Hundreds of students gather in front of Gelman Library before the start of a protest march to the White House, November 16, 2016. (File photo: Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
Palestine Legal and co-counsel Benjamin Douglas initiated a civil rights complaint against George Washington University (GW) challenging GW's selective and discriminatory cancelation of trauma support services for Palestinian students after Israel’s violent repression of Palestinian protests in Jerusalem and another devastating war on Gaza this past spring.
According to a press statement by Palestine Legal, the complaint, filed with the District of Columbia’s Office for Human Rights and sent to GW last week, details how GW’s denial of services constitutes national origin discrimination in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA). GW canceled trauma services for Palestinians after at least one pro-Israel group falsely alleged that doing so was anti-Jewish.
The complaint was brought by Nada Elbasha, who works in GW’s Office of Advocacy and Support (OAS), tasked with providing support for members of the GW community experiencing trauma, or otherwise impacted by violence. Elbasha and her colleagues noticed that students appeared to be impacted by Israel’s forced expulsion of Palestinians in Jerusalem and its killing of hundreds in the Gaza Strip. They thought that offering a processing space for Palestinians would help, as it had when other communities were impacted by violence.
Within twenty-four hours of advertising a virtual processing space on Instagram, high-level GW officials, including a representative from the Board of Trustees and the President’s Office, held an emergency meeting with OAS and directed the office to cancel the event and remove the post, which had also expressed support for Palestinian human rights. GW administrators ordered OAS to publish an apology stating that the previous post “did not create a safe space for all members of our community.”
“Palestinians at GW deserve to access the same services as any other student here," said Nada Elbasha, who is of Palestinian origin. “To have high-level administrators cancel our support programming and threaten to close our office was a shocking declaration that GW does not care about its Palestinian students.”
During the same school year that GW canceled support services for Palestinians, OAS provided healing spaces for Asian and Black students and other community members impacted by racism and/or state violence. In some cases, OAS issued broader statements of support, including in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and against anti-Asian hate.
Elbasha later learned that the GW student group Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA), which had similarly offered trauma support for Palestinian students on Instagram, was also directed to remove their post. Both SASA and OAS were told that supporting Palestinian human rights and providing support to Palestinians were harmful to Jewish students.
GW has since initiated an “audit” of OAS, which is no longer allowed to post to social media or communicate with professors on behalf of students.
The DCHRA prohibits educational institutions from denying or restricting its services or programs to any person on the basis of 21 protected categories, including race, color and national origin.
"To deny Palestinians support because their pain is politically inconvenient is not just wrong, it’s illegal," said Palestine Legal senior staff attorney Radhika Sainath.
Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights have documented a "Palestine Exception" to free speech and human rights advocacy, which became even more apparent last spring when people across the U.S. protested Israel’s colonial and military violence.
“As a Palestinian-American traumatized by Israel's violence, I felt it was important for OAS to reach out and provide support for Palestinians in our community. It's what we would have done for anyone else. And it's what I would have wanted myself if I were a student,” said Elbasha.
George Washington came under fire and received widespread media attention for anti-Palestinian discrimination in 2015, when campus police ordered a Palestinian pre-med student to remove a Palestinian flag from his window, while flags of other nationalities were undisturbed. GW's president apologized for the discriminatory removal of the Palestinian flag after Palestine Legal intervened on behalf of the student.
GW’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Access acknowledged receipt of the complaint on Monday, November 15.