Jonathan A. Greenblatt
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George Washington U. needs to step up response to antisemitism on campus

With US universities paying only lip service to a climate of inclusion, Jewish college students can face severe harassment
Professor's Gate, at George Washington University. (AgnosticPreachersKid, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Professor's Gate, at George Washington University. (AgnosticPreachersKid, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In response to stinging accusations of antisemitic discrimination and retaliation at George Washington University, administrators at the prestigious private institution have issued a series of statements saying that the school “strongly condemns antisemitism” and promising a third-party investigation.

This is a good first step toward recognizing a problem exists, but provides little solace or reassurance to the Jewish students at GWU and other universities who have reported witnessing and experiencing antisemitic harassment and intimidation this academic year.

There’s plenty of cause for alarm for Jewish students on campus.

At GWU, students have filed a Title VI complaint alleging an assistant professor for a graduate level mandatory diversity course created a hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students. The students allege the assistant professor, Lara Sheehi, who has worked at GW since 2016, asked students in her course to share where they were from, telling one student, “It’s not your fault you were born in Israel.” The complaint also alleges Sheehi has described Zionism as a mental illness, and told a student that “in no uncertain terms, anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” following a lecture where a speaker alleged Israel uses humanitarian aid to distract from its “oppressive power.”

While the GWU statement from President Mark S. Wrighton condemned antisemitism and hate and promised an investigation, it also noted that GWU “recognizes and supports academic freedom.” But this is hardly a question of academic freedom. It’s a question of the extent to which a hostile antisemitic environment may have been created on campus by a member of GWU’s own faculty.

This comes amid a climate of heightened antisemitism on campuses across the country. In November, a student at the University of Michigan was assaulted by a male student who grabbed her arm and hurled antisemitic comments at her. The University of Michigan Police Department has concluded the assault was “ethnic intimidation.” This followed the distribution of antisemitic fliers in off-campus neighborhoods in Ann Arbor before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, in September. Earlier this year, a so-called “political” demonstration involved chants that called for violent action against the Jewish state, intimidating Jewish students and outraging Michigan alumni.

At the University of California, Berkeley Law School, a fringe student group, Berkeley Law Students for Justice, sought to extract a demand from all law school clubs to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and to not host so-called “Zionist speakers.” Shockingly, at least nine clubs took up the pledge. But even one group is one too many.

In 2021, the ADL Center on Extremism tracked a total of 155 antisemitic acts on college campuses across the US, up from 128 the previous year – which tells us that antisemitism aimed at Jewish students is not just limited to a handful of campuses. The phenomenon is widespread, an unsurprising truth considering the surge in anti-Jewish attitudes across the US and the shocking spike in antisemitic incidents in recent years.

Despite the severity of these harassing episodes faced by Jewish students, universities where the attacks are occurring outrageously have done little more than pay lip service to creating an inclusive climate for all students, while in many cases minimizing concerns raised by Jewish students if not ignoring them altogether.  While Title VI provides one form of recourse, these complaints can take months, if not years to resolve. Much more needs to happen to provide immediate support for Jewish students on campus. And this needs to start with proactive leadership from administrators.

First and foremost, why has GWU not condemned the professor’s statements, or at least considered administrative leave pending the outcome of the third-party investigation? These steps would help to assure Jewish students, and send a message to the broader community, that the allegations are being taken seriously.

Antisemitism obviously must be part of any credible DEI effort, but GWU and other campuses marred by anti-Jewish incidents should implement a training specifically on antisemitism. Moreover, such work should focus on the “adults” in these spaces, those parties responsible for keeping students safe – the administration, president’s cabinet, board of trustees, faculty and staff. Some schools have taken this step. For example, ADL led a training along these lines for faculty at American University that was particularly successful.

As we witnessed with the incident at UC Berkeley, there also is a clear need to work directly with students on campus. There are programs offered by ADL and other organizations that can help educate students about the impact of bias and empower them to respond when they witness a student being harassed either by a faculty member or by a fellow student.

Finally, universities should be accountable to the communities that have been harmed. In this instance, universities should track progress by checking in with Jewish students and stakeholders to ensure that they feel as welcome and supported as other groups. ADL would be more than willing to lead such an effort. There also are other capable organizations like Hillel International, which has a huge footprint on campuses across the country, that also could help.

The last thing any parent wants is for their children to face harassment and intimidation on campus. The last thing any student wants is to face hostility from their professors and hate from their peers. If universities aspire to serve as environments where ideas can flourish and all individuals can succeed, there should be no room for antisemitism or bigotry, period.

About the Author
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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