Fatima Mohammed delivers a commencement address at the City University of New York School of Law’s graduation ceremony.
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On May 12th, Yemeni American law student Fatima Mohammed delivered a commencement address at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law’s graduation ceremony. Mohammed, who is an activist with Students for Justice in Palestine, used a portion of her speech to denounce Israel for “indiscriminately rain[ing] bullets and bombs on worshippers, murdering the old [and] the young,” and encouraging “lynch mobs to target Palestinian homes and businesses.” In other parts of the address, Mohammed praised CUNY Law for “recogniz[ing] that the law is a manifestation of white supremacy,” criticized the New York Police Department as “fascist,” and celebrated “the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and Zionism.”
The speech caused immediate controversy. Later that day, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York released a statement calling it “incendiary anti-Israel propaganda” that traded “in antisemitic tropes.” The recording of the live-stream was removed from CUNY Law’s YouTube page soon after being posted, but following pressure from both supporters and critics of Mohammed to restore the video, it was put back online on May 24th.
Mohammed’s commencement address reached newfound prominence on May 30th, when right-wing tabloid the New York Post put Mohammed on the front cover and labeled her a “stark raving grad.” Even before the Post cover, Mohammed had become the subject of a weeks-long smear campaign, with Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres saying that she was “crazed by hatred for Israel.” But the Post coverage amplified the harassment. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Mohammed’s address was filled with “negativity and divisiveness.” New York City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov sent a letter to the New York Bar, urging them to deny Mohammed a law license. CUNY’s own Board of Trustees and Chancellor released a statement that called the commencement address “hate speech.” And despite CUNY’s attempt to disavow Mohammed, Republican Rep. Mike Lawler introduced legislation that would strip the school of federal funding for platforming “antisemitic rhetoric” like Mohammed’s address.
Throughout the controversy, Mohammed herself has been mostly silent—until now. On Tuesday, I spoke with Mohammed for her first interview with a news outlet since the campaign against her picked up steam. We discussed why she criticized Israel and how the backlash has affected her. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Alex Kane: Why was it important to you to discuss Zionism in a commencement speech?
Fatima Mohammed: Zionism is built on racist, settler colonial dispossession and ethnic cleansing. For as long as Zionism has existed, it has wreaked violence and pain on the Palestinian people. Our tax dollars are being used to fund this violence. I wanted to name that reality to remind myself and my colleagues of our responsibilities as future lawyers in the service of human needs. Calling out Zionism was my way of honoring my colleagues’ selection of me as class speaker as well as our school’s mission statement.
AK: What has the backlash been like, and how has it impacted your life?
FM: I woke up one day in May and was told the New York Post is outside my door. It was threatening. I’m not a public official—why would they come all the way to my house? I got on the phone and asked the reporters to leave the premises, but they sat right next to my house for three hours. Soon afterwards, my father saw the picture of me on the front page. That’s when I grasped what was happening: that I was the target of a vicious smear campaign on a national scale.
The campaign was led by organizations like Canary Mission [a website that seeks to get Palestinian rights advocates blacklisted] and SAFE CUNY [an organization campaigning against what they call antisemitism in the CUNY system]. These right-wing propaganda groups work to manufacture rage and silence Palestine activism. What’s worse is that elected officials joined in and began leveraging their social media platforms to target me: Ritchie Torres called me deranged, and Mayor Eric Adams chimed in a few times. Outside the CUNY chancellor’s office in Manhattan, my cousin saw my face on a huge truck next to [Palestinian activist and fellow CUNY Law graduate] Nerdeen Kiswani’s, and our faces had x’s over them.
The harassment was overwhelming for me and my family. We worried for our safety. I was trying to study for the bar exam while getting comments like, “I can’t wait until we’re at your funeral” and “I would pay to see you get killed.” People were not saying these things anonymously; they were posting on LinkedIn using their full names and job titles. That is the extent to which they feel comfortable harassing Palestine organizers.
AK: Why do you think the backlash happened?
FM: The backlash is an attempt to stifle, censor, and intimidate me away from Palestine organizing, and I am not the only person who has been attacked in this way. In 2022, Nerdeen Kiswani was also smeared [for denouncing Israel in] her commencement address. What we see is a predictable pattern of Zionist attacks on students who are speaking up. CUNY responds either by staying silent, or as in my case, issuing a statement condemning the speech.
The anti-Palestinian repression at CUNY needs to be understood within the context of recent gains Palestinians have made at the institution, such as [in 2021 and 2022 when] CUNY faculty and the student government passed resolutions in favor of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. So smear campaigns like the one I was subjected to are part of a coordinated effort to stifle Palestine organizing on campus.
Overall, this kind of repression happens because there’s an exception to Palestinian rights, even in liberal spaces. There is this notion that Palestine is a radioactive subject, and that if you approach it, there will be consequences that are exceptional.
AK: Did understanding this context help you anticipate the scale of the backlash?
FM: As a student organizer, I understand that there are powers that dedicate time, energy, and resources into stifling student activism on campus, because of how powerful it is—students have historically led revolutions. However, I could not have anticipated the escalation and the scale of the campaign that I was subjected to. I did not think that CUNY would come out and say that my speech, which was approved by CUNY Law, was “hate speech.” Even a first-year law student would know that they are using a definition of hate speech that does not meet the legal standard. I also wouldn’t have expected that the mayor of New York City would take the time to use his social media platform to amplify the New York Post, a right-wing tabloid newspaper that has relied on Islamophobic and racist messaging.
AK: Have you received support in the wake of the speech?
FM: The support is what has kept me on my feet. There’s a student in California, Jana Abulaban, who is also right now being subjected to a smear campaign [for speaking about Palestine]. She told the New York Post she was inspired by my speech. It makes this whole thing worth it to know that censorship is not working anymore. Students and [other] people are waking up to the reality of what Palestinians are enduring. Censorship and intimidation tactics will work if it’s only one or two people speaking up, but if we all speak up, it’ll be harder to stifle us.
The support coming from [civil rights] organizations was also very meaningful. You have a [CUNY] Board of Trustees who does not understand the legal definition of hate speech, and then you have many organizations that are defending my First Amendment speech rights and arguing that we must be able to speak about Palestine without being subjected to a smear campaign. That support has given me a lot of motivation and conviction to carry on.
AK: What is your response to those calling for the defunding of CUNY over your speech?
FM: CUNY has historically been, and continues to be, a vital site of grassroots organizing for Black and brown communities that have been marginalized in the city. CUNY students have been vocal in resisting racism, protesting the role of the military-industrial complex, protesting the privatization of higher education, and supporting global movements of liberation from South Africa to Puerto Rico to Palestine. Those calling for CUNY to be defunded are willfully ignorant of what CUNY is and who CUNY serves.
AK: Knowing what you know now, would you give the same speech again?
FM: I would not change a single word of my speech—and I would say it louder.