The City College of New York, founded in 1847 and the forerunner of the City University, was the first college explicitly founded on the ideal of educating the whole people, not just the elite. By offering tuition-free classes for most of its history, CCNY and its sister institutions were and still are the social and economic machine that educated millions of immigrants and their children, allowing them to enter the professions and helping to transform the ethnically diverse New York City into the financial and intellectual capital of the United States.
The Chronicle of Higher Education ranks City College first out of 369 selective public colleges on the overall mobility index; other CUNY colleges rank in the top 10. Many of CUNY’s Jewish alumni represent Who’s Who of leading luminaries in the arts, sciences, and commerce. City College has produced nine Nobel laureates.
Although the demographics of its student population changed, and now Jews are a smaller percentage of its student body, CUNY still represents an excellent investment for the New York taxpayer as it continues its mission of being a portal to the middle class for its students.
And then on May 12, Fatima Mousa Mohammed addressed her fellow graduates at the CUNY Law School commencement. This was the same Mohammed who told a crowd at a March 2022 rally that Zionist professors should be banned from college campuses, and Zionist students not be allowed in the same “spaces” as Palestinians, because Zionism is a “genocidal threat to us.”
The student body voted Mohammed to be its commencement speaker, and she did not disappoint. Having spent three years supposedly studying the law, she characterized it as a “manifestation of white supremacy.” Her fellow graduates now have the tools to “confront the systems of oppression created to feed an empire with a ravenous appetite for destruction and violence,” she said.
She then railed against an Israel that continues to “indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshippers, murdering the old, the young… as it encourages lynch mobs to target Palestinian homes and businesses … carrying out the ongoing Nabka.”
Turning her attention to her school, she attacked CUNY as racist, an institution “that continues to train and cooperate with fascism, NYPD, the military that continues to train IDF soldiers to carry out the same violence globally.” She praised the law school’s faculty and students for passing resolutions in support of BDS.
She concluded: “may the joy and excitement that fills the auditorium, may the rage that fills this auditorium … be fuel for the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world.” She added for good measure “by all means necessary.”
This was the rhetoric not of a Marxist at a street corner rally but of a law school graduate addressing her peers at their commencement, celebrating three years of allegedly mastering the law. She was greeted by the resounding applause of the faculty and student body, who booed and turned their backs to Mayor Eric Adams, whose budget supports the institution that insulted him and the taxpayers of New York.
I support free speech, particularly for those whose opinions I may abhor. But this venom was not at a rally for the Palestinian cause or a student club. It was a school-sponsored commencement, which was supposed to be a celebration for all the students, promoting a sense of unity and pride for their futures in the practice of law. This hate speech accomplished the opposite, and it disgraced the institution.
The fault in this debacle lies with the administration, not with this naïve firebrand, who apparently represents the sentiments of the majority of the students. The law school and CUNY at large had been questioned by the New York City Council for approving BDS resolutions, in defiance of New York State practice, if not law, thus unleashing a hostile environment for Jewish students. The press has reported that the gist of Mohammed’s speech was vetted by the faculty and administration.
“Never bite the hands that feed you” should be rule number one for any administrator. And now there are calls by legislators to defund the school, CUNY’s board’s condemnation of the speech as hateful notwithstanding. Considering how the law school applauded Mohammed’s contention that the law is an instrument of white oppression conjoined with a fascist police department, should the school’s accreditation be reviewed again, as an institution that supposedly treasures the law as a pillar of society?
Several weeks after this sordid speech, the Biden administration unveiled its 60-page National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism. This is an ambitious and unprecedented undertaking. And the Biden administration should be commended for launching this necessary initiative. It accepts the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism as primary, which considers demonizing and delegitimizing the State of Israel as antisemitic, even as it accepts criticism of the state’s actions as not antisemitic.
The strategy’s third pillar seeks to reverse “the normalization of antisemitism and counter antisemitic discrimination.” As part of this strategy, the department of education will bring its “full resources to bear to ensure all students — including Jewish students — are able to attend schools free from discrimination, including harassment.” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 certifies that no “person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
By its actions, CUNY’s law school has fostered an environment that is exceedingly hostile to Jewish students. As it is supposed to be a model for following the law, its egregious disregard of the law, and its accountability to the city that funds it, warrants investigation by the department of education and New York authorities.
How the National Strategy implements its strategic pillars will dictate its success. If ever there would be a test case for its success, CUNY Law School provides it.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.