Calling on GWU: Take Jewish students’ claims about Dr. Lara Sheehi seriously
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.
- Co-signatories (as of Wednesday, February 1, 2023)
The Executive Committee, Alliance for Academic Freedom
- Phyllis Chesler, Emerita Professor of Psychology
- Jon Mills, PsyD, PhD, ABPP, Honorary Professor, Psychosocial & Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex
- Gabriel Noah Brahm, Ph.D., Director, Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom
- Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Director, Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism
- Jeffrey Jay, Clinical Psychologist
- Marissa Sappho, LCSW, BCD, CEDS-S, Board Certified Psychoanalyst (ACSWA)
- Susannah Neumann, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
- Karen Weiss, Psy.D.
- Marie Baird, Ph.D., Philosophy of Religion and Holocaust Studies
- Louis Oppenheim, Professor and Chair, Medical Humanities
- Cheryl Goldstein, Ph.D. Psy.D.
- Leon Hoffman, MD. CO-Director, Pacella Research Institute, New York Psychoanalytic Society
- Susana Cavallo, Ph.D. Prof. of Spanish
- Jeffrey Mallow, Ph.D., Prof. Emeritus of Physics
- Warren S. Poland, MD
- Monique Rodrigues Balbuena, Ph.D., Comparitive Literature and Jewish Studies
- Rebecca Lesses, Ph.D., Prof. of Philosophy and Religion, Jewish Studies
- Barry A. Farber, Ph.D., Prof. Clinical Psychology
- Elina Veytsman, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Clinical Fellow, UCLA
- Jane Jordan, Psy.D.
- Nancy E. Moss, Ph.D., Psychologist
- Marilyn Safir, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Clinical and Social Psychology
- Ilissa Greenberg, Psy.D.
- Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., Psychologist
- Michael Harris, MD.
- Beverley Schneider, LCSW, Psychoanalyst, NPAP
- Irit Felson, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology
- Rochelle Steinwurtzel, Psy.D. , Clinical Psychologist, Instructor in Medical Psychology
- Norman Straker, MD, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
- Cathy Weiz, LCSW
- Tobi Zausner, PhD, LCSW, Psychologist/Social Worker
- Marc Kiselica, Ph.D., HSPP, Director, School of Behavioral Sciences and Education
- Stan Nadel, Ph.D. History
- Stacey Berlin, Psy.D., Psy.D.
- Herbert Wyman, MD
- Susan Goldberg, JD, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
- Hila Smilovitch, MA, Communication Management
- Eliza Stucker-Rozovsky, Psy.D, Postodctoral Fellow
- Daniel Birger, MD, New York Psychoanalytic Institute
- Shanna Tillman, Psy.D.
- David Goldberg, Psy.D., Psychologist/Psychoanalyst
- Douglas Kirsner, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Philosophy and Psychoanalytic Studies
- Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D., Psychologist
- Susan Kavaler-Adler, PhD, ABPP, NCPsyA, American Board and Academy of Psychoanalysis
- Henry Nunberg, MD, psychoanalyst
- Barbara Ingram, Professor of Psychology
- Cheryl Kier, Associate Professor of Psychology
- Corrine E. Blackmer, Professor of English and Jewish Studies
- Mary Twis, PhD, LMSW-AP, Social Worker
- Joe Lockard, Professor of English
- Gunther Jikeli. Ph.D., historian
- David Patterson, Ph.D. Comparative Literature and Holocaust Studies
- Steven D. Fraade, PhD, Religious Studies and Judaic Studies
- Andrés Martin, MD, PhD, Psychiatrist
- Henry Bachrach, Ph.D, Psychoanalyst
- Lilli Friedland, Ph.D., ABPP, Clinical Psychologist
- Matthew Schneirov, Ph.D., Chair of Sociology
- Naomi Libby, MD, MHA, Psychiatrist
- Nadia Krupnokova, MD, psychiatrist, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
- Stephen Pfeiffer, Professor Emeritus of Psychology
- Izabella Tabarovsky, MA, history
- Ellen Cannon, Ph.D., Professor, Political Science and Jewish Studies
- Ruth H. Shorr, MA, LCPC, Psychoanalyst, Psychotherapist
- Sherrin Packer Rosenthal, LCSW, LPCC, LMFT, PPSC
- David Rosenthal, MD
- Philip Herschenfeld, MD
- Mauricio Cortina, MD, psychiatrist/psychoanalyst
- Tobi Zausner, PhD, LCSW
- Eunice G. Pollack, PhD, historian
- Doron Ben-Atar, PhD, Professor of History
- Alexandra Chana Fishman, Ph.D., social work
- Louis Fleishman, Ph.D, social scientist
- Christopher Gassenschmidt, Ph.D., historian
- Rochelle L. Millen, Ph.D, religion
- Ben M. Freeman, educator and author
- Marlene Grossman, psychology
- Joël Kotek, Ph.D, political science
- Peggy J. Kleinplatz, Ph.D., Psychologist
- Fran Martin, PhD, Psychologist, Psychoanalyst
- Fiamma Nirenstein, journalist
- Katherine Aron-Beller, PhD, history
- Sylvia Barack Fishman, PhD, Jewish Life and Culture
- Lawrence Amsel, MD, MPH, Psychiatry
- Joan O’Callaghan, MA, B.Ed, English
- Sylvia Barack Fishman, Emerita Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture
- Luis Fleischman, Ph.D., Professor I, Social Sciences
- Rochelle L. Millen, Ph.d, Professor Emerita of Religion
- Christine Maxwell, PhD
- Stanton Marlan, PHD, PhD, Clinical Psychologist and psychoanalyst
- Alan Hack, Ph.D., Psychologist
- Shaul Rabinowitz PhD, Clinical Psychology
- Henry Greenspan, Ph.D, psychologist and playwright
- David Greenberg, PhD, History, Alliance for Academic Freedom