Daniel Burston

Calling on GWU: Take Jewish students’ claims about Dr. Lara Sheehi seriously

The psych professor, who has posted hateful rhetoric against Zionism and Israelis, should be suspended for now from teaching a required diversity course

The following open letter was co-authored by Daniel Burston, PhD, Cary Nelson, PhD, David Sasso, MD, MPH, and Ilene Serlin, PhD. It addresses an evolving situation regarding allegations of antisemitism in the doctoral psychology program at The George Washington University in the United States. The controversy surrounding these allegations reflects growing concerns about antisemitism in academia and beyond.

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Open letter to The George Washington University 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. 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.

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 come 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 George Washington University 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.

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,

Daniel Burston, PhD, PhD, Behavioral science historian
Cary Nelson, PhD, English professor
David A. Sasso, MD, MPH, Psychiatrist
Ilene Serlin, PhD, Psychologist

Those interested in signing this letter and who have a professional relationship with the issues at stake may click this link, to sign and view a continually updated list of signatures.

  1. Co-signatories (as of Wednesday, February 1, 2023)
    The Executive Committee, Alliance for Academic Freedom
  2. Phyllis Chesler, Emerita Professor of Psychology
  3. Jon Mills, PsyD, PhD, ABPP, Honorary Professor, Psychosocial & Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex
  4. Gabriel Noah Brahm, Ph.D., Director, Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom
  5. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Director, Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism
  6. Jeffrey Jay, Clinical Psychologist
  7. Marissa Sappho, LCSW, BCD, CEDS-S, Board Certified Psychoanalyst (ACSWA)
  8. Susannah Neumann, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
  9. Karen Weiss, Psy.D.
  10. Marie Baird, Ph.D., Philosophy of Religion and Holocaust Studies
  11. Louis Oppenheim, Professor and Chair, Medical Humanities
  12. Cheryl Goldstein, Ph.D. Psy.D.
  13. Leon Hoffman, MD. CO-Director, Pacella Research Institute, New York Psychoanalytic Society
  14. Susana Cavallo, Ph.D. Prof. of Spanish
  15. Jeffrey Mallow, Ph.D., Prof. Emeritus of Physics
  16. Warren S. Poland, MD
  17. Monique Rodrigues Balbuena, Ph.D., Comparitive Literature and Jewish Studies
  18. Rebecca Lesses, Ph.D., Prof. of Philosophy and Religion, Jewish Studies
  19. Barry A. Farber, Ph.D., Prof. Clinical Psychology
  20. Elina Veytsman, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Clinical Fellow, UCLA
  21. Jane Jordan, Psy.D.
  22. Nancy E. Moss, Ph.D., Psychologist
  23. Marilyn Safir, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Clinical and Social Psychology
  24. Ilissa Greenberg, Psy.D.
  25. Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., Psychologist
  26. Michael Harris, MD.
  27. Beverley Schneider, LCSW, Psychoanalyst, NPAP
  28. Irit Felson, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology
  29. Rochelle Steinwurtzel, Psy.D. , Clinical Psychologist, Instructor in Medical Psychology
  30. Norman Straker, MD, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
  31. Cathy Weiz, LCSW
  32. Tobi Zausner, PhD, LCSW, Psychologist/Social Worker
  33. Marc Kiselica, Ph.D., HSPP, Director, School of Behavioral Sciences and Education
  34. Stan Nadel, Ph.D. History
  35. Stacey Berlin, Psy.D., Psy.D.
  36. Herbert Wyman, MD
  37. Susan Goldberg, JD, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
  38. Hila Smilovitch, MA, Communication Management
  39. Eliza Stucker-Rozovsky, Psy.D, Postodctoral Fellow
  40. Daniel Birger, MD, New York Psychoanalytic Institute
  41. Shanna Tillman, Psy.D.
  42. David Goldberg, Psy.D., Psychologist/Psychoanalyst
  43. Douglas Kirsner, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Philosophy and Psychoanalytic Studies
  44. Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D., Psychologist
  45. Susan Kavaler-Adler, PhD, ABPP, NCPsyA, American Board and Academy of Psychoanalysis
  46. Henry Nunberg, MD, psychoanalyst
  47. Barbara Ingram, Professor of Psychology
  48. Cheryl Kier, Associate Professor of Psychology
  49. Corrine E. Blackmer, Professor of English and Jewish Studies
  50. Mary Twis, PhD, LMSW-AP, Social Worker
  51. Joe Lockard, Professor of English
  52. Gunther Jikeli. Ph.D., historian
  53. David Patterson, Ph.D. Comparative Literature and Holocaust Studies
  54. Steven D. Fraade, PhD, Religious Studies and Judaic Studies
  55. Andrés Martin, MD, PhD, Psychiatrist
  56. Henry Bachrach, Ph.D, Psychoanalyst
  57. Lilli Friedland, Ph.D., ABPP, Clinical Psychologist
  58. Matthew Schneirov, Ph.D., Chair of Sociology
  59. Naomi Libby, MD, MHA, Psychiatrist
  60. Nadia Krupnokova, MD, psychiatrist, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
  61. Stephen Pfeiffer, Professor Emeritus of Psychology
  62. Izabella Tabarovsky, MA, history
  63. Ellen Cannon, Ph.D., Professor, Political Science and Jewish Studies
  64. Ruth H. Shorr, MA, LCPC, Psychoanalyst, Psychotherapist
  65. Sherrin Packer Rosenthal, LCSW, LPCC, LMFT, PPSC
  66. David Rosenthal, MD
  67. Philip Herschenfeld, MD
  68. Mauricio Cortina, MD, psychiatrist/psychoanalyst
  69. Tobi Zausner, PhD, LCSW
  70. Eunice G. Pollack, PhD, historian
  71. Doron Ben-Atar, PhD, Professor of History
  72. Alexandra Chana Fishman, Ph.D., social work
  73. Louis Fleishman, Ph.D, social scientist
  74. Christopher Gassenschmidt, Ph.D., historian
  75. Rochelle L. Millen, Ph.D, religion
  76. Ben M. Freeman, educator and author
  77. Marlene Grossman, psychology
  78. Joël Kotek, Ph.D, political science
  79. Peggy J. Kleinplatz, Ph.D., Psychologist
  80. Fran Martin, PhD, Psychologist, Psychoanalyst
  81. Fiamma Nirenstein, journalist
  82. Katherine Aron-Beller, PhD, history
  83. Sylvia Barack Fishman, PhD, Jewish Life and Culture
  84. Lawrence Amsel, MD, MPH, Psychiatry
  85. Joan O’Callaghan, MA, B.Ed, English
  86. Sylvia Barack Fishman, Emerita Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture
  87. Luis Fleischman, Ph.D., Professor I, Social Sciences
  88. Rochelle L. Millen, Ph.d, Professor Emerita of Religion
  89. Christine Maxwell, PhD
  90. Stanton Marlan, PHD, PhD, Clinical Psychologist and psychoanalyst
  91. Alan Hack, Ph.D., Psychologist
  92. Shaul Rabinowitz PhD, Clinical Psychology
  93. Henry Greenspan, Ph.D, psychologist and playwright
  94. David Greenberg, PhD, History, Alliance for Academic Freedom
About the Author
Daniel Burston is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University.