June 22, 2024
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CUNY Law Decides Against Any Student Commencement Speaker After Two Years of Anti-Israel Speeches

After two years of having its student-elected commencement speakers devote much of what is supposed to be a celebratory speech to fellow graduates to attacking Israel, the City University of New York School of Law decided this year not to have a student speaker at all.

The criticism of Israel and its “colonial settler” policies resulted in strong criticism from political and university leaders and the Jewish community.

The school announced in September, before the Oct. 7 Israel-Hamas war, that there would be no student speaker at commencement. However, the graduation was planned to be celebrated with multiple events, including an awards night featuring student-selected speakers and awards, according to law school spokesperson, Elise Hanks Billing.

“CUNY School of Law is dedicated to providing space for open dialogue, academic freedom, and free speech,” she said in a written statement.

The cancellation of the student speaker triggered a lawsuit by several students against university officials, charging they infringed upon their First Amendment Rights.

The school also elected last month to move the commencement ceremony off-campus to the smaller Apollo Theater. Two guest speakers also withdrew from the event, leaving the commencement with no speakers. They were Deborah N. Archer, a civil rights lawyer and president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and litigator Muhammad U. Faridi.

Last year’s student speaker, Fatima Mohammed, had congratulated CUNY for being one of the few law schools to recognize “the law is a manifestation of white supremacy that continues to oppress and suppress people in this nation and around the world.

“In this moment of celebrating who we are I want to celebrate CUNY Law as one of the few, if not the only law school, to make a public statement defending the right of its students to organize and speak out against Israel settler colonialism,” said Mohammed, a member of the law school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, to loud applause.

Mohammed also celebrated “that this is a school that passed and endorsed BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) on a student and faculty level to speak out against Israel.”

CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez had issued a statement on behalf of himself and CUNY’s Board of Trustees condemning Mohamed’s “hate speech” and that such remarks “have no place in our city, our state or our nation” and “were a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race or political affiliation.”

In 2022 speaker Nerdeen Kiswan gave a speech entirely devoted to deriding Zionists and criticizing Israel. It was often interrupted by enthusiastic applause.

During the speech Kiswani said she feared she would not make it through law school because “of the campaign of Zionist harassment from organizations with ties to Israeli government and military” because she was a pro-Palestinian organizer and cited a series of articles “slandering me personally” and a campaign launched to try and stop her from speaking.

She lauded the law school’s student government for passing a BDS resolution against Israel.

Kiswani had been named in 2020 as “Antisemite of the Year” by stopantisemitism.org. and has posted on Instagram and then taken down photos of herself with known terrorists. She founded Within Our Lifetime, a New York City anti-Israel activist group that was banned from Instagram for violence-inciting hate speech and where she has glorified the Intifada.

The speeches had also drawn criticism from many politicians and Jewish organizations and critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, Agudath Israel, Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which used such terms as “incendiary,” “uncivil,” “evil” and “ an egregious display of hostility toward Zionists” to describe them.

New York is one of 35 states that requires its pension fund to divest from any company that participates in BDS, an anti-Israel divestment movement considered antisemitic by most Jewish organizations and the State Department, and that has been overwhelmingly condemned by Congress.


Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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