By Dion J. Pierre
May 31, 2023
CUNY Law School commencement speaker Fatima Mohammed. Photo: Screenshot
The City University of New York (CUNY), facing widespread criticism from Jewish groups and lawmakers over a law school commencement speech in which a student demonized Israel, has issued a statement condemning hate speech.
“The remarks by a student-selected speaker at the CUNY Law School Graduation, unfortunately, fall into the category of hate speech as they were a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race, or political affiliation,” CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez, as well as William Thompson and Sandra Wilkin, the president and vice president of the CUNY Board of Trustees, said on Tuesday.
The statement added that CUNY that the student’s speech was “particularly unacceptable at a ceremony celebrating the achievements of a wide diversity of graduates.”
In a May 12 speech CUNY student Fatima Mohammed alleged that financial interests manipulate school policy towards Israel and said “our morality will not be purchased by investors.” She also accused Israel of “settler colonialism,” charging that it “continues to indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshipers, murdering the old the young, attacking the funerals and graveyards as it encourages lynch mobs.” Flexing her knowledge of radical left-wing literature, she called on her peers to oppose “Zionism around the world…by any means necessary,” setting off applause from students in the audience and law school deans sitting behind the podium.
After footage of the event was posted online, lawmakers from across the political spectrum denounced CUNY for giving the commencement stage to an anti-Israel activist for the second year in a row. A similar incident occurred last year when Nerdeen Kiswani, who was once filmed threatening to set on fire a man wearing an Israel Defense Forces hoodie, delivered the school’s commencement address and said she had been “facing a campaign of Zionist harassment by well-funded organizations with ties to the Israeli government and military.”
Congressman Mike Lawler (R-NY) tweeted on Sunday that he is nearing completion of a draft of legislation that would “strip universities of their funding if they engage in and promote antisemitism,” adding that “CUNY should be ashamed of itself — and should lose any federal funds it currently receives,” and Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-NY), who represents South Bronx, said Mohammed’s speech represented “Anti-Israel derangement syndrome at work.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) said, “City University of New York class day speaker slanders Israel and enthusiastically celebrates antisemitism.” He noted that CUNY is “paid for with tax dollars.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) also criticized Mohammed’s speech and urged CUNY not to “allow words of negativity and divisiveness to be the only ones our students hear.” Adams explained that during his address at the commencement ceremony, he celebrated New York City and America, emphasizing its “progress” and soldiers like his Uncle Joe, who, he said, “died at age 19 in Vietnam while giving his life for our country.”
Jewish organizations also expressed their frustration with CUNY, which is currently being investigated by the US government for allegedly allowing violations of Jewish students’ civil rights. Roz Rothstein of StandWithUs, an educational nonprofit, said in a statement shared with The Algemeiner on Wednesday that CUNY should “institute appropriate and new guidelines” to prevent next year’s commencement ceremony from becoming another event that alienates the university’s Jewish community.
“A commencement should be a celebratory event, not one that promotes hate and targets part of the student population with discriminatory rhetoric,” Rothstein added.
Other groups, such as the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC), also implored CUNY to reform its process for selecting commencement speakers, while the New York/New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) described the incident as “yet another example of the harm Jewish students experience on campus,” a problem the group tracks annually in an audit of antisemitic incidents across the country.
In Sept. 2022, it was announced that CUNY was selected to participate in Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative (CCI). CCI’s aim is to help universities better understand, recognize, and combat anti-Jewish discrimination on campus. At the time, Chancellor Rodriguez acknowledged that “more needs to be done” to fight antisemitism at the university’s 25 campuses.
“Some of the harassment on CUNY campuses has become so commonplace as to almost be normalized,” a civil rights complaint filed by the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) alleged in July 2022. “Attacking, denigrating, and threatening ‘Zionists’ has become the norm, with the crystal-clear understanding that ‘Zionist’ is now merely an epithet for ‘Jew’ the same way ‘banker,’ ‘cabal,’ ‘globalist,’ ‘cosmopolitan,’ ‘Christ killer,’ and numerous other such dog-whistles have been used over the centuries to target, demonize, and incite against Jews.”
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