli and Jewish people and played into the antisemitic stereotype of Jewish people “using money for nefarious purposes.”
“Rather than exclusivizing Israel and alienating students as the complaint cynically asserts, students across cohorts lauded how the brown bag spoke to the ethical responsibility of clinical psychologists to recognize how they may be mobilized, even inadvertently, to serve state projects, no matter the state,” Sheehi states in her article.
Sheehi spent the class following the speaker event discussing concerns a few Jewish students raised about Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s presentation, according to her article. She said several students in the class “extended their empathy” to understand Jewish students’ perspectives on the presentation, but the Jewish students engaged in “racist rhetoric” about Shalhoub-Kevorkian, like suggesting she was a “terrorist” who supported violence against Jews.
“Because of the inappropriate and relentless anti-Arab, Islamophobic and anti-Black tropes, several students attempted to deescalate the combativeness by alerting their classmates that perhaps despite their intention, their message was clouded by racism and being lost in the process of berating a professor,” Sheehi states in the article.
Sheehi said StandWithUs’ allegation that three of the course readings portrayed Israel and Jewish people in a negative light is “false.” Only two of the readings mention Palestine in passing, according to the article.
Sheehi added that the accusation that she “retaliated” against the Jewish students who voiced concerns with “disciplinary proceedings” is false. She said faculty in the program initiated a “nonpunitive” remediation process following a monthslong back and forth between the students, Sheehi and administrators, but no student received less than an A in the zero-credit course.
She alleged that in two instances during the semester, some of the Jewish students who voiced concerns yelled in class, using discriminatory language against Black and Arab people.
“These students were disruptive, yelled at and berated a professor twice and used explicitly pejorative, demeaning, inflammatory and racist language against Black people and Arabs,” Sheehi states in the article.
Sheehi said she is “certain” the third-party investigation the University announced last month after StandWithUs filed its complaint will corroborate her perspective, but GW’s move to investigate sets a “reckless precedent” of giving StandWithUs “even a modicum of credibility.”
“This move not only preempts adjudication by the Department of Education but encourages right-wing political advocacy groups, empowering them to believe that their tactics of harassment and intimidation to silence critical voices yields results,” Sheehi states in the article.
The Palestine-Global Mental Health Network – an organization working to promote mental health and social justice in Palestine and around the world – published two letters in support of Sheehi last month signed by 65 students and 55 alumni of the program and 230 of Sheehi’s Jewish colleagues.
“The resulting allegations of her creating a hostile learning environment for Jewish students and of retaliating against them could not be further than the truth,” the letter from students and alumni states. “We are concerned that as an Arab woman, she is the only individual whose name was not redacted from the Title VI complaint filed by StandWithUs, underscoring the extent to which both her scholarly focus and her identity are motivators for this attack.”
A student who was in Sheehi’s course last semester who requested to remain anonymous due to fear of public retaliation for speaking out on Sheehi’s behalf said the students at the center of the StandWithUs complaint made racist comments about Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Arab people, during the Oct. 3 class session following the guest speaker presentation.
“There was an understandable and acceptable level of discomfort over some of the things that were said or discussed by the brown bag speaker,” they said in an interview. “But in class on Oct. 3, several classmates allowed their discomfort to turn into defensiveness that then proceeded to actively harm and speak ill of groups of people that represent not only their classmates, but also our professor and our guest speaker.”
Another student who was in Sheehi’s course last semester who also requested to remain anonymous due to fear of public retaliation said StandWithUs’ complaint subjected Sheehi to a racist, xenophobic and sexist response from alt-right spaces online.
“They are building up the fire, putting all the materials down and handing the gasoline to people who are more than happy to show the darkest and meanest sides of themselves and calling a person they’ve never met a slur because some article said that she’s a terrible person without doing any concrete evidence themselves,” they said in an interview.
This article appeared in the February 6, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.