Washington, DC – It is not often that Republicans and Democrats in the United States find common ground, but this week, officials from both major parties pursued a shared cause – bashing a New York law school graduate for a speech criticising Israel.
Democratic Congressman Ritchie Torres called The City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law graduate “crazed”; former Republican candidate for governor Lee Zeldin described the speech as “raging antisemitism”; Mayor Eric Adams characterised it as “words of negativity and divisiveness”.
Even Republican Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, joined the pile-on of condemnations against the Yemeni-American graduate speaker, Fatima Mohammed. CUNY itself dubbed the speech a “public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race or political affiliation” in a statement attributed to its chancellor.
The New York Post tabloid newspaper put Mohammed on its front page on Tuesday.
But many Palestinian rights advocates appeared bewildered by the accusations, stressing that Mohammed said nothing hateful or bigoted.
Advocates say the vilification of Mohammed fits into a broader pattern of publicly attacking Israel’s critics in an effort to deter further criticism of the country’s policies.
Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based rights group, said pro-Israel organisations and politicians are hoping that such attacks would dissuade Palestine solidarity activists from speaking out.
“But I think it’s actually having the opposite effect. I think this actually emboldens more people to speak out,” Shapiro told Al Jazeera.
He highlighted successful legal and political advocacy to push back against “smear campaigns” in recent years.
Mohammed’s speech was given to the law school’s graduating class of 2023 earlier this month but started making headlines after it was noticed online by some media outlets last week. From there, it gained exponential national and international attention as more pro-Israel publications and politicians continued to condemn it.
In her 12-minute address, Mohammed touched on a variety of social justice causes, highlighting the student body’s activism.
“I want to celebrate CUNY law as one of the few if not the only law school to make a public statement defending the right of its students to organise and speak out against Israeli settler colonialism,” she said.
The hijab-wearing speaker’s remarks were interrupted repeatedly by applause from fellow graduates in the audience.
Mohammed went on to say: “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.”
Her accusations seem to correspond with recent Israeli conduct, including attacks on worshippers inside Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and a police assault on slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral last year.
Earlier this year, a mob of Israeli settlers also ransacked the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Huwara, and an Israeli government minister said the Palestinian community should be “wiped out”.
“It ultimately was a review of what’s been happening in real life on the ground in Palestine,” Shapiro said of the speech.
CUNY did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment seeking clarification on what part of Mohammed’s address constituted “hate speech”.
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.
— Yuh-Line Niou (@yuhline) May 30, 2023
Mohammed also touched on other issues, including the university’s cooperation with law enforcement, calling the New York Police Department “fascist”.
While the speech was decidedly politically charged, Mohammed’s supporters noted that CUNY Law’s mission statement explicitly states that the programme is social justice-oriented.
“CUNY Law is built on a tradition of radical lawyering: movements for social change are built with leadership and collaboration from the people and communities who have experienced injustice,” it says.
Advocates defend Mohammed
Activists say the campaign against Mohammed is the latest episode in attacks against pro-Palestine advocates. Palestinian rights supporters in the US often face accusations of anti-Semitism and campaigns to cancel their events and protests.
Professors critical of Israel have lost their jobs as the result of pressure campaigns. Political nominees to human rights and diplomatic positions in the government have been withdrawn over past criticism of Israel in recent years.
But this week, as pro-Israel groups and politicians put Mohammed in their crosshairs, many Arab, Muslim and Palestinian rights advocates came to her defence.
Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USPCR), lauded Mohammed’s address as “impassioned and liberatory” against white supremacy, state surveillance and Israeli colonialism.
“Of course the politicians upholding these oppressive institutions are quick to smear her for calling out their violent complicity,” Abuznaid told Al Jazeera in an email.
“We applaud Fatima for her principled speech and look forward to following her pursuit of justice and liberation for all people in her legal career.”
The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY) denounced what it called the “silencing of voices” seeking to underscore human rights abuses.
“CAIR-NY stands in solidarity with the student commencement speaker who bravely sought to elevate the plight of Palestinians and the human rights abuses they face. We affirm their right to express their views freely and without interference,” Afaf Nasher, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
The New York City chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-occupation group, also praised Mohammed and slammed her critics, accusing them of using Islamophobic tropes to “punch down” and smear the young woman.
“We decry the false characterization of her speech as anti-Semitic simply because she accurately describes the conditions Palestinians live under every day. We couldn’t agree with her more that ‘Palestine can no longer be the exception to our pursuit of justice’,” the group said.
Mohammed’s defenders were particularly incensed at Congressman Torres, a staunchly pro-Israel Democrat.
“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,” Torres wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “Anti-Israel derangement syndrome at work.”
Palestinian-American analyst Yousef Munayyer hit out at Torres.
“The idea that Muslims are irrationally and uncontrollably possessed by hatred of Jews is an racist and Islamophobic trope you are engaging in. Imagine being so cowardly to be a congressman punching down at a student for speaking up against Apartheid,” Munayyer said in a tweet.
The idea that Muslims are irrationally and uncontrollably possessed by hatred of Jews is an racist and Islamophobic trope you are engaging in. Imagine being so cowardly to be a congressman punching down at a student for speaking up against Apartheid.
— Yousef Munayyer (@YousefMunayyer) May 30, 2023
Torres’s office did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
For his part, Shapiro – of DAWN – said Torres was coming after a young Muslim, hijab-wearing woman with far less power to shore up his pro-Israel credentials.
“This is a classic case of bullying,” Shapiro said.