University administrators have yet to engage ethically with Zionism as they do with other socially reprehensible ideologies

Lara Sheehi

 Caption: Left: Dr. Lara Sheehi; Right: Dr. Steven Salaita

I am so happy for Dr. Lara Sheehi, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University (GWU); her immediate nightmare has come to an end. After being put through the Zionist wringer over false accusations of antisemitism by StandWithUs (SWU), “a right-wing pro-Israel political activist group,” she has now been officially cleared.

There is rejoicing at this result everywhere among academics who advocate for Palestinian rights, but I am still furious. What Dr. Sheehi had to go through should never have happened. She is owed, not only the statement of exoneration issued by the president of GWU that included a summary of the findings by an impartial third-party investigator, but also an apology and damages.

To me, the wording of the statement is frustrating in its total lack of insight into the so-called “Zionist narrative” and Zionist institutions, including Hillel, on campuses nationwide, and what these have done to turn Judaism into a tool of erasure of the cultural heritage and the indigenous population of Palestine. Along the way, that “narrative,” accepted by so many “secular” and religious Jews and pushed by StandWithUs, has played havoc with “Jewish identity” politics as well.

The single reference to Palestine in the long summary of the findings by the president of the University comes only at the very end in the form of the “Israel-Palestine conflict,” which is described as “extremely complex” requiring civilized discourse and hyper vigilance to ensure that such discourse never crosses the line into antisemitism. The “complexity” of the issue is thus reduced to this banal nugget.

It is important to understand that the bad faith efforts of lobby organizations such as StandWithUs are not confined to complete and utter misrepresentation of Dr. Sheehi’s classroom but extend to the erasure of Palestinian history, culture and the very existence of Palestinians.

If real and enduring change happens one step at a time, it appears that change while climbing steep hills requires tiny steps. Zionist propaganda is a steep hill. Following Dr. Sheehi’s persecution up to this point, I’ve often wondered how much change has taken place in the mindset of university administrators since Dr. Steven Salaita’s smear campaign over his tweets in 2014.

On the plus side, GWU has been made to acknowledge that “Underlying much of the discourse that arose in [Dr. Sheehy’s] class is the issue of what is appropriately defined as antisemitism — that is, whether structural critiques of the State of Israel, including actions by the Israeli government, constitute antisemitism. This issue is being debated in college campuses across the country, and in many other arenas.”

That is certainly a positive change since Dr. Salaita’s time in the wringer, when the Zionist definition of antisemitism was implicit and widely accepted without any debate.

The president’s statement, however, explicitly indicts Dr. Sheehi of wrong doing in reference to “profane tweets from a Twitter account linked to Dr. Sheehi believed to be posted several years ago, which include references to ‘Zionists’ and ‘Israelis.’” The University “disapproves” of and “strongly denounces” these tweets and seems to let Dr. Sheehi off on a technicality so to speak: “… the tweets were made in a private Twitter account that was only briefly visible to the public. Moreover, the review found that no students interviewed were aware of any of Dr. Sheehi’s tweets during the Fall 2022 course, and found no evidence that she made any statements to students similar to the statements in the tweets… Although the tweets from what appears to be Dr. Sheehi’s personal account do not violate GW’s social media policy, the university strongly denounces the use of profane language directed at any group of people, including in private tweets.”

On this count, I see no change since Dr. Salaita’s case. To call “Zionists” a group that needs to be protected from “profane speech” on Twitter or anywhere is akin to calling the KKK such a group. University administrators have yet to engage ethically with Zionism as they do with other socially reprehensible ideologies.

Even if it were true that in the 16th and 17th centuries the intent of early Zionists, “messiahs” who came forward trying to persuade Jews to “return” to Palestine, was not political or barbarous toward the indigenous population of Palestine, it certainly isn’t true today and hasn’t been since the first Zionist Congress was convened by Theodor Herzl in 1897 and its Zionist goals revealed to the world explicitly and without shame. In practice and ideology, Zionism is an ongoing attempt to erase not only Palestinian cultural heritage and replace it with a Jewish false claim but also to erase the indigenous population itself.

University administrators in the US continue to champion the walled post-WWII world order in Palestine (also to be found in such places as Kashmir, the Horn of Africa, Nepal, Turkey, the Greek Islands and the Congo) where undesirable populations are controlled by genocide or imprisonment.

StandWithUs, which filed the complaint against George Washington University with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has wasted the resources of this office by knowingly making a false report for the political gain of a foreign country. And that’s a crime, as is the libel Dr. Sheehi has endured.

Dr. Lara Sheehi’s ordeal, like Dr. Steven Salaita’s and like the ordeal of Palestinians everywhere, is not quite over.

Note: First published on Medium

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Rima Najjar is a Palestinian whose father’s side of the family comes from the forcibly depopulated village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem and whose mother’s side of the family is from Ijzim, south of Haifa. She is an activist, researcher and retired professor of English literature, Al-Quds University, occupied West Bank


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