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Students accuse US university of anti-Palestinian climate

George Washington University students say school discriminated against Palestinians, including cancelling space meant to provide mental health services
In 2015, campus police ordered a student to remove a Palestinian flag from his window. The university later apologised for the incident (AFP/File photo)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Several students have filed a civil rights complaint against George Washington University, demanding an investigation into what they say has been a years-long "hostile environment of anti-Palestinian racism".

The complaint was filed on behalf of three students by Palestine Legal with the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on Tuesday, and states that the university denied services to Palestinian students for processing trauma related to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

It added that students were investigated on accusations of damaging property for putting up Palestinian solidarity signs near the university campus.

The complaint alleges that George Washington University cancelled a "virtual processing space" for Palestinian students, which ultimately denied Palestinian students mental health services. One student, according to Palestine Legal, had been shot by an Israeli soldier while studying remotely from her home in the occupied West Bank.

"There is simply no justification for GW's racist, bigoted treatment of Palestinians," Palestine Legal's senior staff attorney Radhika Sainath said in a statement.

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"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."

'There is simply no justification for GW's racist, bigoted treatment of Palestinians'

- Radhika Sainath, Palestine Legal

George Washington University told MEE that it has not seen the complaint filed by Palestine Legal, an independent advocacy group that supports people targeted for Palestinian rights activism.

"The George Washington University 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 marginalisation," a university spokesperson said.

Palestine Legal's complaint calls on the Department of Education to require the university to ensure that Palestinian students have equal access to campus services and end discriminatory investigations of Palestinians.

The strategy taken by the legal advocacy group in this case flips a similar approach conducted by Israeli advocacy organisations in the US. The issue centres around Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars federally funded institutions from discriminating against minorities.

Pro-Israel groups have invoked Title VI in the past, including in November 2022 when they filed a complaint against the University of California-Berkeley. The complaint stated that a law school student group's adoption of a bylaw refusing to invite speakers who support Zionism was antisemitic and discriminatory.

Palestine Legal's complaint also calls on the university to be required to accept that anti-Zionism is anti-racist, and that the school refuse to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)'s working definition of antisemitism, which many Palestinian and Jewish groups oppose.

Critics of the definition say that it conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Criticism of Israel has led to a major battle over the right to free speech in the US, and universities have been at the forefront of this battle.

"The guiding examples attached to the IHRA definition falsely conflate political criticism of Israel/support for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, placing anyone charged with implementing the definition in the position of engaging in anti-Palestinian bias," the complaint reads, according to an excerpt seen by MEE.

Palestinians deserve same access

George Washington University has previously been criticised by Palestinian students and staff members, who say the school has discriminated against them based on what Palestine Legal says is "national origin discrimination".

In 2021, Palestine Legal filed a similar complaint against George Washington University, that time on behalf of a staff member who said they were also denied access to trauma services that are provided by the school.

US university faces civil rights complaint after cancelling trauma service for Palestinians
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According to the complaint, the incident began after the staff member, Nada Elbasha, and colleagues discussed what to do for the campus' Palestinian students during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in May 2021, which killed at least 248 Palestinians including more than 60 children.

Elbasha noticed that many students were expressing trauma across social media, and on 2 June, the university's Office of Advocacy and Support advertised a "virtual processing space" for Palestinians and others impacted by Israeli aggression against Palestinians.

However, later that same day, the GW administration demanded the post be taken down and the processing event cancelled. The university told MEE at the time that it was investigating the matter.

In 2015, campus police ordered a student to remove a Palestinian flag from his window. The university's president later apologised for the incident.

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