Civil Rights Complaint Details an Anti-Palestinian Climate at GW

Palestinian students ask the Department of Education to crack down on discrimination at George Washington University.

Alex Kane
February 14, 2023

A protester holds a sign outside the building where disciplinary hearings took place against the president of George Washington University’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter.

Rachel Schwartz

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Three students have accused George Washington University (GW) of perpetuating a climate of anti-Palestinian racism on campus, according to a federal civil rights complaint obtained by Jewish Currents. The complaint—filed today with the Department of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights by Palestine Legal, a group that defends the civil rights of Palestine solidarity activists—documents the experiences of the students, who say that GW school officials denied them campus services for processing trauma related to Israel’s violence against Palestinians and investigated them on charges of property damage for putting up Palestine solidarity posters near campus. “The administration fostered a climate of anti-Palestinianism where political expression is suppressed and Palestinians are regularly discriminated against,” said Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal. GW did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Palestine Legal’s petition asks the DOE to require GW to end discriminatory investigations of Palestinians and their allies, issue a statement condemning anti-Palestinian racism, and ensure that Palestinian students have equal access to campus services. The complaint also demands that the university officially recognize anti-Zionism as an anti-racist ideology and pledge not to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which critics say conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel, and which Palestine Legal says would “lead to the infringement of bedrock First Amendment protections.” In a statement, a spokesperson for GW said that the university “has not seen the complaint referenced,” adding that it “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.”

The complaint advances a novel strategy first pursued by Palestine Legal in 2021, which involves filing civil rights claims arguing that universities discriminate against Palestinians because of their national origin. Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, federally-funded institutions—including most universities—are banned from discriminating against minority groups. Over the past two decades, Israel-advocacy organizations have filed numerous Title VI complaints against universities, often alleging that Palestine-solidarity activism is evidence that universities are allowing antisemitism to thrive on campus. By citing school administrations’ crackdown on Palestinian-rights activism as a basis for Title VI complaints, Palestine Legal is flipping that Israel-advocacy strategy on its head, using civil rights law to argue that Palestinian students are the ones facing discrimination by university administrators who target their activism. Palestine Legal first made this argument in April 2021 when they filed a Title VI complaint on behalf of a Palestinian student who said he experienced discrimination on the basis of national origin at the hands of Florida State University. (According to Palestine Legal, the DOE has yet to open an investigation in response to that complaint; in November 2022, 19 months after the initial filing, Palestine Legal sent a letter to the DOE urging them to act and speculating that the delay resulted from Palestinians’ status as “a group disfavored by powerful actors.”) Sainath argued that her organization’s complaints are a more appropriate use of civil rights law than those made by Israel advocates: “Our Title VI complaint challenges actual discrimination based on national origin—not speech critical of a state built on and sustained by violations of international law,” she said.

Though the GW complaint redacts the names of the three students alleging discrimination to protect them from harassment, and Palestine Legal has not made the document publicly available for the same reason, one of the students, Lance Lokas, agreed to be interviewed by Jewish Currents. Lokas, who is Arab American and the president of the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, alleges in the complaint that he was targeted and investigated by GW administrators after a protest. (Lokas believes the administration assumed he was Palestinian and targeted him for that reason; accordingly, Palestine Legal has included his claim as an example of national origin discrimination.) Last October, GW for Israel and the Israeli American student group GW Mishelanu sponsored an event featuring Doron Tenne, an Israeli army and intelligence veteran who serves out of the DC Israeli embassy as an official for the Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of the FBI. The event was held at the GW Hillel building, and members of SJP and GW Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) protested outside. The chants and posters at the protest focused on Israeli human rights abuses of Palestinians, with one demonstrator holding up a sign that read, “GW Hillel, you have blood on your hands,” according to a report in the student newspaper.

The protests prompted backlash: GW’s Hillel said that a “line has been crossed,” arguing that the protest and an affiliated postering campaign limited “the ability of our Jewish students to freely learn.” GW for Israel said the demonstration was a “blatant display of antisemitism” and claimed that protesters deliberately chose to demonstrate on Sukkot, a Jewish holiday. GW President Mark Wrighton and other administration officials also condemned the action, saying the protest “appeared targeted to members of our community based on their Jewish faith or their affiliation with Hillel.” But SJP and JVP defended their protest as a response to the specific event being held at Hillel: “We were trying to disrupt the event to make clear that we don’t support war criminals and Israeli military leadership on our campus,” said Lokas. According to the complaint, the day after the action, a GW provost directed campus police to question an Arab member of SJP about the protest. The administration did not attempt to question any members of JVP, the Jewish anti-Zionist group that co-sponsored the protest. One week later, Lokas was called into a student conduct meeting and questioned about the demonstration.

Prior to the event, members of SJP and JVP hung posters around campus with phrases like “DECOLONIZE PALESTINE” and “SETTLERS FUCK OFF STOP THE ANNEXATION OF PALESTINE.” While Lokas directed SJP members that they should only place the posters on public property near campus, not on privately owned structures, one JVP member put a poster on a bench outside the Hillel building, according to Lokas and the complaint. Two weeks after the protest, Lokas and SJP were charged with violating the student conduct code by damaging Hillel’s private property. By charging the SJP president rather than the JVP student, the university committed “a blatant example of racial profiling,” said Lokas. GW ultimately found that Lokas and the SJP chapter did not violate any student conduct codes.

In addition to targeting students for protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the complaint alleges that GW refused mental health services to Palestinians traumatized by Israeli violence. In June 2021, shortly after Israel’s May 2021 raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque and bombardment of Gaza, GW’s Office of Advocacy and Support (OAS), which assists students dealing with traumatic experiences, proposed a “virtual processing space” for Palestinians and others impacted by the recent violence. In the Instagram post advertising the space, the office also expressed “solidarity” with Palestinian “resistance against Israeli apartheid.” A second student included in the Palestine Legal complaint had planned to attend the OAS virtual event. She was in the West Bank during Israel’s crackdown on Palestinians that spring, and was injured at a checkpoint when Israeli soldiers fired tear gas canisters into the crowd, leaving a wound on her knee that required six stitches. According to the complaint, she hoped to use the OAS event to “manage her direct experience of violence” and “the difficulty of maintaining her academic and emotional stability in the midst of it.”

But the OAS post advertising the processing space was deleted on the same day it went live. In a separate Palestine Legal complaint filed against GW in November 2021, an OAS staff member said that a GW administrator contacted the OAS’s assistant director to say that they had received complaints about the post. The administrator “implied an ultimatum to OAS,” according to the November 2021 complaint, suggesting that if the office did not take it down, the assistant director would be fired. When the student realized that the offer of a processing space had been rescinded, she reached out to the GW Professional Psychological Program’s Clinic, asking the program to offer services to Palestinians experiencing trauma—but she says she received no acknowledgement of the request. (Jewish Currents reported in November 2021 that GW effectively neutered the OAS’s services in retaliation for the post advertising the processing space for Palestinian students.)

Finally, the complaint says a third student was asked to attend a “restorative circle” alongside peers who had made anti-Palestinian remarks in class. The comments followed a talk by Nadera Shalhoub-Kervorkian, a Palestinian professor of law who teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and who spoke at the invitation of clinical psychology professor Lara Sheehi and the GW psychology department. The Palestinian student, who was enrolled in Sheehi’s class, attended the talk, where Shalhoub-Kervorkian criticized Israeli human rights abuses. Afterward, in Sheehi’s class, other students accused Shalhoub-Kervorkian of antisemitism and argued that Palestinians killed by the Israeli army are “terrorists” who want to hurt Israeli civilians. The Palestinian student defended Shalhoub-Kervorkian in class, and later complained to GW administrators about being subjected to anti-Palestinian racism. The university responded by hiring two “external facilitators” to help students “process” what had occurred. According to Palestine Legal, when the student attended a meeting with the facilitators, their complaint was turned against them: Facilitators told the student that they “needed to think about the harm” they had caused, and asked them to participate in the “restorative circle” with the students who they had accused of making anti-Palestinian remarks. Since this experience, the student “has experienced increased anxiety,” the complaint says. “Having to deal with the hostile anti-Palestinian environment at GW has been the hardest months of their life. They could not take time off from their studies and felt drained. GW’s lack of a response is at the forefront of their mind, all day, every day.”

With this complaint, Palestine Legal offers a counter-narrative to Israel advocates’ claims that GW is a hotbed of campus antisemitism. In January, Israel-advocacy group StandWithUs filed a Title VI complaint alleging that Sheehi targeted Jewish students, and that GW failed to protect them. The complaint garnered coverage in the Jewish press and outlets that cover higher education. As a result, Sheehi has faced a GW investigation into her conduct. Sheehi did not respond to Jewish Currents’s request for comment, but in a February 3rd Counterpunch article, she wrote that “every claim” in the StandWithUs complaint is “easily refute[d]” by “ample written documentation, [and] eye witness accounts,” and that she is being “targeted specifically because I am an Arab woman whose scholarship and activism advocates for Palestinians.” She also described receiving a flood of online harassment. Lokas, the GW SJP president, dismissed StandWithUs’s claim that GW tolerates antisemitism; rather, he said, the administration targets Palestinian-rights activism in the name of combating antisemitism. “Anytime anything has happened on campus that even remotely expresses our desire for Palestinian liberation, GW has responded by calling us antisemitic,” he said, “and by using institutional power against us.”

This article has been updated to include comment from a George Washington University spokesperson.

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.