Anti-Israel CUNY graduation speakers led 2022 rally linked to antisemitic assault

Law school activists addressed crowd before participant beat Jewish counter-protester, are members of group that advocates for Israel’s destruction

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Pro-Palestinian activists led by Nerdeen Kiswani hold a 'Globalize the Intifada' protest against Israel and in support of Palestinian security prisoners in New York City, September 17, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)
Pro-Palestinian activists led by Nerdeen Kiswani hold a 'Globalize the Intifada' protest against Israel and in support of Palestinian security prisoners in New York City, September 17, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

NEW YORK — At a pro-Palestinian rally in midtown Manhattan last year, several activists broke off from the demonstration to pursue a Jewish counter-protester down a street.

As the man, wearing an Israeli flag and holding a crutch, walked away from the protest, the activists jogged to catch up, shouting obscenities in his direction.

“Yo, that dirty fucking flag, yeah,” a masked man can be heard yelling in video footage from the incident.

The ensuing assault, also caught on video, would leave Matt Greenman bloody and bruised after being knocked to the ground and repeatedly punched in the face in front of shocked bystanders, his flag ripped away in a beating for which at least one attacker, Saadah Masoud, has been imprisoned on federal hate crime charges.

Leading the march were two protesters studying law at the City University of New York’s law school, Nerdeen Kiswani and Fatima Mohammed, members of an activist group connected to other antisemitic attacks in New York.

Three weeks after the assault, Kiswani would deliver the commencement speech at CUNY Law, and last month, Mohammed delivered the 2023 commencement address for the graduating class, filled with much of the same anti-Israel invective used at the rally, and sparking a fresh outcry that has rocked the city’s massive public college system as it grapples with allegations of widespread antisemitism on its campuses.

In her commencement address last month, Mohammed repeatedly lashed Israel, accusing the Jewish state of “indiscriminate” murder, encouraging “lynch mobs” and lauding resistance to “Zionism around the world.” She said “donors” and “investors” stifled criticism of Israel in comments leading Jewish groups said leaned into antisemitic tropes.

Last year, Kiswani also focused her speech on the Palestinian cause. Among other things, she alleged that she was the target of “Zionist harassment” by groups with ties to the Israeli government.

The two speeches caused an uproar that reached the national level, with members of Congress weighing in and introducing legislation in response. The campus debate centers on the limits of protected speech and anti-Zionism, and when anti-Israel activism crosses into hate speech, discrimination and incitement.

It has also shined a light on what some students say is a discriminatory environment against Jews at CUNY, a system that has long been part of the city’s social fabric, with 25 colleges around New York City’s five boroughs, more than 240,000 students, and around 40,000 staff.

CUNY Law is one of the system’s better-known institutions, and is a bastion of progressive and activist politics.

Fatima Mohammed acknowledges the crowd after speaking at CUNY School of Law on May 12. (Youtube screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

The April 2022 rally near the Israeli consulate in Manhattan was organized by Kiswani’s group, Within Our Lifetime, and advertised as an “NYC emergency rally to support Palestinian resistance and liberation by any means necessary.” Mohammed is also a member of the organization.

Ahead of the attack, Kiswani led chants including, “Zionists you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” while standing in front of a banner that said “Globalize the intifada.” She blamed Israel for indiscriminate killing and called to “mobilize everyone else until every inch of Palestine is free from the river to the sea, by any means necessary.”

“From the river to the sea” is widely considered a call for Israel’s destruction and is used by the Hamas terrorist organization. Kiswani also lauded “retaliation from Gaza,” amid an uptick in violence between Israel and Gaza terror groups. The slogan “by any means necessary” is viewed as a justification for violent resistance.

“We call an end to Zionism and yes we call an end to the settler state of Israel. No settler state has the right to exist,” she said. She applauded CUNY Law’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine for participating in the rally.

Pro-Palestinian protesters rally against Israel, in the Bronx, New York City, May 31, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

Mohammed told the crowd, “Glory to the martyrs, glory to the resistance, glory to Palestinian men fighting on the land. Glory to each and every person throwing the stones.”

“Greater empires have crumbled beneath our feet and Israel you will crumble too, it’s a matter of time, but by Allah I’ll swear, and by the glory to the resistance it will happen,” she said.

She accused Israel of “raining their bullets and mess[ing] with Al Aqsa during the holy month of Ramadan,” in comments similar to her CUNY Law commencement speech.

Other rhetoric from Kiswani and Mohammed echoed some of the comments made during the commencement addresses, including connecting Israel to allegations of brutality against the New York Police Department, demonizing the US and its relationship with the Jewish state, and using the phrase “by any means necessary.”

After the speeches, the marchers set off down Lexington Avenue, with Kiswani and Mohammed among the group leading the procession. Members of the fringe Haredi group Neturei Karta were among the crowd.

Kiswani led chants of “from the river to the sea,” while Masoud, a student at CUNY’s Baruch College according to his LinkedIn profile, walked next to her at the front of the protest.

As the rally moved down the avenue, several participants broke off to pursue Greenman as he walked in the opposite direction of the march. Video filmed by the demonstrators showed Masoud following Greenman and shouting at him, along with another protester, who called Greenman an antisemitic slur in Arabic while shouting obscenities.

A watchdog group, the Canary Mission, identified the second man as Suleiman Othman, who was arrested months before the protest for attacking a Jewish man in a separate incident. He wore a mask while pursuing Greenman, but is seen on video later in the rally pulling down the face covering while at the head of the protest.

Masoud caught up to Greenman, knocked him to the sidewalk, repeatedly punched him in the face, causing injuries, and tore away his flag. The attack would not have been visible from the front of the protest, footage from the event indicated. Though police were securing the march, they do not appear to have been aware of the assault, which was caught on video by a bystander.

Video shows Masoud running back to the head of the march holding up the flag and then walking next to Kiswani, who speaks with Othman as he sets Greenman’s flag on fire.

Both men appeared to be familiar with the leaders of the protest. Mohammed is a few feet away, at the head of the rally, while the activists stomp on Greenman’s burning flag.

At the end of the march, the crowd gathered at a fountain near Central Park. Masoud stood next to Kiswani on the structure as she addressed the protesters.

“We know that the attacks against the Palestinian people are not going to end until Zionism is wiped out, until Zionism and colonialism and all of its institutions crumble and until there’s no such thing as something called Israel anymore,” she said.

Three weeks later Kiswani delivered the 2022 commencement speech for CUNY Law.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel protesters call for an intifada at a protest in New York City, September 17, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

In a statement on Kiswani’s commencement address, CUNY Law lauded Kiswani’s activism for Within Our Lifetime, for leading the college’s Students for Justice in Palestine group, and for her anti-Israel rallies, despite the assault having already been reported. The college appears to have taken down the statement sometime in the past six months. CUNY Law declined to comment.

The law school also issued a statement in support of Kiswani in 2021.

After Masoud was arrested in June of last year, federal investigators said that he had attacked two other Jews in the year preceding the protest.

He planned to carry out the assaults with co-conspirators in a group chat. The perpetrators told each other to cover their faces to evade prosecution and to use the term “Zionists” instead of Jews, apparently to avoid allegations of antisemitism. One of the members of the group followed up by saying, “Fuck all Jews.” Court documents also showed the group discussed bringing weapons, including Molotov cocktails, to a rally in 2021.

Kiswani protested in support of Masoud after he was detained by police in a separate incident in 2021.

Matt Greenman after he was attacked by pro-Palestinian protesters on April 20, 2022. (Courtesy/Matt Greenman)

In March, Masoud was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a federal judge for three assaults on people wearing Jewish or Israeli symbols, including the beating of Greenman. His indictment on hate crime charges came as Jewish groups repeatedly called for deterrence against antisemitic crimes.

Greenman’s lawyer, Gerard Filitti, said there could be further legal ramifications if the attack can be linked to the rhetoric used at the protest, for example under a state law barring incitement to riot.

“It has to be at a rally or at an event where someone, like Kiswani or Mohammed, are inciting people and violence occurs in close temporal proximity,” said Filitti, an attorney for the Jewish advocacy group the Lawfare Project. “We see that with Matt Greenman, we see that during the protest, there are shouts of ‘globalize the intifada,’ ‘resist by any means.'”

“People are repeatedly shouting the slogan of a designated terrorist organization, ‘from the river to the sea,’ the slogan of Hamas, and within minutes of these chants, of these shouts, Matt Greenman gets attacked,” he said.

He urged the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, to further investigate Masoud’s alleged co-conspirators, who have not been prosecuted.

Another activist who has protested with Kiswani’s group, Within Our Lifetime, was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment on Tuesday for beating a Jewish man, Joey Borgen, along with four other assailants at a rally in Manhattan in 2021.

Saadah Masoud, a pro-Palestinian activist, shortly before beating a Jewish man on a street in New York City on April 20, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The group’s protest “toolkit” includes chants urging the expulsion of Zionists, rejecting the two-state solution, and calls to “smash the settler Zionist state.” Its platform states opposition to “the entirety of the Zionist settler-colonial project,” and embraces “all forms of Palestinian resistance.” It also tells participants to “not record, post, or talk freely about anything that could get anyone in legal trouble.”

Within Our Lifetime lists Mohammed as a member and has campaigned in support of her, and against CUNY, since her speech last month. The group started out as New York City’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, and rebranded in 2019. It refuses to speak to “Zionist media” and did not respond to requests for comment.

CUNY Law’s Students for Justice in Palestine hosted an event with Kiswani and Mohammed shortly before the 2022 attack and has repeatedly expressed support for Within Our Lifetime. Neither Within Our Lifetime nor CUNY Law’s Students for Justice in Palestine appears to have commented on any of the attacks and have continued to collaborate on protests since. CUNY Law’s Students for Justice in Palestine and Kiswani also did not respond to requests for comment. Contact information for Mohammed could not be located.

Mohammed delivered her commencement speech on May 12. CUNY Law made video of the event non-public, but released the footage weeks later after coming under criticism from both sides of the debate, sparking a massive uproar. The video’s release and details of the comments were first reported by The Times of Israel.

The CUNY board of trustees condemned the address as “hate speech” late last month.

The fallout from the event has continued into the past week. New York City council members Ari Kagan and Inna Vernikov demanded action from CUNY and the bar association. US House Representative Josh Gottheimer called on the US Department of Education to investigate the commencement speech and signed onto a proposed bill that would strip public funding from colleges that “authorize antisemitic events.” At least four US House Representatives, one senator, and dozens of city and state officials have condemned the speech.

Jewish advocates protested outside the CUNY chancellor’s office on Wednesday to demand a response including the removal of CUNY Law’s dean.

The American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, the National Jewish Advocacy Center and the International Legal Forum this week demanded the US bar association revoke CUNY Law’s accreditation.

The union representing 30,000 faculty and staff at CUNY, the Professional Staff Congress, issued a statement on Monday condemning the college system for calling Mohammed’s address “hate speech,” and demanded a retraction.

A free speech advocacy group, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, defended Mohammed’s commencement address as “core political speech” that “must be protected by the First Amendment.”

“For speech to be punishable, it must fall into a category of unprotected speech, including discriminatory harassment, true threats, or incitement. The standard for each of those categories is extremely high, and is not met by Mohammed’s comments,” the foundation told The Times of Israel last week.

Illustrative: Brooklyn College students walk between classes on campus in New York, on February 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Alleged antisemitism on CUNY campuses has been a concern for years, with Jewish students and faculty reporting intense harassment and demanding action from the administration.

Last year, the US Department of Education opened an investigation into allegations of widespread harassment of Jewish students at CUNY’s Brooklyn College. The federal agency has launched a number of other similar probes on US campuses, with many focusing on whether anti-Zionism amounts to antisemitism.

The CUNY faculty union has passed anti-Israel resolutions, sparking backlash from Jewish professors. CUNY Law’s faculty and student body have embraced the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The school system has responded by saying it is taking steps to improve campus life for Jews.

Earlier this month, CUNY partnered with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism in a campaign against anti-Jewish racism. The college system also announced a new advisory council on Jewish life.

A campus group representing Zionist professors and students, SAFE CUNY, demanded more concrete steps, including that CUNY officially adopt a definition of antisemitism that covers some forms of Israel criticism.

Late last year, CUNY committed to a series of measures to combat antisemitism on its campuses, including a partnership with Hillel, an online portal to report discrimination and $750,000 for programming to combat hate.

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