Last month, a Palestinian rights group filed a federal complaint against George Washington University (GW), alleging the institution allows discrimination against Palestinians to persist unabated on campus.
Palestine Legal filed a federal complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, demanding it investigates what the organization describes as a “years-long, hostile environment of anti-Palestinian racism.”
The legal rights group is representing three students who say they have experienced anti-Palestinian discrimination from fellow classmates, professors, administrators, and GW Hillel, a Jewish campus organization.
According to the complaint, George Washington University canceled a virtual processing space for Palestinian students after the university’s Hillel complained. The elimination of the processing space ultimately denied mental health services to Palestinian students. In one incident, a Palestinian student, who had been shot by an Israeli soldier while studying remotely from her home in the occupied West Bank, could not access trauma support services because the processing space was no longer available.
“There is simply no justification for GW’s racist, bigoted treatment of Palestinians,” Radhika Sainath, Palestine Legal’s senior staff attorney, said. “Even if pro-Israel groups don’t like it and complain, the law is clear, Palestinian students are entitled to the same education and services as other students.”
In a statement to MintPress News, George Washington University said it has not seen the complaint, adding that the “[u]niversity strongly condemns hatred, discrimination and bias in all forms, and we are committed to fostering an environment in which the entire community feels safe and free of harassment, hostility or marginalization.”
In another instance, the complaint details how a student associated with the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a college activism organization, was falsely accused of vandalism by GW Hillel’s executive director, Adena Kirstein.
The vandalism was actually committed by a white Jewish student from the university’s Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, a pro-Palestinian activist group, who, in the Jewish newspaper, The Forward, admitted to putting up posters outside Hillel before the SJP student was probed.
While the SJP student was cleared of wrongdoing, the student learned GW’s Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement, Caroline Laguerre-Brown, was the one who called the police and initiated the complaint process against SJP.
“I was forced to go through these disciplinary hearings being singled out as an Arab student on campus, and racially profiled by police and the administration,” the student, who wished to remain anonymous, told MintPress News.
George Washington University has recently been in the spotlight for cases of discrimination against Palestinians. After Dr. Lara Sheehi, a George Washington psychology professor, organized an optional brown bag lunch featuring Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a Hebrew University professor who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, several students used Sheehi’s next class to make anti-Palestinian statements. They said Shalhoub-Kevorkian “would dance on [the student’s] niece’s grave” and claimed that Palestinians killed by the Israeli army are terrorists.
Now Sheehi, who was born in Lebanon, is facing an Office for Civil Rights complaint against her from the pro-Israel group, StandWithUs, accusing Sheehi of anti-Semitism and discriminating against Jewish and Israeli students. StandWithUs has a history of weaponizing anti-Semitism to silence criticism of Israel on college campuses. Following the complaint, George Washington University opened up another investigation into Sheehi.
Backed by the Israel Lobby
The SJP student involved in Palestine Legal’s complaint explained that part of the problem is that, as student activists, they do not receive the same level of monetary support that other campus groups get.
“We don’t have that kind of institutional power on campus, and Zionists do,” the SJP student said. “The balance of power is fundamentally skewed against Palestinians and Arabs on campus.”
The SJP student emphasizes that with more money comes greater lobbying capabilities.
GW’s Hillel chapter recently finished rebuilding its center, which opened its doors in 2021. Designed to provide Hillel with larger accommodations on campus, the new four-story building cost $13.5 million to complete.
The campus Hillel receives strong financial backing from the university and a number of foundations. In 2020, George Washington University awarded Hillel with a grant worth more than $2 million. GW Hillel also receives funding from the Maccabee Task Force (MTF) Foundation, which gave it nearly $130,000 in 2019, according to MTF’s most recent tax filing. Under the slogan combating “anti-Semitism on campus,” the foundation’s main goal is to tackle the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
MTF’s mission states:
We maintain that BDS is an Antisemitic movement that crosses the line from legitimate criticism of Israel into the dangerous demonization of Israel and its supporters. We are determined to help students combat this hate by bringing them the strategies and resources they need to tell the truth about Israel.
MTF was founded and largely funded by the pro-Israel billionaire the late Sheldon Adelson and is headed by David Brog, who previously worked as the executive director of Christians United for Israel, a pro-Israel organization. MTF has also funded other Israel lobby networks like pro-Israel newspaper, Algemeiner, the Israeli American Council, and Act.IL, a now-defunct Israeli propaganda app.
The SJP student suggests that discrimination against Palestinians on campus is an institutional problem. “It’s deeply rooted in the administration and in GW as an institution because the national liberation of Palestinians is seen as a political threat to GW and to the powerful entities that fund and support the administration,” they said.
Not just George Washington University
Palestine Legal responded to numerous cases of discrimination at George Washington University in the lead-up to its federal complaint against the university.
“The way that the administration has dealt with Palestinian advocacy and Palestinians on campus has been deeply troubling,” Dylan Saba, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, told MintPress News. “It has demonstrated, absolutely, a kind of broader anti-Palestinian climate.”
Yet Saba cautioned labeling George Washington University as a unique case in the U.S. “We see these kinds of issues on campuses across the country.” he said. “The kinds of anti-Palestinian discrimination [and] suppression of political speech — we’re seeing that nationwide.”
Reporting from Palestine Legal demonstrates a significant increase in suppression of pro-Palestinian activism on U.S. college campuses. In 2021, 58% of incidents Palestine Legal responded to targeted students and scholars on campus. This number jumped to 70% in 2022. Pro-Israel groups are the main drivers behind suppressing Palestinian advocacy at universities, often encouraging investigations into student conduct and manufacturing accusations of anti-Semitism.
Despite posing a clear threat to academic freedom, school administrators continue yielding to the Israel lobby’s pressure in university life.
“The GW administration just continues to prove time and time again that they will always align with the Zionist lobby,” the SJP student said. “GW continues to bend to the threats and interests of rightwing pro-Israel groups over protecting the free speech and political expression rights of students and community members.”
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.