It took the City University of New York (CUNY) nearly three weeks to do it, but the public university’s chancellor and board of trustees eventually got around to condemning an antisemitic speech made at the CUNY Law School graduation ceremony on May 12.
The oration was delivered by graduating student Fatima Mousa Mohammed of Queens, N.Y., a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, the activist wing of the antisemitic BDS movement. In it, she uttered egregious lies about Israel and Zionists but anchored her attacks on the Jewish state in far-left talking points about the evils of capitalism, imperialism, colonialism and “white supremacy.” She railed against the police as well as the federal prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation, which served as fundraisers for the Hamas terrorist group. She spoke of the mission of the future lawyers getting their degrees that day as waging an ongoing battle against the rule of law.
Mohammed received a rousing ovation from the graduating students that was reportedly joined in by school officials. But once the video of the 12-minute speech went viral, it generated angry pushback from Jewish organizations and politicians.
The criticism was appropriate. Mohammed claimed that: “Israel 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 the ongoing nakba, that our silence is no longer acceptable.”
Her claims would better describe the actions of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad than that of Israel. But this does illustrate just how antisemitic canards and calls for the destruction of the only Jewish state on the planet have become mainstream discourse in academia.
The school initially pulled the video from its website but then restored it when left-wing activists condemned it for bowing to pressure from Zionists and conservatives. But as the story gained momentum, the CUNY board realized that it had to distance itself from the incident. Likely, they are hoping that will be the end of it as far as they are concerned.
It shouldn’t be. The speech was just the most recent in a string of stories that pointed to the way CUNY has become a stronghold of far-left ideology and antisemitism. But for all of the criticisms that the event caused to be aimed at the school, the remedies that have been proposed in response to it are utterly inadequate.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY) called for CUNY to “revise its guidelines” for graduation speeches. The Anti-Defamation League agreed. But given that the speech was reportedly submitted in advance in both written and verbal form—and approved by the Law School officials who clearly thought there was nothing amiss with a speech filled with antisemitic tropes—the problem goes deeper than guidelines.
Closer to the mark was the Rabbinic Alliance of America, which called for changes at the school that would be decided by a fact-finding commission. Such a body, however, would be bogged down in a protracted procedure that would be controlled by the ideologues and their enablers and accomplish nothing.
CUNY may be an extreme example of how the hard left has captured academia. Yet the content of Mohammed’s speech is directly connected to the way these radicals have imposed their secular religion of “anti-racism” on so many institutions and made their woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) the creed from which none may dissent. Her smears are the product of that ideology. Seen in context, rather than as an outlier, she is a not untypical product of American higher education in 2023. And the educational establishment is content to let things stay that way.
Accountability then must involve more than superficial gestures. What is needed is a response that is, on the surface, just as radical as the problem it is seeking to address. And for that, we have an excellent example in Florida.
Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would defund all DEI programs at Florida public colleges. Unlike most of those who have noted the dismal state of affairs in academia, DeSantis wasn’t content to snipe away from the sidelines. Instead, he cut straight to the heart of the problem.
It must be understood that a school like CUNY Law, which is widely acknowledged to be completely captured by the extremists who approved and cheered Mohammed’s speech, is a product of the DEI mindset and the related toxic concepts of intersectionality and critical race theory. Antisemitism isn’t a bug of the modern university that has been taken over by DEI indoctrination; it’s a feature.
The academic establishment is so compromised by this ideological agenda that talk of reform that doesn’t involve sweeping measures that force them to change is meaningless. If schools like CUNY are to change, then their funding must be cut off. That isn’t possible at large private institutions with massive endowments like Ivy League schools supported by left-wing alumni. Private philanthropic foundations are also now so thoroughly woke that those who are dependent on them for donations must bow to their dictates, which now means adopting DEI measures.
But public universities and colleges are dependent on state funding. And that is the only way ordinary citizens can apply the leverage needed to ensure that hatemongers like Mohammed are no longer treated as campus darlings.
Though some New York politicians condemned Mohammed’s hate speech, such defunding is, alas, impossible in deep-blue New York. Notwithstanding this controversy, the political and media establishment in New York doesn’t really have a problem with continuing to subsidize a bastion of antisemitism like CUNY.
The irony was that initially, it was not Mohammed’s slander-filled ideological rant that drew attention to this ceremony. At first, it was the reaction of students to the appearance of New York City Mayor Eric Adams at the graduation ceremony. Students booed and raised their middle figures at Adams, while most of the graduating class turned their backs when he spoke. That was a reaction to his so-far inadequate attempts to rein in the crime wave started by his predecessor Bill de Blasio’s policies and exacerbated by the Black Lives Matter riots that undermined the police.
That incident generated an article in The New York Times that didn’t even mention Mohammed’s antisemitic speech, though it also noted that such leftist dogmatism was to be expected at CUNY. Indeed, as of this writing, the Times has not printed a single word about Mohammed’s speech. Though it made the front page of the tabloid New York Post (the Post’s typically witty headline about Mohammed read “Stark Raving Grad”), it was apparently not considered newsworthy by the liberal “newspaper of record.”
Mohammed was not without her defenders. Anti-Zionist Times contributor and CUNY journalism professor Peter Beinart claimed that her lies about Israel were true, illustrating once again that some Jews are supporters of antisemitism. He was joined in this by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which was founded as a political front for the same Holy Land Foundation Mohammed defended, who described the anger her antisemitism generated as an attempt to suppress “free speech.” (And, yes, that’s the same CAIR that was consulted by the Biden administration while preparing its strategy for combating antisemitism.)
The time has passed for Jewish groups to content themselves with statements complaining about such incidents. If they are to be taken seriously as opponents of antisemitism, then they must demand the defunding of all schools that engage in DEI indoctrination that helps generate this sort of open hatred. DeSantis and those who support his much-needed counterattack on the forces seeking to impose radicalism on students are accused of fighting a “culture war,” though it is the left that started the war on Western culture. But anyone who is interested in combating antisemitism must join this war. The only way to make a difference is to insist on defunding institutions that foster hatred.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.