Lawmakers attack CUNY law grad for criticizing Israel in commencement speech

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are attacking the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law over remarks made by one of its commencement speakers.

During her speech on May 12, CUNY student Fatima Mohammed said the school had taught her how to implement the law for the cause of human rights. “I chose CUNY School of Law for its articulated mission [as one of the] few legal institutions… to recognize that the law is a manifestation of White supremacy that continues to oppress and suppress people in this nation and around the world,” she explained.

“Israel continues to indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshippers, murdering the old, the young, attacking even funerals and graveyards as it encourages lynch mobs to target Palestinian homes and businesses, as it imprisons its children, as it continues its project of settler colonialism, expelling Palestinians from their homes, carrying the ongoing Nakba… our silence is no longer acceptable,” she said later. “Palestine can no longer be the exception to our pursuit of justice.”

Mohammed’s criticism of Israel, reference to white supremacy, and an offhand criticism of New York City’s police department have led to public condemnations from U.S. politicians and pro-Israel groups. Many are calling for the university to be defunded over the speech.

It is the second year in a row that CUNY Law commencement has featured an anti-Zionist speaker, drawing fire from pro-Israel organizations.

“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,” tweeted Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY). “Anti-Israel derangement syndrome at work.”

The lobbying group AIPAC shared the tweet and wrote, “Thank you RitchieTorres for your moral clarity in rejecting baseless slander of our ally Israel and speaking out in support of the Jewish state.”

“City University of New York class day speaker slanders Israel and enthusiastically celebrates antisemitism,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) “Cheers on open borders & releasing violent criminals from jail. And decries the ‘fascist NYPD.’ This is a LAW school. Paid for with tax dollars.”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams (who was booed at the event) wrote, “I was proud to offer a different message at this year’s CUNY law commencement ceremony — one that celebrates the progress of our city and country, and one that honors those who fight to keep us safe and protect our freedoms, like my uncle Joe, who died at age 19 in Vietnam while giving his life for our country. We cannot allow words of negativity and divisiveness to be the only ones our students hear. We cannot allow words of negativity and divisiveness to be the only ones our students hear.”

“This is exactly why I am finalizing legislation to strip universities of their funding if they engage in and promote anti-semitism,” said Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY). “CUNY should be ashamed of itself — and should lose any federal funds it currently receives.”

The Anti-Defamation League seized on the speech in its ongoing effort to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. “Graduations should be a place for all — not a time to denigrate students’ identities,” said the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“We are appalled to see such an egregious display of hostility toward ‘Zionists’ (which is how many Jews see themselves) and Israel in CUNY Law’s commencement address,” the organization added on Twitter.

Hours after the graduation ceremony video of Mohammed’s speech was removed from the school’s website. “The administration’s decision to remove the video is a capitulation to external Zionist pressure and a slap in the face to its own members who contribute to making CUNY Law the radical and transformative institution it is today,” she said.

In response to the pro-Israel pressure CUNY’s Board of Trustees and Chancellor put out a statement claiming that Mohammed’s comments amounted to “hate speech” because they 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,” reads the statement. “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.”

This isn’t the first time that CUNY has been criticized for censorship of Palestine this month. On May 15 Hunter College’s administration attempted to stop Nerdeen Kiswani (CUNY Law ‘22) from speaking at the event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Nakba. The administration told organizers of the event that campus officers would be present to prevent Kiswani from speaking and that she would be suspended if she gave a talk. After pressure from groups like Palestine Legal the event ended up proceeding as planned.

Kiswani gave a speech at the May 2022 CUNY Law commencement and said she almost didn’t make it through three years at the school due to pro-Israel pressure and slanders. “I’ve been facing a campaign of Zionist harassment by well-funded organizations with ties to the Israeli government and military on the basis of my Palestinian identity and organizing,” Kiswani said.

Thanks in part to Kiswani’s organizing, in the 2021-22 academic year, students and faculty at CUNY Law endorsed a pro-BDS resolution, which calls on CUNY to divest from Israel and end academic exchanges with Israeli groups.

The CUNY chancellor denounced the measures and called for the “hard” work of dialogue with Israelis. “In that vein, I led 12 CUNY college presidents and deans on a recent ‘Scholars as Bridge Builders’ visit to Israel, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York,” the chancellor wrote in a statement. Niswani blasted that trip, calling it “an affront to everyone at CUNY fighting for liberation.”

Activists, Palestine advocacy groups, and CUNY students have publicly voiced support for Mohammed in response to the attacks. “For years, Zionist organizations have been enacting targeted harassment campaigns against Palestinian and Muslim law students at the CUNY School of Law,” reads a statement put out by CUNY Jewish Law Students Association. “As a public-interest focused law school, we have a duty to stand with Palestinians against zionist oppression, as Fatima has done.”

h/t Phil Weiss


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