CUNY caves to Israel lobby over anti-racist speech

Fatima Mohammed, dressed in a graduation cap and gown, and wearing traditional Palestinian scarves,  stands at a podium.

CUNY Law graduate Fatima Mohammed said that “Palestine can no longer be the exception to our pursuit of justice” during her commencement speech. (CUNY School of Law YouTube video)

Students and human rights activists in New York are standing in firm defense of a recent law school graduate against a torrent of smears by politicians, the Israel lobby and the university itself.

City University of New York (CUNY) Law school graduate Fatima Mohammed was selected by fellow students to deliver a commencement speech.

During her speech on 12 May, she spoke emotionally about her grandparents watching from Yemen, reflected on her class’ experience of virtual law school during the COVID-19 pandemic, and criticized the use of the law to enforce and uphold white supremacy, policing and censorship.

She also celebrated CUNY Law’s work to amplify “the rights of its students to organize and speak out against Israeli settler-colonialism.”

As Israel, she said, “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 [out] the ongoing Nakba … our silence is no longer acceptable.”

The speech was vetted and approved in advance by administrators at CUNY Law “as part of an apparently new policy as a condition of her speaking,” according to civil rights group Palestine Legal.

Mohammed referenced the two resolutions passed by the law school’s student body and faculty in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.

“This is the law school that passed and endorsed BDS on a student and faculty level, recognizing that absent a critical imperialism and settler-colonialism lens, our work and the school’s mission statement is void of value,” she said.

To applause, Mohammed noted that CUNY Law students and faculty “fought back when investor-focused admin attempted to cross the BDS picket line, saying loud and clear that Palestine can no longer be the exception to our pursuit of justice.”

Watch the full video of her commencement speech here.

Israel lobby groups immediately attacked Mohammed and CUNY Law, as did Democratic Congressman Ritchie Torres, a notorious anti-Palestinian stalwart who has been working to erase Palestinian history out of New York City textbooks at the behest of major Israel advocacy groups.

Torres accepted more than $140,000 from funds raised by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest donation pool to his 2021-2022 congressional campaign.

The lawmaker, who traveled to occupied East Jerusalem last year on an AIPAC propaganda delegation, was thanked by the Israel lobby group for his attack on Mohammed.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz also joined Torres in attacking CUNY Law, claiming that Mohammed’s speech “celebrates anti-Semitism.”

New York City mayor Eric Adams followed suit, citing an article by the right-wing New York Post attacking and slandering the student.

Other lawmakers boosted calls to strip CUNY of its federal funding over claims of anti-Jewish bigotry.

CUNY throws student under the bus

On Tuesday, CUNY’s chancellor and board of trustees decided not to defend their student, but to join the smear campaign against her.

The school issued a statement condemning Mohammed and her address, denouncing it as “hate speech” and, bizarrely, asserting that “political affiliation” is a protected class along with race and religion.

The university echoed a common tactic used by Israel lobby groups to attempt to categorize Zionism – Israel’s racist state ideology – as a feature of protected personal identity, in order to claim that any criticism of Zionism is an act of anti-Jewish bigotry.

These tactics, seen playing out now against CUNY Law and Fatima Mohammed, could be even less restrained now that the Biden administration has embraced a strategy document that helps cement the Israel lobby’s key goal of blurring the lines between criticism of Israel and discriminating against Jews.
Earlier this year, New York state said it had opened a “probe” into CUNY Law, alleging that the school discriminated against Jewish students when students and faculty passed the BDS resolutions.

But human rights defenders and some local politicians are pushing back.

New York City Council member Shahana Hanif and State Assembly member Zohran Mamdani expressed their support for Fatima Mohammed.

Mamdani said, “Classifying rightful criticism of Israeli settler colonialism, Zionism, & the NYPD as [hate speech] is an act of political cowardice, all to pacify the worst right-wing impulses.”

Palestine Legal said that CUNY’s condemnation of Mohammed’s address as “hate speech” is “a false accusation that flies in the face of the university’s First Amendment obligations and Mohammed’s principled words.”

The group called on the university to “apologize to Mohammed, correct the record, and take serious measures to protect its students from such attacks that put them, their families, and their careers at risk.”

Jewish Voice for Peace issued a statement, saying that “as Jewish New Yorkers, we are outraged at the racist, Islamophobic attacks on CUNY Law student Fatima for speaking out for human rights.”
The Adalah Justice Project, a Palestinian advocacy organization, denounced the attacks on Mohammed by Israel lobby groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council.
On 21 May, the CUNY Jewish Law Students Association released a statement in solidarity with Fatima Mohammed, admonishing the attacks against her and the assumption by Israel lobby groups and lawmakers that Jewish students have been harmed.
“For years, Zionist organizations have been enacting targeted harassment campaigns against Palestinian and Muslim law students at the CUNY School of Law,” the students stated.

“As a public-interest focused law school, we have a duty to stand with Palestinians against Zionist oppression, as Fatima has done.”

When Mohammed condemned the effects of Israeli settler-colonialism, the association adds, “it is disingenuous to characterize these factual descriptions as anti-Semitic, when they describe the conditions of Palestinian life.”

The students explained that they were grateful for their classmate’s speech, and called on the university to denounce the racist smear campaign against her.

“We call on CUNY Law to listen to, support, and defend its student body. Our condemnation of Zionism is based on outrage at the way it has harmed and continues to harm Palestinians, not, as external Zionist organizations would have people believe, on anti-Semitism.”




Thank you Nora for your article, I listened to the whole graduation, speeches and all. I found absolutely nothing even vaguely resembling “hate speech” in Fatima’s commencement speech or in any other speakers speeches. I was so pleased that you lambasted the Chancellor and Board of Trustees by showing the overwhelming support Fatima had from principled people. How wonderful that the Jewish Law School was wholehearted supportive of Fatima making the mock cries of Anti-Semitism a complete and utter charade. May the Chancellor and Board of Trustees apologise post haste lest they make complete idiots of themselves in the eyes of all those who respect the human rights of all peoples. I know it is difficult at the moment with the judiciary in the UK appearing to be asses and the judiciary in Israel following suit, or perhaps it’s the UK judiciary following the Israeli judiciary for after all aren’t some of them UK trained?

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).