George Washington University is failing to protect Jewish students, and DEI is partly to blame – Opinion

The article is published in The Washington Examiner. To read the full article, click here.

The George Washington University has long been known as one of the “most Jewish” colleges in the United States. But its traditional reputation masks an ugly truth. Antisemitism abounds on campus, and administrators are failing to protect Jewish students from blatant discrimination. In an ironic twist, well-intentioned diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are at least partially to blame.

By most metrics, Jewish life is flourishing at the university. It consistently ranks among the schools with the largest campus Jewish populations. There is no shortage of scholastic offerings and extracurricular opportunities for those interested in exploring Judaism and Israel. So why do we read about a new antisemitic incident every few weeks? Why do Jewish students now say they feel unwelcome, even unsafe, on campus?

At least part of the answer lies with the university’s specific approach to DEI, including the adoption of mandatory diversity classes. The university's Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement website begins with a land acknowledgment and asks students to “take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that inform and impact us all.” While the university’s commitment to these issues is laudable, its implementation of the DEI framework has been fraught with peril. A recent incident in the Professional Psychology Program shows how these efforts can be weaponized against Jewish students.

According to a Title VI complaint recently filed by StandWithUs, “Jewish and Israeli students in the Program’s mandatory diversity course were singled out for repeated and persistent harassment.” Co-opting the language of DEI, Dr. Lara Sheehi, an assistant professor of psychology, harangued Jewish students about their supposed power and privilege. She brought in virulently antisemitic guest speakers, including one who said “that good deeds done by Jews and Israelis are done to mask sinister activity” and that the appropriate response to “white Israeli racism” is “violent resistance.” Sheehi seems to have gone out of her way to create a hostile environment for Jewish students all semester, even scheduling lectures during Jewish high holidays.

But when students complained to administrators, they were met with more hostility and even retaliation, according to the complaint. The university sent a campuswide email on the matter, framing it as a “political debate” and defending Sheehi. They subsequently opened disciplinary proceedings against the students who came forward to voice their concerns, never even disclosing the nature of the charges against them. Now, the students are calling for the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to intervene.

This is all part of a disturbing trend at the university, which can be traced back to the university’s differing level of support for its various minority communities. The fact that the university still has a large Jewish student population does not make Jews any safer on campus, though it may affect administrators’ perceptions about their need for protection. If the university wants to seriously and honestly build a “diverse and truly inclusive campus community,” it must support all minorities, including Jewish and pro-Israel students.

As a first step, the university should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, as so many universities and other institutions have done. This would provide yet another “tool” in administrators' proverbial “toolbox” to clearly delineate between legitimate political debate and antisemitic harassment that makes Jewish students unsafe. My organization, Alums for Campus Fairness, is readily available to help.

I was proud to get my Master of Education degree at the university over the last few years through the iCenter master’s degree program in Israel education. My classes were entirely virtual, so I never had the opportunity to experience the campus culture. But I’ve recently had the opportunity to hear from some recent graduates about their sobering experiences while on campus. From boycott, divestment, and sanctions resolutions to frequent offensive statements by professors and students in the classroom, university administrators clearly have a long way to go to fully understand how they can protect Jewish students.

It is imperative to take this Title VI complaint seriously and learn from past mistakes while also proactively changing how they handle these issues going forward. Without significant changes in attitude and policy, the university risks alienating its robust Jewish population now and in the future.