For the second year in a row students at the City of New York (CUNY) Law School elected a commencement speaker who devoted much of what is supposed to be a celebratory speech to fellow graduates to attacking Israel and its “colonial settler” policies.
Fatima Mohammed started off in typical manner, congratulating family members who supported the graduates as they persevered through the Covid-19 pandemic and noted the village in Yemen where her grandparents live they were also shooting off fireworks to celebrate the graduation.
However, she soon veered away from the typical and into the political congratulating 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.”
Mohammed, a member of the law school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, congratulated CUNY for graduating students “working to lift the façade of legal neutrality and confront the systems of oppressions that wreak violence … the systems of oppression created to feed a ravenous empire with a ravenous appetite for destruction and violence, institutions created to bully and censor and stifle the voices of those who resist.
“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,” she said to loud applause, “that this is a school that passed and endorsed BDS on a student and faculty level to speak out against Israel.”
The New York State Division of Human Rights (NYSDHR) 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.
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 requires 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.
CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos 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.
S.A.F.E. CUNY (Students and Faculty for Equality), a non-partisan organization that advocates for Zionist Jews discriminated against by CUNY and its faculty staff union, had filed the complaint.
Rodriguez issued a statement May 31 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.”
“This speech is particularly unacceptable at a ceremony celebrating the achievements of a wide diversity of graduates, and hurtful to the entire CUNY community, which was founded on the principle of equal access and opportunity,” it read. “CUNY’s commitment to protecting and supporting our students has not wavered throughout our 175-year existence and we cannot and will not condone hateful rhetoric on our campuses.”
S.A.F.E. CUNY posted Mohammed’s 13-minute speech on its Twitter feed and tagged the NYSDHR, claiming that the university and law school attempted to keep the video hidden “until foiled by us and equally demanded by the bigots who perpetrated its evil (and illegal) sentiments.”
The tweet described Mohammed as a “Jew-hater” and her remarks as “vitriolic, evil, antisemitic” and added: “Unimaginably, it is even worse than last year’s hate spewed by Nerdeen Kiswani. No wonder CUNY Law, under state investigation, tried to hide this video.”
Mohammed said the faculty and student 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 the ongoing Nabka.”
Nabka is a Palestinian term describing the creation of Israel.
However, the characterizations of Israel were sharply criticized by Jewish organizations.
Agudath Israel of America said it was “outraged” and called on CUNY to denounce the “hateful screed” and to commit to providing a safe environment for Jewish students. It termed the speech a “wild tirade against Israel” and “an ugly example of the sort of hatred that has been reported on CUNY campuses, as on others, that crosses the line of antisemitism.
“We are gratified at the outpouring of outrage over Ms. Mohammed’s slander from public officials,” said its statement, ”and we hope that the exposure of this recent expression of hate to the light of day will serve to advance the cause of truth and peace.”
The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement that ”graduations should be a place for all-not a time to denigrate students’ identities. We are appalled to see such an egregious display of hostility toward ‘Zionists,’” and added, “This is yet another example of the harm Jewish students experience on campus.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC) put out a lengthy statement in which it called Mohammed’s speech “incendiary, anti-Israel propaganda” and “strongly encouraged” CUNY to revise its guidelines surrounding commencement speeches.
“The freedoms of speech and expression are sacred, especially within academic institutions, but so are the values of intellectual honesty and fairness, which form the foundations of the academic world,” it said. “Unfortunately, this particular commencement speech cast aside the principle of seeking truth in a shameless attempt to vilify CUNY’s constructive engagement with Israel and the New York Jewish community and to denigrate Israel’s supporters on campus while trading in antisemitic tropes.”
Just weeks ago the JCRC partnered with CUNY and the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism in a campaign to combat antisemitism on campus.
The speech also drew outrage from politicians.
Rep Richie Torres called the speech “anti-Israel derangement syndrome at work.
“Imagine being so crazed by hatred for Israel as a Jewish State that you make it the subject of your commencement speech at a law school graduation,” said the Bronx Democrat.
During the speech, in addition to railing against Israel and engaging in anti-Jewish tropes, Mohammed implored students to go out and fight against capitalism, racism, Zionism and accused CUNY of having “self-serving interests” continuing to train and cooperate with the “fascist NYPD, the military” to train “the IDF to carry out that violence training globally.” She also condemned the United States government for its imprisonment of those convicted of terrorism, whom she called “Palestinian political prisoners.”
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.