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'Unhinged': US politicians accused of bullying student over pro-Palestine speech

The commencement speech, which is back on YouTube after being removed, is being shared by politicians calling student speaker antisemitic
Senator Ted Cruz speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, on 11 May 2023 (AFP)

On 12 May, a video of the Cuny University of New York (Cuny) School of Law’s commencement ceremony was removed from its YouTube page hours after the graduation. 

Students and activists said it was because Fatima Mohammed, the student speaker at the ceremony, brought attention to Palestine and spoke about fundamental problems in policing.  

A day after Middle East Eye’s story was published, the video was put back online. But once it was, elected officials and those with influence have been posting it on social media, calling out the young woman.

“City University of New York class day speaker slanders Israel & enthusiastically celebrates antisemitism. Cheers on open borders & releasing violent criminals from jail. And decries the ‘fascist NYPD.’ This is a LAW school. Paid for with tax dollars,” US Senator Ted Cruz wrote on Twitter on Sunday under a video of the speech.

In her speech, Mohammed, a Muslim-Yemeni student who was voted by her classmates to give the commencement address, called out Israel’s crimes and human rights violations. 

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“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… our silence is no longer acceptable,” she said in her speech.

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

On Tuesday, the Cuny board of trustees and the chancellor of Cuny released a statement saying that Mohammed's speech fell into the category of "hate speech".

“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 statement read.

“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 statement continued by saying that Cuny and its board of trustees condemn hate speech and that the university will not "condone hateful rhetoric" and was "hurtful to the entire CUNY community".

US university condemned for removing pro-Palestine speech from YouTube
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Congressman Ritchie Torres on Sunday took to Twitter with a clip of her speech and wrote: “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. Anti-Israel derangement syndrome at work.”

In response to his video, on Tuesday Palestinian activist Mohammed el-Kurd wrote on Twitter: “Fatima, unlike you, has a spine. Maybe you can get AIPAC to buy one for you. Bozo.”

Kurd's tweet was a reference to the fact that from 2021 to 2022, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was Torres' top contributor, donating $141,008 to his campaign.

Former US Congressman Lee Zeldin also posted a clip of the speech on Sunday and wrote: “Raging antisemitism has fully consumed the City University of New York. Until the administration is overhauled and all Jewish students and faculty are welcome again, taxpayer funding must be immediately halted.”

Nour Odeh, a Palestinian political analyst, defended Mohammed on Monday and called out the politicians who were tweeting about her.

"Going after a college student for speaking up and talking about policies endorsed by the student and faculty bodies is unhinged. Trying to bully people into self-censorship to appease campaign donors. Repugnant."

Protesting the mayor 

In her speech, Mohammed also called out New York City mayor, Eric Adams. Adams spoke before her at the commencement and when he was introduced, the crowd booed. Many graduates turned their back to him during his speech as a form of protest.

When it came time for Mohammed’s speech, she said: “Let us remember… that the murder of Black men like Jordan Neely by a white man on the MTA (New York public transit) is dignified by politicians like Eric Adams and [Senator] Chuck Schumer.”

That part of the speech was met with cheers and applause. On 1 May, Neely, a homeless man, was killed in a chokehold by another passenger on a subway train in New York City. The killing sparked protests all over the city. 

In response to the murder, Adams said it reinforces the “importance of his divisive push to send people who aren’t aware they need treatment to hospitals against their will”, Politico reported

His comments received a lot of pushback. The New York Civil Liberties Union responded to Adams’ comments and said: “In the name of Jordan Neely, Mayor Adams is again responding to homelessness and unmet mental health need with the failed approaches of force and coercion.”

On Monday, Adams took to Twitter and tweeted a New York Post article about Mohammed and said: “I was proud to offer a different message at this year’s CUNY law commencement ceremony - one that celebrates the progress of our city and country, and one that honours those who fight to keep us safe and protect our freedoms, like my uncle Joe, who died at age 19 in Vietnam while giving his life for our country. 

We cannot allow words of negativity and divisiveness to be the only ones our students hear.”

The article was updated to add the statement by Cuny and its board of trustees. 

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