US university condemned for removing pro-Palestine commencement speech from YouTube

Zainab Iqbal

Middle East Eye  /  May 23, 2023

 Students and activists say speech was removed for its pro-Palestinian content after some critiqued speech as being ‘antisemitic’.

On 12 May, the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law live-streamed its commencement ceremony where Fatima Mohammed was speaking. The student was draped in the famous Palestinian keffiyeh. But just hours after the graduation ceremony, the video of the speech had disappeared from the school’s YouTube page.

Students and activists say it’s because the speaker brought attention to Palestine. Mohammed had been voted by her classmates to give the address.

She spoke about how she and other students joined CUNY Law to gain the legal skills necessary to confront systems of oppression and apply law principles consistently.

“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… our silence is no longer acceptable,” Mohammed said during her speech. 

“Palestine can no longer be the exception to our pursuit of justice.” 

Later, many critiqued the speech, saying it was “antisemitic”. But the CUNY School of Law Jewish Law Students Association wrote a letter in support of Fatima, saying: “It is disingenuous to characterize these factual descriptions as antisemitic when they describe the conditions of Palestinian life”.

“If CUNY Law wants to show it cares for its Jewish students, it can do so by showing it cares for Fatima.”

Videos of commencements from 2014 to 2021 are all available on the school’s YouTube page. The graduation speaker of the 2022 commencement was Nerdeen Kiswani, a Palestinian activist and the founder of Within Our Lifetime Palestine. But like Mohammad, Kiswani’s speech also called out Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians. 

“Any platform is an opportunity for us to raise awareness and build a movement for Palestinian liberation. I feel like I’m part of the Palestinian struggle even if I’m in the US. I still owe that to my people. Just like our people back home are giving their lives every day for the struggle,” Kiswani told Middle East Eye.

“Especially living in the belly of the beast in a city like New York where everything we say and do has such a big impact here.”

Kiswani says that the video of her graduation in 2022 remained on the page until 12 May 2023. CUNY students and activists are now demanding that the full videos of the 2022 and 2023 graduation ceremonies be released.

MEE reached out to the CUNY School of Law, which said that 2020 to 2023 commencements were not available on the school’s Youtube page. 

But 2021 is available. The 2020 commencement was during the pandemic, and while there’s not a commencement speech video on their page, one celebrating the 2020 graduates is there.

“The video productions of the complete 2020 & 2021, 2022, and 2023 Commencement Ceremonies will be made available online as they have been for previous years. Consistent with the Law School’s practice for past years, the videos will contain the full programming and remarks of all speakers,” Elise Billing, the director of communications and marketing at the CUNY School of Law, told MEE.

The New York chapter of the Council on American–Islamic Relations (Cair) condemned the removal of Mohammed’s commencement speech. In a statement, Cair-NY said that academic institutions should be embracing discussions on human rights without fear of censorship or reprisal.

“The silencing of voices that seek to shed light on human rights abuses undermines the principles of academic freedom and respectful dialogue that universities should uphold,” Cair-NY said. 

“It is essential that diverse perspectives are not only welcomed but encouraged, even when they challenge prevailing narratives.”

Glaring disconnect

Mohammed is a Muslim woman from Yemen. Her great-grandparents are Jewish. She told MEE: “It is deeply antisemitic to characterize criticisms of Zionism as antisemitic.”

To her, it was important to bring attention to Israel’s crimes – especially the murder of Palestinian journalist, Shereen Abu Akleh. 

“The cold-blooded murder of Shereen Abu Akleh precisely highlights the glaring and disturbing dehumanization of the Palestinian people by the US government,” she said.

She explained that a year since Akleh’s murder, it was critical to remind people that despite videos and documentation of her killing, the US government has yet to denounce the murder.

“The world still mourns her loss, and she deserves justice, just like the hundreds of Palestinians murdered by the occupation.”

Mohammed wasn’t surprised when the video of her commencement speech was removed from the YouTube page. She said the choice to remove it shows the glaring disconnect the school administration has from its faculty and student body. The student body and faculty “overwhelmingly support Palestinian liberation”, she said.

“The administration’s decision to remove the video is a capitulation to external Zionist pressure and a slap in the face to its own members who contribute to making CUNY Law the radical and transformative institution it is today,” Mohammed said.

Last year, the faculty of the CUNY School of Law passed a resolution unanimously endorsing the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement, which is a non-violent initiative that seeks to challenge Israel’s occupation and abuses of Palestinian human rights through economic, cultural, and academic boycotts similar to the successful boycott campaigns of apartheid South Africa.

Just weeks later, New York City council member Inna Vernikov pulled $50,000 in funding for a program that provided free legal services to the community after faculty members endorsed the boycott resolution. She claimed they were engaging in antisemitism.

Standing by her speech

Lena Ghrama is currently a first-year student at the CUNY School of Law. She met Mohammed back when she was an undergraduate student in college. She attended the 2023 commencement ceremony as a guest and believes the students could not have chosen a better class speaker.

“It’s just really ironic that the school is selective with their politics,” she told MEE. “Liberation for Palestinians is an exception to the justice that the school promotes.”

She is joining the call by hundreds of other CUNY students, faculty, and activists demanding that the videos be put on the page, like all of the other commencement videos. For Mohammed, it goes beyond that.

“We must all collectively stand up and call out the harassment, blacklisting, and doxing facilitated by Zionist groups like Canary Mission and CUNY Safe (Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY) against people, specifically students, who fight for Palestinian liberation in academic spaces and elsewhere,” Mohammed said.

“Allowing this to go unchallenged is an affront to our collective principles of freedom and morality. As a public institution, the choice to remove the videos violates our freedom of speech and expression.”

If Mohammed had a choice to go back in time and do her speech differently, she said she wouldn’t change a thing. Not even after knowing all the backlash she would receive.

“There will come a time when we, as a world, will look back at the fight for Palestinian liberation in the same way we look back at the fight for South African liberation and Algerian liberation. We will all wish we had done more to join that movement,” she said.

Zainab Iqbal is a New York-based journalist