Fatima Mousa Mohammed Deserves to Be Defended, Not Smeared

Fatima Mousa Mohammed Deserves to Be Defended, Not Smeared

Fatima Mousa Mohammed Deserves to Be Defended, Not Smeared

Alexis Grenell’s attack on Mohammed’s CUNY speech was unfair and inaccurate.


On May 12, my friend Fatima Mousa Mohammed delivered a commencement address in front of her fellow graduates at the City University of New York School of Law. Fatima, who had been chosen by her peers to give the speech, dedicated it to the fight against oppression in all of its forms, from the brutality that we see from the NYPD to Israeli apartheid and colonialism.

While her speech should have been seen as a testament to her dedication to justice—a perfect attribute for a potential lawyer—Fatima was instead brutally attacked by lawmakers, politicians, and the entire Israel lobby. She was smeared as a raging anti-Semite, and one NYC councilwoman even called for her to be denied admission to the New York State Bar.

Since then, Fatima has received support from not only CUNY Law’s Jewish Law Students Association but also the CUNY Law community at large. Over 400 alumni and 200 CUNY Law faculty expressed solidarity with her, demanding that the CUNY Board of Trustees rescind its statement describing her commencement address as “hate speech.” But this does not change the fact that the most powerful institutions in New York City—from Mayor Eric Adams himself to the tabloid press—have made Fatima a target. She is still in dire need of people and institutions who are willing to come to her defense.

That is why it was so disturbing to see The Nation add to the onslaught against Fatima last week by running an unfair and inaccurate attack from columnist Alexis Grenell. In the piece, published on June 8, Grenell trots out well-worn hasbara talking points to equate Fatima’s anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism with anti-Semitic “imagery straight out of…The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

These are very grave charges to level against anyone, and if you make such serious claims, you had better be able to back them up. Instead, Grenell not only fails to prove that Fatima is anti-Semitic—she also shows a deep lack of understanding about Israeli and Palestinian history, and even the history of CUNY itself.

For instance, Grenell argues that Fatima’s depiction of CUNY as “committed to its donors” rests on a “lazy anti-Semitic canard.” But, as others have pointed out, to say that CUNY has ties to donors and investors—ones whose views it presumably gives a hearing to, whether the topic is related to Palestine or not—is simply an objective fact.

What’s more, Fatima was hardly alone in wanting CUNY to shift its policies towards Palestine. CUNY groups—including the CUNY staff congress, which represents 30,000 members across the university system—have been decrying Israeli apartheid for years. Graduate students passed a resolution in support of BDS seven years ago. Does Grenell think that these people are all steeped in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as well? (Another example of Grenell’s misunderstanding of the speech comes when she accuses Fatima of anti-Semitism because she criticized a “ravenous empire”—when anyone watching the speech can tell that this was a clear reference to the American empire.)

Speaking of lazy canards: Grenell spends much of her time repeating the old line that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are one and the same, writing that Fatima’s anti-Zionist comments lead to the “inescapable conclusion” that a “Jewish state shouldn’t exist.”

Well, let’s make it simpler for Grenell. No state has a God-given right to exist, especially not an ethno-nationalist state that is built on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. For decades now, the Palestinian people have faced a range of ruthless Israeli policies, including land confiscations, segregation, economic dispossession, and illegal settlement building. Israel regularly violates Palestinians’ human rights, not sparing even Palestinian children, who are intimidated, beaten, arrested, and killed by Israeli forces. The military blockade on Gaza, along with the regular attacks on its entrapped population, has led to the deaths of thousands since 2005. The consensus among human rights groups that Israel operates as an apartheid state is overwhelming.

It is not anti-Semitism to oppose this. It is not anti-Semitism to want the Israeli apartheid state to be dismantled. It is not anti-Semitism to think that the reality of Zionism is incompatible with human rights and equal justice. It is, simply, anti-Zionism. The truly radical position is to think otherwise. Grenell’s argument that “owning” the view that Israel is an illegitimate state would complicate the Palestinian “narrative of oppressor vs. oppressed” is bizarre, showing a basic lack of understanding of the Palestinian struggle as an anti-colonial movement.

Finally, Grenell thought it appropriate to target Fatima’s ethnicity as a Yemeni by suggesting she somehow is connected to the exile of Yemeni Jews. “At the beginning of her remarks, Mohammed noted that her grandparents were back in Yemen,” Grenell wrote, “But guess who wasn’t? The tens of thousands of Jews who used to live in Aden and throughout Yemen for over a millennium.” She also notes that Yemeni Jews in Israel are “brown.”

The exodus of Jews from Yemen is a complicated story—much more complicated than the heroic narrative often promulgated by Israel, as recent scholarship shows. But noting that Yemeni Jews have faced hardship, or that not every Jew in Israel is white, is not a substantive response to the reality of Palestinian oppression.

Again and again, we see history and facts distorted in favor of a skewed narrative that privileges Zionism as an ideology of protection against an anti-Semitic world. The truth, however, is that Israeli Zionism is not a safeguard of the oppressed but an active collaborator in the continued domination of oppressed people—and the demonization of people like Fatima, who is being punished for her steadfast commitment against oppression.

Toward the end of her speech, Fatima quoted Malcolm X: “We declare our right on this earth…to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth in this day, which we intend to into existence by any means necessary.” It was a courageous reminder that it is human beings that fundamentally deserve to exist, not state powers or institutions. How ironic that Grenell, in supposedly standing up for human rights, created such an inhumane, and false, caricature.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the CUNY staff congress has backed BDS. While many CUNY students do endorse BDS, the congress has supported “discussions” about the movement, not the movement itself.

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