CUNY chancellor denounces anti-Israel law school graduation speech as ‘hate speech’


(New York Jewish Week) — The chancellor and board of trustees of the City University of New York have denounced a May 12 graduation speech at CUNY School of Law in which a student harshly criticized Israel.

Fatima Mousa Mohammed’s speech, in which she praised the law school as, in her view, a rare place where students could “speak out against Israeli settler colonialism,” was “hate speech,” according to a statement released Tuesday by Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez and the board of the public university system.

While the system cherishes free speech, the statement said, Mohammed’s remarks “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.”

The statement went on, “The Board of Trustees of the City University of New York condemns such hate speech.”

The statement comes more than two weeks after the law school graduation ceremony where Mohammed was selected by her classmates to offer a commencement address. The ceremony was widely watched in part because part of the graduating class turned their backs on and booed Mayor Eric Adams, another speaker.

“As 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 Palestininan homes and businesses, as it imprisons its children, as it continues its project of settler colonialism… our silence is no longer acceptable,” Mohammed said in her speech.

Later in her speech, she encouraged “the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world.”

Pro-Israel advocates have long accused CUNY of tolerating antisemitism in part because of student and faculty expressions of anti-Israel sentiment, and the speech quickly drew criticism. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York called the speech “incendiary, anti-Israel propaganda” in a statement on May 12.

“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,” the statement said.

On Monday, the New York Post, a right-wing tabloid, put Mohammed on the cover, identifying her as “stark raving grad.”

Ritchie Torres, a pro-Israel Democratic congressman from the Bronx, tweeted about the speech on Sunday, writing that it was “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,” he wrote.

And Republican Rep. Mike Lawler, whose New York congressional district includes the heavily Orthodox city of Monsey, tweeted in response to the video that he is “finalizing legislation to strip universities of their funding if they engage in and promote anti-semitism.”

“CUNY should be ashamed of itself — and should lose any federal funds it currently receives,” Lawler wrote.

CUNY’s law school has been a target of pro-Israel advocates for some time because of student activism against Israel. In December 2021 and May 2022, respectively, student and faculty associations each voted in favor of a resolution to support the Palestinian-led movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS.

The law school enrolls about 700 students at its Queens campus and is known for attracting left-wing students who are interested in public service legal work. Last year’s commencement ceremony ignited a similar controversy after Nerdeen Kiswani, who is part of a group that has called to “globalize the intifada,” was the student-selected speaker. The term “intifada” generally refers to two violent Palestinian uprisings in the late 1980s and early 2000s, and the group’s call is widely seen by pro-Israel advocates as calling for violence.

The law school’s Jewish students’ association has been a vocal supporter of pro-Palestinian advocacy on campus, saying in a May 21 statement backing Mohammed that criticism of her speech had come from “external zionist organizations” that were spreading lies about her.

“The organizations currently attacking Fatima and the rest of CUNY Law’s student body, with absurd and false claims of antisemitism, are doing so against the wishes of the majority of CUNY Law’s Jewish students, who wholeheartedly stand with Fatima and have been grateful to have her as our classmate throughout law school,” the group said in the statement, which was also signed by 18 other student groups.

CUNY, which operates 25 undergraduate and 15 graduate schools, has recently signaled that it is committed to fighting antisemitism on its campuses. In September 2022, the system allocated $750,000 for initiatives to “counter antisemitism” with the JCRC-NY and in May, launched a social media campaign in partnership with the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, an organization launched by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft in 2019.

In their statement condemning Mohammed’s speech, the system’s chancellor and trustees noted that CUNY is and always has been a diverse institution.

“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,” the chancellor and trustees’ statement said.