NEW YORK — Pressure mounted on New York City’s public college system on Thursday in the wake of a commencement speech that was harshly critical of Israel, as US Congress members introduced legislation to defund universities that host “antisemitic” events, a growing roster of public officials and Jewish groups condemned the commencement address, and a campaign in support of the speaker gained steam.
The conflagration has battered the City University of New York from both sides since its law school released a video of the speech last week. The university system, better known as CUNY, is a massive public education system spread across the five boroughs.
The featured speaker at the CUNY Law event on May 12, activist Fatima Mohammed, accused Israel of “indiscriminate” murder, encouraging “lynch mobs” and lauded resistance to “Zionism around the world.”
She said “donors” and “investors” were controlling policy behind the scenes for the school system. Leading Jewish groups said the speech employed antisemitic tropes. The address also attacked the New York Police Department, the military, and called laws a function of “white supremacy.”
The speech marked the second consecutive year that the law school’s commencement speaker dedicated much of their address to anti-Israel rhetoric, and comes amid a years-long running battle over alleged widespread antisemitism in the city college system.
The video’s release and details of the speech were first reported by The Times of Israel.
US Congressman Mike Lawler, a New York Republican, introduced legislation “to rescind federal funding for colleges that promote antisemitism on their campuses” in response to the speech.
The Stop Anti-Semitism on College Campuses Act has eight co-sponsors, all Republicans. Lawler represents a section of New York’s Hudson Valley with a sizable Jewish population.
“Many in the Jewish community in New York and across the country were outraged when a student spewed outrageous antisemitic rhetoric at CUNY Law School’s graduation in May,” Lawler said in a statement. “No college or university should receive a single dollar of federal education funding if they peddle in the promotion of antisemitism at an event on their campus.”
At least four US House Representatives and one senator have condemned the speech. New Jersey Representative Josh Gottheimer joined the criticism on Thursday, saying, “This type of vitriolic language is completely unacceptable and is clearly hate speech.”
Without naming CUNY, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said on Thursday that it was acceptable to criticize the Israeli government, but that singling out Israel with “venomous attacks,” trafficking in anti-Jewish conspiracies and ostracizing Zionists “is indeed antisemitic.”
You can criticize the policies of the government of Israel without being antisemitic.
But if you're uniquely singling out the world’s only majority Jewish country with venomous attacks, if you're trafficking in the trope of a Zionist global conspiracy, if you're demonizing (1/2)
— Mark D. Levine (@MarkLevineNYC) June 1, 2023
New York City Mayor Eric Adams and over two dozen city and state representatives have also denounced the speech. New York City Councilmember Ari Kagan demanded an investigation into the commencement ceremony in a letter to CUNY’s leadership.
The New York State Senate’s Republican Conference sent a letter to Governor Kathy Hochul demanding she withhold taxpayer funding to CUNY Law and condemn the speech. The letter cited previous instances of anti-Israel and anti-police activity on public campuses.
A group of seven alumni from CUNY Law’s inaugural 1986 graduating class sent an open letter to the CUNY system’s faculty and administration saying the speech was “an unforgivable betrayal of the values upon which this institution was founded.”
“Our legacy has been disgraced and we are totally disgusted by a faculty and administration that have nurtured this toxic, intolerant, and antisemitic environment,” the letter said. The group said it was enlisting more classmates to support the letter, and that CUNY’s Board of Trustees said it was reviewing its options in response.
Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY (SAFE CUNY), a group representing Zionist and Israeli students and faculty that has been at the forefront of the dispute, said on Thursday that “CUNY is infected with the terrible disease of Jew Hatred. The disease is highly contagious and being spread by CUNY Administrators, faculty and students.”
CUNY’s Board of Trustees reiterated its opposition to the speech in a Thursday statement, calling the address “hateful rhetoric” in response to critical coverage from The New York Post. The tabloid led its daily newspaper with the story twice in the past week. The board previously condemned the address as hate speech, although some Jewish groups criticized the statement for not mentioning Jews or antisemitism.
At the same time, defense for the speech gained traction with pro-Palestinian groups, civil rights organizations, CUNY staffers and some public officials.
Pro-Palestinian groups circulated a petition and launched an online campaign in support of Mohammed, accusing CUNY of working to “wage war on Palestine organizing.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations and a CUNY Law student government group said that the school’s administration had approved the speech ahead of time and castigated the university for its criticism after the event.
— CAIR National (@CAIRNational) May 31, 2023
The civil rights groups the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild also came to Mohammed’s defense.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said the address was protected free speech, admonished CUNY for its denunciation of the event, and warned against punishing students for free expression.
The lawyers guild called the address a “principled speech” and said criticism of the commments was “part of a broader trend of repression, censorship and racism across CUNY.”
US House Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, and New York City Councilmember Tiffany Caban also defended Mohammed.
“Speaking up against the apartheid government of Israel is not hate speech,” Tlaib said on Twitter, drawing rebukes from Anti-Defamation League chief Jonathan Greenblatt, AIPAC and Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan.
The progressive Jewish groups Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and IfNotNow also shared statements in support of Mohammed.
Several dozen members of CUNY Law’s faculty posted an open letter to the university system demanding it rescind its condemnation of the speech and issue an apology. The letter said the address was not hate speech that targeted a protected class of people, and only political. The faculty said the controversy had been ginned up “in bad faith by right-wing media and other conservative activists.”
The commencement ceremony was closed to the press and CUNY Law refused to make the video public after the ceremony. The college released the video last week after coming under pressure from pro-Palestinian groups.
The CUNY system has 25 colleges around New York’s five boroughs, with around 260,000 students and close to 20,000 faculty. It has long been part of the city’s social fabric. The CUNY Law School is one of the system’s better-known institutions.
Mohammed is a member of CUNY Law’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which has spearheaded BDS and other anti-Israel initiatives on campus.
She was chosen by the student body to give the commencement address, which she used to repeatedly lash Israel, linking the Jewish state to white supremacy, oppression, colonialism and violence.
“This is the law school that passed and endorsed BDS on a student and faculty level, recognizing that absent a critical imperialism settler colonialism lens, our work and the school’s mission statement is void of value as Israel continues to indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshipers, murdering the old, the young, attacking the funerals and graveyards as it encourages lynch mobs,” she said.
Mohammad also said that CUNY “continues to train IDF soldiers” to carry out “violence globally,” blaming the school system for being “committed to its donors, not to its students.”
“May we rejoice in the corners of our New York City bedroom apartments and dining tables, may it be fuel for the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and Zionism around the world,” she said, adding, “by any means necessary.” She received several rounds of applause from the students and faculty at the event.
Last year, activist Nerdeen Kiswani dedicated much of her CUNY Law commencement speech to anti-Israel rhetoric. Kiswani is a leader of Within Our Lifetime, a pro-Palestinian group, and was the president of CUNY Law’s Students for Justice in Palestine.
Within Our Lifetime and Students for Justice in Palestine collaborate on campus initiatives, and hold regular street protests that call for an end to the Jewish state, a “global intifada” and the ostracization of Zionists. Kiswani and Mohammed are regular speakers at the events. A member of Within Our Lifetime was imprisoned this year on federal hate crimes charges for beating a Jewish man at one of the group’s events.
Antisemitism has been a growing concern on CUNY campuses in recent years, as anti-Israel activities became more prominent and anti-Jewish crime surged in New York City. Jewish groups and city officials have accused the administration of tolerating anti-Jewish activity on campuses, and students have reported intense harassment.
The school system has taken some 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.
SAFE CUNY lashed the announcements as a fig leaf and called for more concrete steps, including that CUNY officially adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which 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.