NEW YORK — US lawmakers, local politicians and Jewish groups blasted the City University of New York and its law school on Tuesday for a commencement ceremony that featured a keynote speech seen as discriminatory against Jews.
The school system, better known as CUNY, released a statement condemning the remarks as “hate speech” following a widespread outcry and calls for the college to speak out.
The featured speaker at the event, activist Fatima Mohammed, had 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 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 CUNY Law School had initially limited access to a video of the speech after the May 12 event, but released it publicly on Thursday after coming under pressure from pro-Palestinian groups. The video’s release and details of the speech were first reported by The Times of Israel.
Several members of Congress from both sides of the political divide lambasted the speech and CUNY for hosting the remarks.
“With antisemitism on the rise, this kind of hateful and misleading rhetoric is simply unacceptable,” said Democrat Dan Goldman, who represents New York’s 10th District in the US House of Representatives. “Hate speech has no place in society and certainly not in our public schools.”
With antisemitism on the rise, this kind of hateful and misleading rhetoric is simply unacceptable.
Hate speech has no place in society and certainly not in our public schools.
— Daniel Goldman (@danielsgoldman) May 29, 2023
Congressman Ritchie Torres, also a New York Democrat, called the speech “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 said.
Republican New York Congressman Mike Lawler said CUNY should be stripped of federal funding. “CUNY should be ashamed of itself,” he said.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said the speech “enthusiastically celebrates antisemitism.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, New York State Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein and New York City councilmembers Ari Kagan, Kalman Yeger and Inna Vernikov also blasted the city college system over the speech.
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.
Anti-Israel derangement syndrome at work. pic.twitter.com/15iACGJUVn
— Ritchie Torres (@RitchieTorres) May 29, 2023
The American Jewish Committee expressed “outrage,” saying the speech “revels in vile antisemitic tropes,” and “contributes to a volatile atmosphere for Jewish students, faculty, and staff.”
The group noted a recent White House push to combat antisemitism, which included a call for colleges to unequivocally condemn antisemitism and ensure Jewish students needs are met.
“CUNY must rise to the call,” it said.
Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group, said the address was antisemitic and indicative of discriminatory trends on the city’s public school campuses, including the law school’s support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
“Sadly, the CUNY campus has become a breeding ground for antisemitism, hate, and bigotry aimed at Israel and Jewish students,” the group said. “Agudath Israel calls on CUNY to denounce Ms. Mohammed’s hateful screed and to commit to creating a safe environment for its Jewish students.”
The far-left Jewish groups IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace expressed support for the speech, saying they were “proud to stand with Fatima.”
After the condemnations, CUNY’s leadership condemned the speech in a Tuesday statement.
“Free speech is precious, but often messy, and is vital to the foundation of higher education. Hate speech, however, should not be confused with free speech and has no place on our campuses or in our city, our state or our nation,” said the statement attributed to CUNY’s chancellor and several members of the board of trustees. “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.”
“The Board of Trustees of the City University of New York condemns such hate speech.”
We thank @CUNY for condemning the hateful remarks at the recent CUNY Law School graduation and for making the critical distinction between free speech and hate speech — and we urge CUNY to establish guidelines ensuring future speakers don't espouse hate. https://t.co/mZGJCXsjpB
— UJA-Federation of New York (@UJAfedNY) May 30, 2023
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which partners with CUNY on Jewish campus initiatives, said it was “disappointed” the statement did not label the speech antisemitic.
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.
After the commencement event, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the Anti-Defamation League condemned the speech. JCRC-NY had announced a new partnership with CUNY to boost Jewish life on campus the day before.
“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,” said JCRC-NY. “We strongly encourage CUNY to revise its guidelines surrounding commencement speeches.”
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, Saadah Masoud, was imprisoned this year on federal hate crimes charges for beating a Jewish man at one of the group’s events. Masoud and co-conspirators plotted attacks on Jews ahead of the event and told each other to refer to their targets as “Zionists,” not Jews, apparently to avoid allegations of antisemitism.
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 JCRC-NY and the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism in a campaign against anti-Jewish racism.
“We will not waver in our dedication to fighting antisemitism, and we want our Jewish students, faculty and staff to know they are valued and protected at our university,” Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez said at the time.
The college system also announced a new advisory council on Jewish life.
A campus group representing Zionist professors and students 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.