Selective free speech? Pro-Palestinian criticism of Israel sparks controversy at CUNY

Selective free speech? Pro-Palestinian criticism of Israel sparks controversy at CUNY
An Arab American graduate's remarks on Palestinians and criticism of the US police during an approved commencement speech garnered international attention.
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
01 June, 2023
Palestinian activism at US universities routinely encounters strong backlash. [Getty]

A graduation speech two weeks ago that was approved beforehand at the City University of New York School of Law is now facing backlash, including from the city's mayor, over what some critics are calling "hate speech" due to criticism of Israel.

Fatima Mousa Mohammed, a Yemeni American, took to the stage in her graduation ceremony, giving a pre-submitted speech in which she criticised systems of oppression, including against Palestinians, and extolled the virtues of free speech in resisting these systems.

"The joy and excitement that fills the auditorium: may it be the fuel for the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world. Systems of oppression created to feed an empire with a ravenous appetite for destruction and violence. Institutions created to intimidate, bully and censor and stifle the voices of those who resist," she said to a crowded auditorium of applause.

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At the time of the speech in mid-May, Mohammed was praised by students and faculty for her words. By the end of the month, critics of Palestinian activism on Twitter had spread their disapproval of the speech, leading to international news coverage and statements by New York Mayor Eric Adams and by members of the US Congress.

"I will tell you, if I was on that stage, when those comments were made, I would have stood up and denounced them immediately!" Adams said Wednesday night during an event for June's forthcoming Jewish Heritage Month at Gracie Mansion, as he stood in front of an Israeli flag. He continued, "Because we cannot allow it to happen."

Adams noted that some of those at the CUNY graduation had turned their backs on him when he spoke at the ceremony because he previously worked in law enforcement.

"Now I know why they turned their backs on me, because I will never turn my back on you," Adams said. "I will never turn my back on the men and women of our military service. I will never turn my back on the men and women who are part of the New York City Police Department. I will never turn my back on people who are in this city and make the city what it is."

Similarly, Representative Ritchie Torres of New York wrote on Twitter, "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 added, "Anti-Israel derangement syndrome at work."

Senator Ted Cruz also got in on the criticism of the CUNY graduation speech from two weeks earlier, writing on Twitter, "City University of New York class day speaker slanders Israel & enthusiastically celebrates antisemitism. Cheers on open borders & releasing violent criminals from jail. And decries the "fascist NYPD." This is a LAW school. Paid for with tax dollars."

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Naturally, the criticism of the speech led to calls for defunding the university, whose tuition is mainly covered by taxpayer money, making it one of the few US universities accessible to middle-class Americans.

The widespread outrage led to pressure on CUNY and thus a statement of condemnation from the university's board of trustees, saying, in part, "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."

Not everyone is denouncing Mohammed's speech. Even some politicians are pushing back against the onslaught of criticism.

Yuh-Line Niou, a former US congressional candidate in New York, tweeted the board's statement, writing, "This is a very disappointing and dangerous statement by @CUNY. They should be standing up for their students and protecting them. All of them. As a proud CUNY alumn, I loathe to see the day when our Universities are not a place for diversity of thought and learning."

In addition, multiple student groups, led by the CUNY School of Law Jewish Law Students Association, wrote in a joint letter that they stand "in solidarity with our friend and classmate Fatima, who is currently being targeted by a racist hate campaign from external organizations after delivering a commencement speech that addressed the struggle for Palestinian freedom."

Palestinian activists and academics are calling out what they see as repeated hypocrisy over selective free speech, particularly when it comes to pro-Palestinian criticism of Israel.

"People can be shocked or say it's just one instance. But it's like a boiling pot. People are tired of being gaslit every time they speak out," Ayah Ziyadeh, advocacy director for Americans for Justice in Palestine-Action, told The New Arab

"Critiquing Israel's policies have been strategically conflated with anti-Semitism," Anwar Mhajne, assistant professor of political science at Stonehill College, told TNA.  "It has been used as a tool to silence pro-Palestinian activists and suppress any fruitful debate on the moral and human cost of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories."

On the other hand, she noted that the pushback against the speech, which intended to silence Mohammed, has only amplified her voice. 

"The graduation speech would have gone unnoticed if the condemnations and circulation did not happen," she said. "In this case, instead of silencing Mohammed, her address became more publicized."

TNA contacted CUNY for comment but did not hear back.