Hands Off Students’ Rights – Abolish the Board of Trustees!
CUNY Administration Joins with
NY Post in McCarthyite Witch Hunt – Again
JUNE 2023 – The witch-hunting spirit of Joseph McCarthy is alive and well in the Board of Trustees and administration of the City University of New York. With a decades-long record of attacks on CUNY students and faculty, they jumped on the bandwagon when the gutter-press New York Post and Democratic machine politicians launched yet another lurid smear campaign against our rights. Their target this time: an immigrant student leader from the CUNY School of Law chosen by her classmates to give a commencement speech for the graduating class. Standing up against the witch hunters – at a time of growing calls for censorship in the service of bigotry – is imperative for defenders of our basic rights. The CUNY tops’ outrageous actions highlight the need to abolish the administration and Board of Trustees, the junta of patronage appointees lording it over CUNY, replacing them with elected councils of students, faculty and staff.
Fatima Mousa Mohammed, a 24-year-old CUNY Law student who moved to the U.S. from Yemen as a child, was selected to speak at the commencement ceremony, held on May 12. Located in Queens, with its multiethnic, largely immigrant population, CUNY Law has defined itself as the “#1 public interest law school [for] social justice advocates,” and has been named the “most diverse law school in the nation” (preLaw, Winter 2023). The commencement first made news when students turned their backs on New York’s pro-police Democratic mayor Eric Adams, who has pushed for cuts to CUNY.
City University of New York law students turn their backs on New York City mayor ex-cop Eric Adams at May 12 graduation ceremony after he praised his career in the NYPD, notorious for racist repression.
More than two weeks later, the New York Post (29 May) splashed Fatima Mohammed’s face across its front cover, with the headline “Stark Raving Grad: CUNY law alum calls for ‘revolution’ and attacks ‘fascist’ NYPD in speech.” The hit piece by the notoriously unhinged Post1 vituperated against the commencement speaker for “call[ing] on grads to dismantle capitalism, telling them she hopes their rage becomes ‘the fuel for the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and Zionism around the world’.”2 It ended by quoting Mayor Adams, who denounced Fatima’s speech as an example of “negativity and divisiveness.”
The next day, CUNY’s Board of Trustees – which is almost all hand-picked by New York mayors and governors – plus Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez joined the chorus of slander and attempted intimidation whipped up by the Post, a junk tabloid long notorious for racist demagogy. In a revolting declaration combining flagrant dishonesty with moral bankruptcy, the CUNY tops branded the “remarks by a student-selected speaker at the CUNY Law School graduation” as hate speech (!), lying that the commencement address was “a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their race, religion” (“or political affiliation,” they added to the usual definition, clearly seeking to cover their bases).
What does it mean for university authorities to brand opposition to racist governmental oppression as “hate speech,” and to smear such opposition as equating to the promotion of racial or religious hatred of people and communities? This is not only a flat-out lie; it is one that poses a real danger to students, faculty and campus workers here and throughout the U.S. And sure enough, right on cue in accordance with a long-established pattern, the Post-manufactured “scandal” brought forth a chorus of racist hysteria, defamation, threats and calls for “meaningful action” (reprisals) against the speaker, the law school that had “allowed” her to speak, and the City University as a whole.
What the Censors Sought to Silence
Early in Fatima Mohammed’s commencement speech at CUNY Law, she addressed the graduating class of 2023, noting that they had begun studying there “during a season of grief” in which “ambulance trucks were the only noise in town, and ... we watched our immigrant parents keep the city on its feet, as they saw bodies packed into refrigerated morgue trucks.” It was, she said, “a class that saw nothing but black Zoom square boxes for the first two years,” amidst “the loss and the pain we’ve all endured.” The description could apply to a large number of students at CUNY and elsewhere in New York, which was the epicenter of the COVID pandemic.3
Fatima then referred to many students’ aspiration to put newly learned skills to use against oppression, while facing “institutions created to intimidate, bully, censor and stifle the voices of those who resist.” Citing many activities of the graduating class, she referred to their fighting for “incarcerated clients,” “for clients to get asylum,” going “to court to reunite families torn apart by ACS” (the city’s Administration for Children’s Services) and organizing against using a legal research company with links to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The speaker’s references to students’ activism were accompanied by criticism of the NYPD and military, all of which would be met with a frenzy of condemnation when the Post launched its latest anti-CUNY “scandal.”
Smoke rises from building after latest round of Israeli attacks on Gaza, May 2023.
But what most drew the ire of the witch hunt crew were the couple of minutes in the 12-minute address in which the commencement speaker referred to CUNY Law students’ advocacy in defense of the Palestinian people and alluded to the renewed bombing of Gaza that Israel had launched that same week. (See quotations from the speech in the statement defending Fatima Mohammed by the CUNY Jewish Law Students Association, which we reprint below.) Frank statements about the terror that Israel regularly inflicts on the Palestinians must – the would-be censors insist – be punished.
So once again the smear was wielded: the claim that it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel or Zionism – while in Israel, the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu, built on open anti-Arab racism, was unleashing massive police violence against its Jewish critics’ large-scale protests against his overhaul of the judicial system. As even the Washington Post (26 February 2018) has noted, “Netanyahu enables anti-Semitism” as his government “make[s] common cause with [Steve] Bannon ... Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban” and other ultra-rightist and anti-Semitic demagogues. At the same time, Israel’s government massively funds campaigns to smear as anti-Semitic those at U.S. universities who criticize it or stand up for Palestinian rights.
As the American Civil Liberties Union already noted five years ago, “On college campuses, a growing number of students and teachers have been disciplined or threatened with discipline for engaging in actions in support of Palestinian rights or in opposition to Israeli policies” (ACLU, “The Latest Attack on Free Speech in the Israel-Palestine Debate,” 5 June 2018). Like his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, Democratic president Joe Biden is all in for the crusade to stigmatize and silence those who speak out against the repression and racism built into the foundations of the Israeli state. It’s a bipartisan commitment by the U.S. imperialist government. This May, the Post’s hit piece brought out a parade of bourgeois politicians showcasing their support for Israeli repression, many of whom featured in previous witch hunts (see below).
Democrats and Republicans vied to see who could hurl the most vitriol against the young Yemeni American speaker from CUNY Law. With CUNY branded for the nth time as a nest of leftist “lunatics” (as one of the many follow-up articles in the tabloid press put it), enemies of public education – especially for students from working-class, minority and immigrant families – ramped up calls for it to be defunded ... even more than it is already. From Bronx Democratic congressman Ritchie Torres to Brooklyn Republican city councilwoman Inna Vernikov, Dov Hikins (formerly of the fascistic “Jewish Defense League” terror group), to state assembly members and wannabe governor Lee Zeldin, they joined the hue and cry. Down in abortion-banning Texas, Ted Cruz got into the act, doubtless seeking airtime amidst all the play his fellow bigot Ron DeSantis has been getting. Avid to join the pack trying to intimidate, bully and silence us as CUNY students, they united with the mayor, right-wing tabloid press, a columnist for the liberal Nation ... and the CUNY administration.
Against this onslaught, a number of groups came out in defense of Fatima. In addition to CUNY Law’s own Jewish Law Students Association and student government, many other student groups there did so, together with faculty. The Professional Staff Congress (PSC – the CUNY faculty/staff union) called on the trustees to retract their statement calling the commencement remarks “hate speech.” It is good that the union called for a retraction. But, frightened by blowback against the resolution in defense of the Palestinian people that the PSC’s Delegate Assembly passed in 2021, the union’s leaders did not call the CUNY Board’s statement what it is: a dangerous slander emboldening bigotry, censorship and repression. Instead, the issue was framed in a narrow and tepid way in a brief declaration titled “PSC Response to CUNY Board of Trustees’ Overbroad Description of Hate Speech” (12 June).
Faced with slanders, threats (including death threats) and a blatant attempt to intimidate her by university and political bigwigs, Fatima did not back down. In a sympathetic interview, Jewish Currents (21 June), a left-leaning journal published since the 1940s, asked if, having experienced the blowback, she “would give the same speech again.” Her response: “I would not change a single word of my speech – and I would say it louder.”
For our part, the CUNY Internationalist Clubs and Revolutionary Internationalist Youth stand forthrightly in defense of Fatima Mohammed, the CUNY students she was chosen to represent, and the right of students here and elsewhere to speak out against racism and repression. What about the powers-that-be, who from their high places and plush offices seek to denigrate and defame those who do speak out and stand up for their convictions? (As young people are supposed to do, in case you forgot.)
In viciously targeting and slandering student activist Fatima Mohammed for calling on her fellow graduates to “fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism,” the witch-hunters are not only insulting the CUNY student body at large, they are trying to silence us all. They will not succeed! It’s high time for these minions to take a hike. Hands off our rights – abolish the administration and the Board of Trustees! We demand the elementary democratic right of those who work and study at CUNY to elect our own representatives to govern the university.
CUNY Tops’ Witch-Hunting Record
To get a sense of how a notorious right-wing tabloid got the CUNY Board of Trustees (BoT) to join its latest anti-CUNY smear campaign, it’s important to look at some of the history of what we might call the “media/politicians/CUNY trustees/administration witch hunt industrial complex.” It’s been a feature of New York life for a long time.
- Even before the City University system formally existed, Brooklyn, Hunter, Queens and City colleges (which today are all part of CUNY) made headlines in the early 1940s when hearings targeting “subversive” faculty and students were held by the Rapp-Coudert committee of the state legislature. Over 500 people were subpoenaed and questioned in this witch hunt, a forerunner of those spearheaded by Republican rightist Joseph McCarthy – and liberal Democrats like Hubert Humphrey – when the Cold War took off after World War Two.
- Fast forward to 2001: As the U.S. under George W. Bush ramped up for war after 9/11, the New York Post (3 October 2001) blared “CCNY Bashes America” in a banner headline. Railing against what it called the “anti-Americanism and anti-war sentiment” expressed at a City College teach-in sponsored by the PSC-CUNY faculty/staff union, it denounced four professors who spoke there, as well as a number of students. In response, CUNY’s then-chancellor came out with a statement smearing those who supposedly spoke at the event to “justify or make excuses for” the 9/11 attacks. The professors named by the Post were soon subjected to innumerable threatening calls and messages.
United-front protest initiated by the Internationalists against CUNY purge of immigrant students, Hunter College, November 2001.
- The following month (November 2001), after a racist state senator ranted that allowing “illegal aliens” to study at CUNY was a threat to “national security,” the Board of Trustees more than doubled tuition for undocumented students. The united-front campaign launched by the Internationalist Group against this “anti-immigrant war purge” resulted in it being rolled back for many immigrant students. The CUNY Internationalist Clubs were born out of that campaign. (See Revolution No. 1, September 2002.)
- CUNY has been no exception to the targeting of faculty and students who speak out against Israeli repression of the Palestinian people. Just for example, in early 2011, the Brooklyn College administration – facing pressure from then-assemblyman Dov Hikins – cancelled adjunct Kristofer Petersen-Overton’s appointment due to his defense of Palestinians. “‘Anti-Israel’ Prof Canned,” exulted the Post (27 January 2011). A campaign of protest got his job back. However, the Murdoch media goons had highlighted the message: Criticize Israel (and/or Zionism), you pay.
- That message was delivered again in spring 2011. When the faculty of John Jay College decided to award an honorary degree to Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America (a 1991 play on the AIDS crisis) and other works, CUNY’s Board of Trustees overturned the decision. Why? Because a headline-seeking rightist on the CUNY BoT declared that since Kushner had criticized Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, he should be denied the award. When Kushner defended his views, the Post (5 May 2011) published an editorial titled “Tony Kushner: Crybaby,” blaring: “Finally, one lefty loudmouth is paying a small price for being a critic of Israel. Three cheers for CUNY.” After widespread expressions of indignation against the trustees’ action, it was reversed. Meanwhile, a number of CUNY campuses have sought to censor Students for Justice in Palestine.
- In 2013, at the instigation of the American Enterprise Institute, the Board of Trustees made the provocative political decision to hire former general David “Death Squad” Petraeus – who had commanded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequently headed the CIA – to “teach” at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College. The CUNY Internationalist Clubs initiated a united-front campaign of protest and exposure. Editorials in the Daily News and Post railed against protesters; Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor” show did an “ambush interview” targeting Hunter adjunct Sándor John for his participation in the campaign, with Bill O’Reilly calling for him to be fired. At one mid-September 2013 Petraeus protest, the NYPD was unleashed to brutally beat and arrest six activists from a CCNY-based student group; two others were suspended after a later rally on the City College campus. The CUNY Board soon announced a new policy to curtail “expressive conduct” (protests) – but this was defeated by student and faculty protests.4
- The list goes on... In terms of organized reactionary backlash against those who stand up in defense of the Palestinian people, the Post and Daily News (among others) went wild, publishing multiple calls for retribution, when in June 2021 the PSC’s Delegate Assembly passed a resolution titled “In Defense of the Palestinian People,” prompted by one of Israel’s many bloody military onslaughts against Palestinians in Gaza.
After hailing “at least 50” PSC members – out of a union representing 30,000 faculty and staff – that the Post (25 July 2021) said quit because of the Palestine resolution, the paper hyped a lawsuit against the union. Then it celebrated City Council hearings based on the disgusting slander that equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Using this to smear the union and teachers at CUNY, it continued to promote the long-standing racist political vendettas against the largest urban public university in the U.S. ■
Law Students Association Statement
in Solidarity with Fatima Mohammed
Revolution reprints below the statement issued by the Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA) at CUNY’s law school, in defense of 2023 commencement speaker Fatima Mousa Mohammed. The statement, which CUNY Law’s student government and many other groups at the campus signed on to, is a forthright expression of opposition to and indignation against the campaign of smears and attempted intimidation by the New York Post, Fox News, Mayor Eric Adams and others, including CUNY’s chancellor and trustees. We have retained the original format (capitalization, etc.) of the declaration by the JLSA, noting that of course the CUNY Internationalist Clubs’ Marxist analysis and program differ in some significant ways.
The CUNY School of Law Jewish Law Students Association 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. Our class, including its members in the Jewish Law Students Association, proudly chose Fatima as CUNY Law’s commencement speaker.
For years, Zionist organizations have been enacting targeted harassment campaigns against Palestinian and Muslim law students at the CUNY School of Law. As a public-interest focused law school, we have a duty to stand with Palestinians against zionist oppression, as Fatima has done. In her commencement speech, Fatima describes the unique nature of CUNY Law and the values it embodies that brought many students to our school. She explains, “we join this institution to be equipped with the necessary legal skills to protect our communities, to protect the organizers fighting endlessly day in and day out, with no accolades, no cameras, no votes, no PhD grants, working to lift the facade of legal neutrality and confront the systems of oppression that rend violence on them.” Speaking out against oppression is one of the skills we cultivate, and we aim to apply our principles consistently. As Fatima reminds us, “Palestine can no longer be the exception to our pursuit of justice.”
We, as Jewish students at CUNY Law, oppose and condemn the racist organizations like Canary Mission who are spreading disgusting lies about our friend. The organizations currently attacking Fatima and the rest of CUNY Law’s student body, with absurd and false claims of antisemitism, are doing so against the wishes of the majority of CUNY Law’s Jewish students, who wholeheartedly stand with Fatima and have been grateful to have her as our classmate throughout law school. As Jewish students attending an institution structured around social justice, we denounce both the murder and dispossession enacted in our name through the zionist project and the harassment and lies that zionist organizations are using to punish Fatima for her bravery and commitment to Palestinian freedom.
In her commencement speech, Fatima rightly condemned that “Israel continue[s] to indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshipers, murdering the old, the young, attacking even funerals and graveyards, and as it encourages lynch mobs to target Palestinian homes and businesses, as it imprisons its children, as it continues its project of settler-colonialism, expelling Palestinians from their homes, carrying [out] the ongoing nakba.”5 It is disingenuous to characterize these factual descriptions as antisemitic, when they describe the conditions of Palestinian life.
We call on CUNY Law to listen to, support, and defend its student body. Our condemnation of zionism is based on outrage at the way it has harmed and continues to harm Palestinians, not, as external zionist organizations would have people believe, on antisemitism. As long as zionism has existed, there have been Jewish people fighting against its racist and imperialist logic– to equate anti-zionism with antisemitism is to erase the history of Jewish anti-zionism, throughout the world and at CUNY Law.
If CUNY Law wants to show it cares for its Jewish students, it can do so by showing it cares for Fatima. We are endlessly grateful for Fatima’s courageous work and her inspiring message to the CUNY Law class of 2023. “Let us remember,” as Fatima said in her speech, “that just this week, Gaza has been bombed with the world watching; that daily, Black and Brown men are being murdered by the state at Rikers; that there are Palestinian political prisoners like the Holy Land Five in U.S. prisons; that there are refugees at the southern border, still locked up; that yesterday [May 11, 2023] marked one year since the murder of U.S. journalist Shireen Abu Akleh; and that the murder of Black men, like the murder of Jordan Neely by a white man on the MTA is being dignified by politicians like Eric Adams. We leave our classes, and we leave this school to a world that so desperately needs us to stand alongside those who have given up, for the sake of liberation, far more than we could imagine.” We implore CUNY Law to stand alongside its students and alumni and to act in alignment with its mission and mandate by supporting Fatima and denouncing the racist lies being spread about her. ■
- 1. The New York Post is part of the notorious right-wing media conglomerate owned by the Murdoch family. As satirized in the hit HBO series The Succession, the Murdoch “news” empire embodies not only the cynical dishonesty, racism and boundless greed of this corporate sector, but the advanced decay of capitalism itself.
- 2. Zionism is the guiding ideology of the state of Israel, based on oppression of the Palestinian people. On this and related topics, Revolution recommends “For an Arab-Hebrew Palestinian Workers State in a Socialist Federation of the Near East,” The Internationalist No. 31, Summer 2010, and the special issue “Defend the Palestinian People!” The Internationalist No. 9, January-February 2001.
- 3. On immigrant workers in NYC during the pandemic, we recommend the Spanish-language pamphlet by our comrades of Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas, Inmigrantes en primera línea de la pandemia del coronavirus: Voces del epicentro (Immigrant Workers on the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Epidemic, 2020).
- 4. For further information on some of this history, see: Defend Immigrant Students – Stop CUNY’s “War Purge”! (Internationalist pamphlet, 2001); “Witch-Hunters Target ‘The Unpatriotic University’,” Revolution No. 3, November 2005; “Witch Hunt Against Tony Kushner Spiked,” The Internationalist No. 33, Summer 2011; “Stop the Zionist Witch Hunt! Defend Free Speech at Brooklyn College,” internationalist.org, February 2013; articles on repression against Petraeus protesters in Revolution No, 10, October 2013; “Would-Be Witch Hunters Cannot Silence Protest at CUNY,” internationalist.org, November 2015, on yet another Post-incited smear campaign; material on Rapp-Coudert hearings in “Real Reds Don’t Bow to Anti-Communist Bans,” Revolution No. 18, September 2021, and online exhibit “The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY, 1931-42.”
- 5. Nakba (disaster or catastrophe), also spelled naqba: the mass expulsion of Palestinian Arabs in 1948, integral to the state of Israel, its continued expansion and its official ideology, Zionism. (Editor’s note.)