Washington D.C.- It’s not often that Republicans and Democrats in the United States are finding common ground, but this week officials from both major parties pursued a common cause — smearing a New York law school graduate for a speech critical of Israel.
Democratic Congressman Ritchie Torres called City University of New York (CUNY) law school graduate “crazy”; former Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin called speech “unleashed anti-Semitism”; Mayor Eric Adams called it “words of negativity and division.”
Even Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has joined the pile of condemnations against Yemeni-American graduate lecturer Fatima Mohammed. The CUNY itself called the speech “a public expression of hatred toward individuals and communities because of their religion, race, or political affiliation” in a statement attributed to its chancellor.
The New York Post tabloid put Mohammed on its cover page Tuesday.
But many Palestinian rights advocates appeared baffled by the accusations, pointing out that Mohammed said nothing hateful or bigoted.
Proponents say the defamation of Muhammad is part of a larger pattern of publicly attack critics of Israel in an effort to deter further criticism of the country’s policies.
Adam Shapiro, Israel-Palestine advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based rights group, said pro-Israel organizations and politicians hoped such attacks would deter Palestinian solidarity activists to speak out.
“But I think it actually has the opposite effect. I think it actually encourages more people to speak up,” Shapiro told Al Jazeera.
He pointed to the success of legal and political advocacy to push back against “smear campaigns” in recent years.
Mohammed’s speech was delivered to the law school class of 2023 earlier this month, but started making headlines after being noticed online by some media outlets last week. From there, he garnered exponential national and international attention as more pro-Israel publications and politicians continued to condemn him.
In his 12-minute address, Mohammed touched on a variety of social justice causes, highlighting student body activism.
“I want to celebrate CUNY as one of the few if not the only law school to issue a public statement defending its students’ right to organize and speak out against Israeli colonialism,” she said.
The hijab-wearing speaker’s remarks were repeatedly interrupted by applause from other graduates in the audience.
Mohammed went on to say, “Israel continues to rain down indiscriminate bullets and bombs on the faithfulmurdering the old, the young, even attacking funerals and cemeteries as it encourages lynchings to target Palestinian homes and businesses.”
His charges appear to be consistent with recent Israeli conduct, including attacks on worshipers inside Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and a police assault on slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh . funeral last year.
Earlier this year, a mob of Israeli settlers also ransacked the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Huwaraand an Israeli government minister said that the Palestinian community should be “annihilated”.
“It was ultimately an examination of what happened in real life on the ground in Palestine,” Shapiro said of the speech.
CUNY did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment seeking clarification on what part of Mohammed’s speech constituted “hate speech.”
This is a very disappointing and dangerous statement by @CUNY . They should stand up for their students and protect them. All. As a proud CUNY alumnus, I hate to see the day when our universities are not a place of diversity of thought and learning. https://t.co/yW0et1VczI
— Yuh-Line Niou (@yuhline) May 30, 2023
Muhammad also mentioned other issuesincluding the university’s cooperation with law enforcement, calling the New York City Police Department “fascist”.
While the speech was decidedly politically charged, Mohammed’s supporters noted that CUNY Law’s mission statement explicitly states that the program is focused on social justice.
“The CUNY Act builds on a tradition of radical advocates: movements for social change are built with the leadership and collaboration of people and communities who have suffered injustice,” he says.
Lawyers defend Mohammed
Activists say the campaign against Muhammad is the latest episode in attacks on pro-Palestine advocates. Supporters of Palestinian rights in the United States are often accused of anti-Semitism and campaign for cancel their events and protests.
Professors critical of Israel have lost their job as a result of pressure campaigns. political candidates for human rights and diplomatic posts in the government have been removed following past criticism of Israel in recent years.
But this week, as pro-Israel groups and politicians put Mohammed in their sights, many Arab, Muslim and Palestinian rights advocates came to his defense.
Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USPCR), hailed Mohammed’s speech as “passionate and liberating” against white supremacy, state surveillance and Israeli colonialism.
“Of course, politicians who support these oppressive institutions are quick to smear her for exposing their violent complicity,” Abuznaid told Al Jazeera in an email.
“We congratulate Fatima on her keynote speech and look forward to following her pursuit of justice and the release of all persons in his legal career.
The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY) denounced what it called the “silence of voices” aimed at denouncing human rights violations.
“CAIR-NY stands in solidarity with the student lecturer who courageously sought to elevate the plight of Palestinians and the human rights abuses they face. We affirm their right to express their views freely and without interference,” Afaf Nasher, the group’s chief executive, said in a statement.
The New York chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-occupation group, also praised Mohammed and criticized his critics, accusing them of using Islamophobic tropes to “hit” and smear the young woman.
“We denounce the false characterization of his speech as anti-Semitic simply because it describes the conditions Palestinians live under every day. We fully agree with her that ‘Palestine can no longer be the exception to our quest for justice’,” the group said.
Mohammed’s defenders were particularly furious with Congressman Torres, a staunchly pro-Israel Democrat.
“Imagine being so mad with hatred for Israel as a Jewish state that you make it the subject of your commencement speech at a law school graduation,” Torres wrote on Twitter Sunday. “Anti-Israel Derangement Syndrome at Work.”
Palestinian-American analyst Yousef Munayyer denounced Torres.
“The idea that Muslims are irrationally and uncontrollably possessed by hatred of Jews is a racist and Islamophobic trope that you engage in. Imagine being so cowardly as a congressman punching a student for speaking out against the apartheid,” Munayyer said in a tweet. .
The idea that Muslims are irrationally and uncontrollably possessed by hatred of Jews is a racist and Islamophobic trope that you engage in. Imagine being so cowardly as a congressman punching a student for speaking out against apartheid. https://t.co/ez9AJBr0qf
—Yousef Munayyer (@YousefMunayyer) May 30, 2023
Torres’ office did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
For his part, Shapiro – of DAWN – said Torres went after a young, hijab-wearing Muslim woman with far less power to back up her pro-Israel credentials.
“This is a classic case of bullying,” Shapiro said.