On May 12, in her commencement address for the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, Yemeni-American graduate, Fatima Mohammed, dared to speak about the plight of the Palestinians – honestly and truthfully.
The response was predictable. An organised campaign was launched to intimidate, harass and silence her by declaring her insightful speech “anti-Semitic”. Right-wing platforms like the New York Post and Fox News amplified these baseless accusations. Politicians – both Republicans and Democrats – joined in the senseless bullying of the young graduate, and Republican state legislators even called for funding to be withdrawn from CUNY for giving her a platform.
CUNY soon buckled under the pressure. On May 30, its Board of Trustees released a statement in which they condemned Mohammed’s words as “hate speech”.
Of course nothing Fatima said that day was hateful, or false. Everything she said was based on facts and guided by a desire for justice and decolonisation. Every claim she made in her commencement speech could be found in peer-reviewed journal articles, in academic books by world-renowned experts or in the everyday realities of millions of Palestinians.
If you listen to her speech, you will see that she actually said nothing whatsoever about Jewish identity or people. She made no mention of Jewish life in the US, Canada, the UK, France, or even in Israel, for that matter. Her speech was about the Israeli state, its settler colonial foundations and practices – and the US imperial hegemony of which Israel is a part.
Even if you disagree with her views, you must ask: what does such a critique have to do with Jewish identity? We are constantly told that we should never conflate Jewish life in, for example, New York, with the Israeli state. And I totally agree with that. To assume that a Jewish person in New York has “loyalty” to Israel – or is responsible for its actions – is undoubtedly anti-Semitic. But unfortunately, that association is precisely what campaigns by pro-Israel and Zionist groups have advanced as common sense within public discourse in the West. As a direct result of such campaigns, now whenever someone dares to criticise Israel in public, and especially when that person is associated with a public institution like a university, they are accused of launching an anti-Semitic attack against the local Jewish community.
The first consequence of this is that voices speaking about the plight of the Palestinian people and their aspirations for freedom and liberation are branded “anti-Semitic” and thus condemned and censored. This can have dire consequences for the lives and livelihoods of these individuals, and contributes greatly to the marginalisation of Palestinian and Arab communities in the West by creating the perception that these communities are intrinsically hateful.