If you’ve seen local demonstrations organized by progressive groups, you may have seen volunteers with bright caps and shorts in such crowds. They are members of the National Lawyers Guild who defend protesters against alleged police misconduct, taking videos and notes. Their members come from many law schools and certainly the CUNY School of Law is among them, as its mission is devoted towards “law in the service of human needs.”
For political progressives, this mission includes public defenders representing indigent clients, examining police misconduct, labor union organizing, immigration, and combating discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities, among other things. In this mix of causes, Zionism has been identified by the school’s faculty and students as linked with White Supremacism and worthy of condemnation.
On May 12, when Mayor Eric Adams addressed the graduates, they jeered and turned their backs on him when he noted his previous career as a police officer. In recognition of the audience, he noted his own history of attending protests for racial justice. The catcalling did not dissipate and neither did the mayor in his call to recognize opposing viewpoints. “My message to those who believe that their beliefs are the only beliefs in a diversified city like New York, my message to you, instead of being a detached spectator in the full contact sport called life, get on the field and participate about improving the lives of the people of this city.”
“Use your power and skills not to yell but to quell the burning desire that we have,” he said before leaving the podium. A half hour later, the elected speaker of the graduating class stood up to deliver her remarks. During her time as a student, Fatima Mohammed interned for the National Lawyers Guild. She appeared in a hijab with a keffiyeh and the colors of the Yemeni flag atop her gown.
“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.
Mohammed noted her grandparents in Aden, Yemen, who celebrated her graduation with fireworks. Curiously, with so much of her time devoted towards demonizing Israel, she had nothing to say about the collapse of government in her country, the ongoing civil war, and why its centuries-old Jewish community was entirely eradicated through violence within her lifetime.
Mohammed then tore into the CUNY administration as “investor focused,” and the city police department as “fascist.” Her message has a history at the school as last year’s speaker, Nerdeen Kiswani, is also an outspoken supporter of violence against Israel that extends beyond merely boycotting the Jewish homeland.
After initially hiding a recording of the graduation speeches, CUNY Law School released it last Thursday. Among local elected officials, New York City Council Members Inna Vernikov, Kalman Yeger, and Ari Kagan – all from Brooklyn – quickly condemned Mohammed’s remarks as anti-Semitic. Last year, Vernikov pulled $50,000 in funding from the school’s pro bono legal services, redirecting it to another nonprofit. Queens Councilman Jim Gennaro promised not to entertain funding requests from CUNY Law School in light of its support for BDS.
“It seems as if anti-Semitism is the only politically acceptable form of racism that exists. We must stop handing out free passes to anti-Semites like candy,” Vernikov said at the time.
Concerning this year’s graduate outburst, the school must recognize that most of its funding comes not from investors or alumni, but the taxpaying public. It provides an additional level of scrutiny should the student organizations, faculty union, president, board of trustees, and chancellor, fail to enforce the promise of the profession towards which this school is dedicated.
If character and fitness are among the prerequisites towards passing the bar, certainly, then, anti-Semitism should be as much a disqualifier as other forms of racism. The disrespectful manner in which Mohammed addressed the mayor and the police department should be taken into account at the bar exam.
After two decades of using a former middle school on the campus of Queens College, in 2012 the public rewarded CUNY Law School with its own site, a 70,000 square-foot space in a glassy tower in Long Island City, one stop from Midtown Manhattan, and across the street from a courthouse.
As a graduate of City College, the oldest of the 25 colleges within the City University of New York, the controversies at the law school brought back memories of my own activism. I ran for the student government, wrote in the campus newspaper, organized Jewish events, and perhaps most memorably, had my 15 minutes of fame in successfully removing the names of two convicted fugitive cop killers from a student center. Each campus is different in regard to its political landscape. Some have a larger leftist presence, while others have a sizable contingent of faculty and students to sustain a thriving pro-Israel community.
I was concerned about negative publicity on social media, bullying from fellow students, and backlash from certain professors, but it was a matter of fairness. If other ethnicities and religions can express themselves openly on campus, why not us? I also recognized that there was more at stake than a principle. If BDS becomes policy, the credits earned studying abroad at Israeli seminaries, universities, and internships would be denied recognition, and could be used as evidence of “racism” for participating in an “apartheid” regime. It would mean taxpayer funding and student union dues used to discredit Israel and anyone who supports it.
To defeat this movement, an internal opposition must be trained and organized at each campus, composed of faculty and students who would engage with colleagues, student organizations, faculty unions, trustees, and alumni. BDS resolutions are a perennial battle, and it takes a lot of patience to defeat them every year only to know that the next year they will reappear. As one class graduates, the next class must be ready to fight the same battles.
Following are some of the reactions by our elected officials:
“All students have a right to feel safe at our city’s higher education institutions, particularly CUNY which is a public institution,” said Council Member Lynn Schulman. “A speech promoting hate should not be tolerated under any circumstances. Sadly, the speech given by a CUNY Law School graduate this past weekend targeted Israel and the Jewish community which is totally unacceptable and should be condemned. CUNY must take swift action to prevent this type of situation from occurring in the future.”
The Board of Trustees, including William C. Thompson Jr., Chairperson, and Sandra Wilkin, Vice Chairperson, and Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, Chancellor of the City University of New York, added, “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. 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. his speech is particularly unacceptable at a ceremony celebrating the achievements of a wide diversity of graduates, and hurtful to the entire CUNY community, which was founded on the principle of equal access and opportunity. CUNY’s commitment to protecting and supporting our students has not wavered throughout our 175-year existence and we cannot and will not condone hateful rhetoric on our campuses.”
Council Member Inna Vernikov called for action: “CUNY Law must be stripped of state and city funding for violating New York’s anti-BDS laws.”
CUNY Law reacted: “This was a speech that was submitted and approved at all levels of CUNY administration, including by Dean Sudha Setty at CUNY Law, President Frank Wu at Queens College, and by CUNY Central, according to Dean Setty. When then did her speech become “hate speech”?”
Council Member James F. Gennaro condemned the CUNY School of Law commencement speaker for anti-Semitic remarks, sharing, “Many have heard and have been shocked and appalled by the commencement address delivered at CUNY Law School School’s 2023 graduation that has gone viral. The commencement speaker, a member of the Law School’s Class of 2023, reiterated much of the same abominable anti-Semitic hatred espoused by members of the Law School’s student body in a 2021 resolution that was subsequently acclaimed and affirmed by the Law School’s faculty. I could write a comprehensive condemnation of the commencement speaker’s reprehensible anti-Semitism contained in her address, as well as her attacks on the NYPD, the United States, capitalism, and her call to use ‘rage’ as a force for change, which is an incitement to violence – but I have already spoken out against the 2021 CUNY Law resolution which contains much of the same hateful and violent nonsense espoused by this commencement speaker. It is a grim reality to realize that nothing has changed in CUNY Law School in the last year.”
By Sergey Kadinsky