Fatima Mohammed’s blisteringly anti-Israel comments in her 2023 City University of New York (CUNY) student commencement speech has divided opinions along predictable lines (available to watch from 1hr 16m to 1hr 28m on the link HERE). The Yemini-American law graduate, wearing a hijab under her academic cap, hailed the support for the anti-Israel BDS movement among students and faculty. She accused Israel of settler colonialism, indiscriminately killing worshippers, murdering the old and the young, encouraging lynch mobs and engaging in an ongoing nakba (expulsion of Palestinians). She also accused Israeli soldiers of carrying out violence globally.
Although she said many other things in her speech these were the comments that generated the most controversy. Many Jewish organisations and movements opposed to anti-Semitism slammed her remarks as hate speech. Several politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, also condemned her remarks. These included Democratic congressmen Ritchie Torres and New York mayor Eric Adams.
However, some Jewish organisations did come out in support of Mohammed. A notable example was CUNY’s own Jewish Law Students Association which defines itself as clearly withing a social justice tradition (although it has been claimed this organisation includes non-Jews, even including Mohammed herself). It announced that it “stands in solidarity with our friend and classmate Fatima, who is currently being targeted by a racist hate campaign from external organizations after delivering a commencement speech that addressed the struggle for Palestinian freedom.” It also suggested that “Zionist organisations” were “using harassment and lies… to punish Fatima for her bravery and commitment to Palestinian freedom.” IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace have also announced their support for her.
Among Mohammed’s other supporters was the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which said the allegations against her were false.The organisation describes itself as “America's largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization”. Others have claimed it has Islamist leanings with links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Before commenting on this debate it is important to look more closely at her remarks in their context. For they can only be properly understood if they are located more broadly.
Mohammed’s remarks certainly fit into what could be called a social justice or woke world view. Her criticism of Israel was central to an outlook that she referred to as the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world. She also condemned “oppressive institutions” around the world including what she called the “fascist NYPD” (New York Police Department). In addition, it is important to note that she described the law as a manifestation of white supremacy. Authorities she referred to in her speech included Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X. So her anti-Israel remarks were not standalone but part of a broader conception of the world as a place where whites systematically oppress people of colour.
Nor can the Islamic symbolism and elements in her speech go un-noted – not least because she put them upfront herself. It is hard to be certain whether Mohammed is an Islamist – that is a supporter of Islamism as a political movement – or simply a Muslim. There are certainly claims that she has expressed support for Islamist movements, notably Hamas. For example, the National Review reported that she once tweeted “may every Zionist burn in the hottest pit of hell”. Her Twitter accounts have been shut down so it is not possible to verify these claims. The ostentatious use of the hijab also suggests she sees Islam as, at the very least, a form of identity.
Her connection with Yemen is also worth examining – again because she made it into an issue. Not only did she refer to her family in Yemen but she also ostentatiously wore a scarf in the colours of Yemen’s flag. Yet she did not refer to the Yemen civil war that has raged since 2014 with more than 377,000 killed in the conflict by direct and indirect causes. That dwarfs any casualty figures in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. She was not under any obligation to mention that but given that she did devote a significant amount of time to the Middle East it might have been relevant. Except it did not fit into her narrative of Israel as the devil incarnate.
Finally, it should be noted that Mohammed had broader support at her university. She was elected by her law student peers and received substantial applause for her speech. It has also been reported that her speech was submitted to, examined and approved by CUNY in advance. So her views have a least some support from students and faculty at her university. However, CUNY’s board of trustees and governor went in the other direction to condemn Mohammed’s remarks as hate speech.
From this broader context it is at least possible to get a better handle in relation to where Mohammed’s speech stands in relation to anti-Semitism.
First, for those with a blinkered woke perspective it makes no sense to even accuse Mohammed of anti-Semitism. In their view it is typically male, white and has far right views. In their minds American anti-Semitism is personified by the United the Right rally at Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The rally included many white males many of them carrying confederate flags and some with Swastikas. One person was killed in a car-ramming attack at the event.
Of course not even die-hard social justice warriors believe every anti-Semite fits that exact description but they do see it as typical. To accuse a non-white, female, apparently left wing person of anti-Semitism seems to them like something that can be ruled out without any investigation. In this context it should be remembered that President Biden has repeatedly defined anti-Semitism in relation to the Charlottesville event. He has claimed several times it was instrumental in his decision to stand for President. Yet he also fails to see that anti-Semitism can take other forms including a deranged hostility to Israel, out of all proportion to its objective importance.
Social justice types do not generally see any problem in relation to caustic criticism of Israel. They define it as a colonial-settler or apartheid state and therefore, in their view, incapable of having any redeeming features. Every problem that they point to – and it is of course true that Israel has many problems – is simply taken as a confirmation of the state’s evil nature.
Israel for them is not just seen as a flawed state, like others, but as the epitome of evil. It is viewed as at the centre of a global system of oppression which ensures white supremacy is perpetuated. It is this treatment of Israel as symbolic of a malign global imperialism which unequivocally crosses it over the line into anti-Semitism.
It is, as this site has consistently ordered, a viewpoint that can be described as the anti-imperialism of fools.
Lastly, social warriors have rarely have any conception of Islamism as a political movement. They do not understand that it is a political ideology – rather than just a form of religion – that has anti-Semitism at its core. Indeed many of them do not have any problem in principle with endorsing Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Fatima Mohammed herself seems to confirm the view that Islamist and social justice themes often sit comfortably together.
Having said that, it does not follow that the expression of such views, however objectionable, should be banned. On the contrary, they need to be brought out into the open and challenged. In that respect the decision by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to support her right to speak should be commended. Hateful views should be countered rather than banned. Open debate is the only way to defeat them.
Anti-Semitism can appear in many guises. It should certainly be challenged when it has a white male face but that is far from the only form it can take.
PHOTO: Screenshot from CUNY video.