July 23, 2024
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CUNY Law School Commencement Speech Uproar Continues

The uproar caused by a commencement speech at the City of University of New York School of Law, deemed antisemitic by most Jewish organizations and many politicians, has continued to embroil the school and its faculty weeks later.

Fatima Mohammed had devoted much of her May student speech to attacking Israel and its “colonial settler” policies. The speech has come under fire from the CUNY Board of Trustees and chancellor and a group representing pro-Zionist staff and bipartisan politicians. The address generated widespread condemnation from Jewish groups and came a year after another CUNY law school commencement speech was also widely labeled as antisemitic.

On the flip side, the law school’s faculty has demanded an apology from Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez and the board for calling Mohammed’s address “hate speech.” The school’s Jewish law students association called the charge of antisemitism “false” and “absurd.”

A rally outside Rodriguez’s office at CUNY’s administrative headquarters in Manhattan had been scheduled for the evening of June 14, after The Jewish Link went to press, by EndJewHatred, a grassroots movement centering on Jewish liberation from all forms of oppression and discrimination; and the Lawfare Project, a legal think tank and litigation fund focusing on matters of civil and human rights, discrimination, antisemitism and counterterrorism with a major focus on protecting the constitutional rights and ensuring equal protection of the Jewish community under the law.

The Lawfare Project has also petitioned the New York Supreme Court to block Mohammed from becoming a lawyer, claiming she does not meet the “character and fitness standards” required to practice law.

Additionally, S.A.F.E. CUNY (Students and Faculty for Equality), a nonpartisan organization that advocates for Zionist Jews discriminated against by CUNY and its faculty staff union, has sent a complaint to the American Bar Association requesting it investigate the law school’s “discriminatory and blatant noncompliance with the ABA ‘Standards for Approval of Law Schools.’”

In a statement released June 12, S.A.F.E. CUNY called for law school dean Sudha Setty, who was among those who applauded and gave Mohammed’s speech a standing ovation, to be removed, and criticized CUNY board chair William C. Thompson for failing to act forcefully to stem antisemitism at CUNY. It called on Jewish organizations and leaders, including Jewish Community Relations Council-NY Executive Vice President and CEO Gideon Taylor and Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, to demand Setty be removed.

In its letter to Rodriguez and the board, the law school faculty demanded that characterizing the “remarks made by the student-elected speaker at this year’s law school commencement as ‘hate speech’ be withdrawn immediately, and an apology be issued to the student speaker and to the students that make up the law school Class of 2023.”

Mohammed had said the faculty and students’ stand against “setter imperialism, “colonial Israel” blends well with the school’s mission as Israel “continues to indiscriminately reign bullets and bombs on worshipers, murdering the old, the young, attacking even funerals and graveyards as it encourages lynch mobs to target Palestinian homes and businesses as it imprisons children” and “continues expelling Palestinians from their homes carrying on the ongoing Nabka.” (Nabka is a Palestinian term describing the creation of Israel as a “catastrophe.”)

The faculty letter agreed that the speech was in line with the law school’s mission of “law in the service of human needs,” and said many of the issues Mohammed mentioned met that criteria.

It said a commencement speech for graduating students is “an opportunity for them to celebrate their steadfast commitment to resist the harms their communities are facing and to envision a world defined by justice for all. In this tradition, the 2023 student-elected speaker spoke in solidarity with New Yorkers subject to vigilante violence and aggressive policing by the NYPD, parents facing brutal family separation by ACS, immigrants under the grinding brutality of the U.S. deportation system and—as student organizations did in the 1980s against the apartheid policies of South Africa—in defense of Palestinians living under Israel’s violent occupation and apartheid system.”

It also called antisemitism a “scourge” and downplayed equating antisemitism with criticism of Israel, claiming CUNY was part of a national campaign to silence students and faculty at institutions of higher learning by labeling speech supporting Palestinians and critical of Israel as “antisemitic” and “hate speech.”

The New York State Division of Human Rights launched an investigation in February of the law school over allegations it discriminates against Zionist Jewish and Israeli students because of faculty’s formal support for the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. It is believed to be the only law school faculty in the nation to endorse BDS.

State law prohibits boycotts, blacklisting and other forms of discrimination based on an individual’s creed or national origin. The complaint argues that Zionism is a core belief for many Jews, falling into the state’s definition of “creed.”

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

Rodriguez had put out a statement after the law student association voted to endorse BDS, noting it ran contrary to state law and the university could not participate in or support BDS.


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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