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Yet Another Academic is Being Attacked for Criticizing Israel: Education Unions Need to Fight Back

Our unions must not only defend professors who speak out about Israeli apartheid and brutality, but should take a stance against Zionism, a movement fundamentally based on racism and oppression.

Kalen Wheeler

February 10, 2023
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Protesters walk behind an Apartheid Off Campus banner during a Free Palestine SOS Colombia march in solidarity with the Palestinian and Colombian peoples from the Colombian embassy to the Israeli embassy on 15th May 2021 in London, United Kingdom. Speakers at a rally before the march, which took place on Nakba Day, highlighted human rights abuses being directed against Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories, in particular attempts at forced displacements in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, and also in Colombia, where peaceful demonstrators and human rights defenders have been killed and subjected to repression, detention and torture.
Photo: Mark Kerrison

Dr. Lara Sheehi, a professor of Clinical Psychology at George Washington University (GWU), is under attack by the right-wing, pro-Israel organization, Stand With Us, after students claimed that she made anti-semitic comments in a doctoral class centered on diversity. Dr. Sheehi is known and respected for her decolonial, liberatory, and anti-oppressive teaching  and approach to clinical work. The topic being discussed at the time was the state of Israel, and Stand With Us, like many Zionist groups, conflates anti-Semitism with any criticism of the state of Israel. After finding the claims unmerited in an internal investigation, GWU is breaking from its typical protocol and opening an independent investigation into the claims. This is clearly an attempt by the university to override the decision of their internal investigation committee in deference to  a Zionist group. 

As this article is being written, the U.S. Secretary of State, Tony Blinken is in Israel and occupied Palestine, in the midst of another wave of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians. Already this year, at least 35 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli settlers. On Thursday, January 26, Israel carried out its deadliest raid in the West Bank in two decades, murdering ten people, including two children, who resided in the Jenin refugee camp. The day after, a Palestinian man killed seven Israelis in occupied East Jerusalem. In response, Israelis  living in illegal settlements attacked scores of Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is moving to make gun purchases easier for Israelis. Despite this brutality against Palestinians, Tony Blinken reconfirmed the U.S.’ “ironclad” support of the state of Israel.

This physical violence is a daily fact of life  in occupied Palestine.. For decades, Israel has inflicted physical and symbolic violence on the Palestinian people through tactics of occupation, dispossession, discrimination and human rights violations. Worst off, the military occupation deprives Palestinians of their basic rights to education, healthcare, electricity, clean water, and freedom of movement on their own land. To call someone who criticizes the state of Israel anti-Semetic is to collapse the religion, culture, and tradition of Judaism into this oppressive nation state. 

These same tactics are used against Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movements on college campuses, which are gaining supporters across the country.. As the Global-Palestinian Mental Health Network writes in a statement in support of Dr. Sheehi:

[The allegations] revolve around the specious equation of “anti-Semitism” with opposition to the policies and practices of the state of Israel. The Networks oppose all forms of anti-Semitism just as we oppose all forms of discrimination based on religion, race, ethnicity, nation, beliefs, or gender. The Networks acknowledge that the Jewish people have suffered historically from discrimination, hatred, and violence—most catastrophically in the European Holocaust of the twentieth century. At the same time, we observe that the state of Israel through the political agenda of Zionism has long violated the rights of the Palestinian people and inflicted an apartheid system of state terror upon them. Clearly, many Jewish people worldwide and many Jewish organizations—including notable Jewish Israelis—are vigorously opposed to Zionism for these very reasons. 

In order to combat all forms of oppression, including antisemitism, there must be a differentiation of Judaism from the state of Israel. Additionally, there must be an acknowledgment of Zionism as a tool of imperialism and capitalism, as opposed to one of virtue and liberation, the narrative commonly put forward in the U.S.. However, even the education necessary to challenge the dominant narrative becomes impossible when professors and students are punished for voicing their opinions on the issue. 

The silencing of left-wing activists  comes alongside the recent attacks on AP African American studies courses, and bans on discussions of race and racism.. Again, the politicians who lobbied for these policies, like Governor Ron DeSantis, fear that the mere study of and consciousness-raising around these topics will disrupt the dominant narrative in such a way that threatens the status quo. 

Along with her faculty appointment at George Washington University, Dr. Sheehi is the President-elect of the Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology (APA Division 39) and writes on psychoanalysis in occupied Palestine, uplifting Palestinian voices and stories through a lens that acknowledges both the psychological and structural implications of the apartheid state. Dr. Sheehi insists on psychoanalysis’s responsibility to understand the dynamic and fluid relationship between the inner-mind and the material world in which it exists. Her contributions to contemporary psychoanalysis cannot be overstated, as she pushes back against the field’s inclination to treat the mind and clinical practice as somehow isolated from the structural realities in which they exist. 

To leverage fundamental psychoanalytic theory, through the foundational belief in the unconscious, psychoanalysis has a great deal of liberatory potential; it asks us to be open to all that is not already known by us. Given that GW’s clinical psychology program is psychoanalytically-oriented, it is hypocritical to demonstrate such rigidity in thought as to censor ideas, especially those that are considered to exist “at the margin” (in the U.S. context, at least) or outside the hegemonic status quo. This lacks the openness that psychoanalysis calls on us to embrace.

Moreover, to censor ideas in an academic setting, where ideology is supposed to generate, regenerate, and shift through research, debate, reading, writing, contemplation, and activism among fellow scholars, is an injustice to society at-large. George Washington University’ decision to go against their normal protocols and open an independent investigation into the allegations against Dr. Sheehi is part of an attack on people who speak out for Palestinian liberation and self-determination. This is part of a longstanding, widespread policy of censorship in institutions of higher education, but also in K-12 schools, workplaces, media, and more to silence voices that advocate for Palestinian liberation and self-determination However, as mentioned above, this has significant implications for academic freedoms of all kinds that need to be protected.

In an email correspondence, Dr. Sheehi wrote:

For me, one of the more heartening parts of this entire scary ordeal has been to see the outpouring of righteous solidarity, and how that is a movement that isn’t just about me. We are now at a time in the field when we can connect Palestine to larger issues in front of us; academic freedom is going to become more and more important, especially as we witness assaults on labor, trans folks and kids especially, reproductive rights, critical race theory etc.

At a moment when workers in higher education are rising up to demand better working conditions, wages, and benefits, it is important to acknowledge the tremendous potential of organized labor to fight for social justice and protect academic freedoms, especially those that challenge states that perpetuate violent occupation, settler-colonialism, and apartheid. And our unions must not only defend professors who speak out about Israeli apartheid and brutality, but should take a stance against Zionism, a movement fundamentally based on racism and oppression.

It is encouraging to see so many other organizations, such as the Board of Directors of Division 39 of the APA, students and alumni of GWU, as well as a group of Jewish mental health clinicians stand up for Palestine and for Dr. Sheehi’s academic freedom, as well as her overall dignity. This is a matter that the field of psychology, the labor movement and all anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist organizations at-large must pay close attention to in order to protect academic freedom and support all professors and students speaking out against injustice. 

To read a detailed statement recently released by Dr. Sheehi herself, visit: https://www.counterpunch.org/2023/02/03/on-targeting-an-arab-woman/ 

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Kalen Wheeler

Kalen Wheeler is completing her postgraduate training as a clinical psychotherapist at a psychoanalytically-oriented group practice in Brooklyn, New York. She is also a part-time Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Educational Foundations and Mental Health Counseling at CUNY Hunter College

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