‘Smear campaign’: Academics and Jewish organizations condemn targeting of pro-Palestine student

Zainab Iqbal

Middle East Eye  /  June 1, 2023

A wave of support from academia and civil society is backing Fatima Mohammed while demanding City University of New York School of Law recant its statement against her.

A little over a week after Fatima Mohammed stood on stage and called out Israel’s human rights violations and crimes against Palestinians during her City University of New York (Cuny) School of Law commencement ceremony, the university denounced her speech. 

In a statement on 30 May, the university categorized her address as hate speech and said they condemned such words. 

But while the university and elected officials – many of whom called her statement antisemitic – spoke out against her, Jewish organizations and Cuny Law staff and students are condemning what many are calling a “smear campaign”. 

Within Our Lifetime (WOL) Palestine launched a campaign titled, “We stand with Fatima”, where the organization is calling on people to defend activists at Cuny that stand with Palestine.

WOL is encouraging people to sign their statement, email Cuny and demand they “recant their most recent statement and protect Fatima and all students, faculty, and alumni facing repression for organizing for Palestine”.

On 1 June, dozens of Cuny faculty members signed a letter addressed to the Cuny chancellor and the board of trustees requesting them to withdraw their 30 May statement and apologize to Mohammed and the students that make up the law school Class of 2023.

“No reasonable interpretation of the student speaker’s remarks would suggest it was ‘hate speech,’ given that none of the student’s comments attacked any persons or protected classes, but at most commented on nations and state institutions that are incontrovertibly causing harm to people domestically and internationally,” the letter said.

“The May 30th Statement compounds the harms of the smear campaign executed by inflammatory publications like the New York Post, as well as the Mayor and other public officials on their official Twitter accounts, asserting similarly baseless characterizations of the student speaker’s commencement speech.”

‘Bad precedent’

Chaumtoli Huq is an associate professor of law at the Cuny School of Law. She is on leave this semester and watched the speech on YouTube. Speaking to Middle East Eye over the phone from Spain, she said Cuny’s statement was troubling.

 “If you read her speech, it is very precise about what she’s attacking. She’s not attacking people or individuals. She’s attacking direct systems of oppression,” Huq said.

She added that the statement from Cuny and its board of trustees is based on falsehoods. She said Mohammed’s speech is not hate speech and is the highest form of protected speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. 

“Critiquing state policy is not the same thing as expressing a biased view about Judaism or the Jewish community,” she said.

She and her colleagues became concerned once the Cuny statement came out. She told MEE she’s worried that if she were to express a point of view that is critical of human rights issues, then she too could be censored and silenced. 

“This sets a bad precedent,” she said.

Gregory Louis is an associate professor of law at the Cuny School of Law. He told MEE he was outraged that Mohammed was “pilloried and dehumanized for exercising basic free speech, including by the body in whose name she received her degree”.

He said the attacks on her are attacks on liberalism.

“I’ve been stunned that Fatima has been labelled antisemitic for criticizing the record of a nation-state in a manner informed by the post-war consensus on human rights memorialized in the Geneva Convention,” he said. 

“Among defenders of that order, it is inconceivable that criticism of any nation-state can be reduced to an ad hominem attack on any race, culture, religion, or group.”

He explained that this is why “no serious person” maintains that Martin Luther King Jr was “anti-American” for criticizing the Vietnam War. Or Senator Barbara Lee was “anti-white” for having stood alone in voting against the Afghanistan war.

In a statement to MEE, Cuny 4 Palestine organizers said the recent events were an orchestrated attack on Mohammed.

“What we are witnessing is a Cuny administration who is aware of the damage they caused by their intentional negligence and who will continue to do so as long as they act at the behest of donors and cower to racist external organizations.”

Middle East Eye reached out to Cuny for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Passionate about social justice 

Mohammed is currently studying for the New York State Bar exam. At the same time, she has been subject to death threats and Islamophobia, causing her and her family to fear for their safety.

“She is at the beginning of her career and this is the kind of thing that can be very damaging,” Huq said. “There’s so much harm that’s being done. And it’s being done to a first-generation Muslim-American woman who is the core student body of Cuny.”

Mohammed was not in Huq’s class, but Huq knew her as a first-year student and describes her as someone who is passionate about social justice. Huq forwarded an email that Mohammed had sent to her and other faculty members two years ago. 

In the email, Mohammed sent her appreciation and gratitude to the Cuny Law professors. She wrote: “The way you constantly show up for us is inspiring and comforting. The spaces you hold to make sure we don’t feel alone, and the constant giving of yourself does not go unnoticed.”

Mohammed was voted by her graduating class to be the speaker at the 2023 commencement. Huq believes that is a testament to the kind of person she is.

“She spoke truth to power and I’m very much proud of the position that she’s taken,” Huq said.

“If Cuny’s leadership will not be there for our students, it is up to us to be there for them.”

Jews stand with Fatima

On 31 May, New York City Mayor Eric Adams hosted a Jewish American Heritage Month celebration. In his speech, addressing Mohammed, he said: “If I was on that stage when those comments were made, I would have stood up and denounced them immediately.”

“I am so proud to be the mayor of the Tel Aviv of America.”

Middle East Eye reached out to New York City Mayor Eric Adams for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

In a statement on 30 May, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice said: “A university should be supporting their student who’s being targeted in right-wing media, the mayor, and multiple members of congress. CUNY should be standing up for Fatima, despite disagreement or discomfort. Instead, they’re throwing her to the wolves. Utterly shameful.”

Jewish Voices for Peace took to Twitter on 30 May to write that no one should face racist attacks for describing Palestinians’ reality.

“We stand with Fatima in her accurate and powerful description of Palestinian life under Israeli apartheid, and call on others to do the same.”

The Cuny School of Law Jewish Law Students Association wrote a letter in support of Fatima on 21 May, saying: “It is disingenuous to characterize these factual descriptions as antisemitic when they describe the conditions of Palestinian life”.

While Cuny professors, students, and Jewish organizations are standing with Fatima, it is those in higher positions who are targeting her. 

“It is natural that a Yemeni immigrant who struggled, overcame, persevered, and attained should express anger about the plight of many people who she might be but for her life’s trajectory,” Louis said.

“If she were not angry about the daily destruction of children, families, or friends who look like her and share her reality – if she were not angry about these contemporary injustices as such, regardless of their familiarity – then liberalism would be deception.”

Zainab Iqbal is a New York-based journalist