The City University of New York (CUNY) Law School has found itself in the midst of a brewing controversy after releasing a video of its recent commencement ceremony. The speech by Fatima Mohammed, chosen by the student body as the keynote speaker, sparked a contentious debate due to her vehement critique of Israel and apparent endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Mohammed’s allegations against Israel were profound. She linked the Jewish state with white supremacy, oppression, colonialism, and violence. Additionally, she accused Israel of encouraging “lynch mobs” and “indiscriminate” murder. A university-affiliated individual, possibly a professor or dean, was seen nodding in agreement during the speech, further fueling the controversy.
The CUNY Law School, known for its progressive and activist politics, has endorsed the BDS campaign at both the student and faculty levels. However, this explicit support of BDS and the content of Mohammed’s speech has reignited an ongoing debate: when does anti-Zionism cross the line into antisemitism? This issue has been a significant point of contention not only at CUNY but also on other US college campuses and within progressive circles.
The speech marks the second consecutive year that CUNY Law School’s commencement speaker has incorporated anti-Israel rhetoric into their address. Last year, Nerdeen Kiswani, an activist and president of CUNY Law’s Students for Justice in Palestine, also dedicated much of her commencement speech to critiquing Israel.
The CUNY Law School initially kept the video of the commencement ceremony private. However, following pressure from both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups, the video was released. This incident, along with a history of alleged antisemitism at the CUNY system, has led to widespread backlash, particularly from Jewish allies who see this as an ongoing issue within the city college system.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have both condemned the speech. JCRC-NY released a statement calling the address “incendiary anti-Israel propaganda” and criticizing it as a “shameless attempt to vilify CUNY’s constructive engagement with Israel.” The ADL voiced their disapproval, stating, “We are appalled to see such an egregious display of hostility toward ‘Zionists’ (which is how many Jews see themselves) and Israel.”
In response to this controversy and allegations of widespread harassment of Jewish students at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, the US Department of Education has opened an investigation. The probe is part of a broader examination on US campuses to determine whether anti-Zionism constitutes antisemitism.
Despite these controversies, CUNY has taken steps to address anti-Jewish racism on its campuses, including partnering with JCRC-NY and the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism in a campaign against anti-Jewish racism. The school system also announced the formation of a new advisory council on Jewish life. Nevertheless, some feel that these measures do not go far enough, calling for more concrete actions, including CUNY’s official adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which encompasses certain forms of criticism against Israel.