From a distance, I follow the controversy surrounding the alleged behavior of Prof. Lara Sheehi, who teaches the required DEI class to psychology students at George Washington University. The key allegations boil down to her vilifying, bullying and otherwise abusing students who are Israeli, Jewish and/or pro-Israel. Professors who should know better claim she was targeted for her pro-Palestinian views. The allegations suggest otherwise, and also beg the question of why a professor would present her views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a DEI psychology class to begin with… Note that even those of us, like blogger Eugene and myself, who are quite skeptical of the law on a hostile speech-based environment in general, draw a clear line against hostile speech by faculty that is individually targeted at specific students.
Anyway, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East published an open letter about the controversy, and I thought it was pretty good (although as you might expect, I have a few objections, so I don’t accept the entire letter as my own perspective), so I share it.
An Open Letter to George Washington University (GWU) Regarding Allegations of Anti-Semitism
We, the undersigned, are mental health clinicians and educators, practitioners of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, and scholars of anti-Semitism from several disciplines. We are a diverse group, including those from the political left, right and center; Jews and non-Jews, and those with different views on Zionism.
We are deeply troubled by the allegations regarding Dr. Lara Sheehi, President-elect 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 Teacher Academy. dr. Sheehi teaches the required Diversity course for graduate psychology students at George Washington University. A formal complaint was filed on behalf of several of her Jewish and Israeli students, detailing a series of failures by her and the University to treat all students equally and with respect. (We encourage the reader to review the entire StandWithUs complaint to understand the magnitude of the allegations.) These allegations are alarming and, if true, expose an egregious abuse of the trust commonly placed in educators and constitute a clear violation of Title VI. prohibits discrimination based on national origin and other characteristics in institutions that receive state support.
Since the complaint surfaced, several letters defending Dr. Sheeha have circulated and gained widespread support, claiming that concerns about her teaching and her online presence—which is filled with expletives and hateful rhetoric against Zionism and Israelis—are the result of a right-wing Zionist conspiracy. It is a shocking fact that these signatories signed letters in which they neither took into account the possibility that the students’ statements were correct, nor did they demand that they be considered with respect. Would this be the case if the disciples were not Jews or Israelites? Imagine the scandal that would erupt if a group of students of other backgrounds—black students, Muslim students, or LGBT students—claimed that their professor excluded and shamed them based on their religion, ethnicity, national origin, or sexual orientation in a required diversity course. Calls for the resignation or dismissal of such a professor would be swift and sharp. And while these remain allegations for now, Dr. Sheehi’s tweets and online interviews involving the Israelis make the allegations quite plausible, with more than enough reason to warrant careful examination. (Her deleted Twitter account included statements such as: “Israelis are so fucking racist,” “Zionists are reckless,” “you can’t be a Zionist and a feminist at the same time,” “Fuck Zionism, Zionists…” “Fuck every person who not yet anti-Zionist,” and “Zionists are so far in their own form.”)
Therefore, forcing Jewish and Israeli students to take a course with Dr. Sheehi while these complaints are being investigated is highly inappropriate. As a precedent, consider the case of University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, who made hostile remarks about black students in a required course and was subsequently removed from her teaching role.
Letters written in support of Dr Sheeha claimed she had been “silenced” because of her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let’s make it clear that this is simply not the case. She remains free to express her political and academic views, which are not relevant here. Her behavior in class is. If the complaints against her are supported by facts, then her willingness to bully, belittle and take revenge on students of a certain religious, ethnic and national origin is extremely unprofessional. That being the case, we are appalled at the completely inadequate response to student concerns displayed by faculty in GWU’s psychology program and administrators at senior leadership levels. At a time when significant resources are being invested in promoting diversity, equality and inclusion, singling out Jews and Israelis as undeserving of such protection is nothing short of anti-Semitism. Moreover, it is ironic to see Jewish Voice for Peace criticize StandWithUs, the organization that filed the complaint on behalf of GWU students, for “…conflating the emotional discomfort of some Jewish students with targeted harassment….” This is especially disingenuous when diversity, equity and inclusion efforts claim that influence supersedes intent in matters of racism and discrimination. The specific policy of StandWithUs as an organization has no bearing on whether students’ allegations should be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, many of the letters circulating in support of Dr. Sheeha miss the point and claim that concerns about her alleged behavior in the classroom are simply attempts to limit her academic freedom, encourage threats to her safety, advocate “doxxing” and/or come from right-wing ” booklets”. These claims are unfounded. Really:
We condemn in the strongest terms any threat to the safety of Dr. Sheeha (or anyone close to her).
We strongly oppose any attempt to “dox” Dr. Sheeha or publish private information about her in a malicious attempt to tarnish her reputation prior to an investigation by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The allegations against her are troubling enough as they stand. There is no need for these reprehensible tactics.
We strongly support academic freedom, although many of us disagree with Dr. Sheehi’s framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We deny that the concerns expressed about Dr. Sheehi come only from the right wing or from a Jewish conspiracy of powerful individuals, and we will not dwell on the tired anti-Semitic track this argument represents. Concerns about her behavior and her suitability for certain educational and leadership roles come from across the political spectrum.
We confirm that the allegations in the StandWithUs complaint are still allegations. We call on the Ministry of Education and the GWU to promptly and impartially conduct their own investigation carefully assessing the testimonies of Jewish and Israeli students in light of the substantial supporting 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 has every right to his opinion, his academic freedom and, above all, his personal safety. But as a teacher of a diverse student body and leader of a diverse organization, she must not allow her political views to prejudge her interactions with students, patients, or colleagues. [emphasis added by DB]
We hope this expression of concern dispels the outrageous misconceptions present in the various letters of support Dr. Sheehi has received thus far. We decided to speak out because cases like these where Jewish and Israeli students are harassed, belittled and excluded are becoming more common on campuses across the United States and rarely receive the attention and impartial treatment they deserve. Not only are they fueling a global resurgence of anti-Semitism, they are fueling a dangerous turn in the field of mental health where activism enters doctor’s offices, where anti-discrimination efforts covertly condone discrimination, and where frankly unprofessional and unethical behavior is masked under the guise of academic freedom.
In conclusion, we call on GWU to remove Dr. Sheehi from his teaching role on the required courses until this matter is resolved. In light of the available online material, if the allegations against Dr. Sheehi are substantiated in part or in whole, it may also cast doubt on her fitness to train psychotherapists in general.
Sincerely and sincerely signed,
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