Fatima Mousa Mohammed said many things during her 12-minute commencement address to the City University New York School of Law graduating class of 2023, earning her a ferocious rebuke—some of it right, much of it wrong—from Ted Cruz, Eric Adams, various Jewish organizations, and CUNY itself, among others. A student speaker selected by her peers, Mohammed made relatively little mention of the “fascist NYPD” compared to her heavy focus on Israel, which broadly commingled the Jewish state with white supremacy, and her calls for the end to “capitalism, racism, imperialism, and Zionism around the world.” She had previously tweeted: “may every Zionist burn in the hottest pit of hell.”
Slamming the administration for being “committed to its donors, not its students,” she vowed that “our morality will not be purchased by investors.” New York, like other states, explicitly forbids public funding for entities that support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). Pathetic and awful as the policy is, it made her comments about the “investor-focused” CUNY administration’s opposition to student and faculty support of BDS sound less like a call to action than a lazy anti-Semitic canard. (Though it also undercuts the “cancel culture” arguments of the anti-wokerati, since these are the same people who threatened to defund CUNY because a student made ample use of her First Amendment rights, offensive as her speech may have been.) Conflating “Jews” and “money” wasn’t necessary to make her wholly valid points about Palestinian human rights. The rest of it was a more coded indictment; her calls for her fellow graduates to “confront systems of oppression created to feed an empire with a ravenous appetite for destruction and violence” invoked the specter of shadowy, destructive forces, imagery straight out of 4chan—or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The one thing Mohammed didn’t say was whether or not she thinks Israel or a Jewish state shouldn’t exist, even though her logic led right up to the inescapable conclusion. This is where the rubber of anti-Zionism hits the road of anti-Semitism.
She counts Israel among the “oppressive institutions” to be taken down “by any means necessary.” There is obviously legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and its current authoritarian government. But critics who oppose Israel’s very existence rarely state it so clearly, preferring instead to shroud their position in these word salads that have to be carefully parsed. If you don’t think Israel should exist, that’s fine. Just say it. The problem for many anti-Zionists on the left is that truly owning that position would complicate the narrative of oppressor versus oppressed.
At the beginning of her remarks, Mohammed noted that her grandparents were back in Yemen, celebrating her graduation along with the whole city of Aden. But guess who wasn’t? The tens of thousands of Jews who used to live in Aden and throughout Yemen for over a millennium. Interspersed between periods of peace and prosperity came long stretches of religious persecution enshrined into law, which sanctioned violence against Yemeni Jews. Many fled. The mass exodus to British Mandate Palestine began in the 19th century, but the largest migration took place between 1948 and 1950, when roughly 50,000 Yemeni Jews had to be airlifted to Israel directly out of Aden after a police-assisted pogrom that killed 82 Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses in response to the establishment of the new state. The official Yemeni government supported the deportation of its Jews—seizing their remaining property and possessions—even as it opposed the establishment of the state of Israel. As recently as 2020, the Jewish Cemetery in Aden was destroyed. Not one thousand years ago, not even 75 years ago. Three years ago: well within the lifetime of Mohammed’s grandparents and her career at CUNY Law. Today, there are literally zero Jews living in Yemen, according to the World Population Review.
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“Let us actively fight against the collective amnesia and cognitive dissonance that limits our understanding of the world to what is only directly before our eyes,” Mohammed correctly implored her audience.
Yemeni Jews living in Israel are Zionists, which is not to say that it’s paradise for them either, but it’s certainly not the Saudi-backed human rights trash fire of present-day Yemen. Somehow, non-Palestinian critics of Israel tend to be far less vocal about the various other abusive states in the region. Yet, even if Mohammed and other anti-Zionists had a plan to repatriate Yemeni Jews back to the country they’ve called home since antiquity, it’s hard to imagine they’d go. It’s also worth noting that Yemeni Jews are mizrahim—Jews of Eastern extraction—not the European ashkenazim or sephardim that get racialized as white. These Jews are brown, indistinguishable from their former Arab Muslim neighbors, making them an awkward fit into an analysis of Zionism as white supremacy. Their Zionism is essential to their very existence. Cindy Seni, a young mizrahi Jew by way of Tunisia, France, and Canada now living in Jerusalem, explains it well in Netflix’s new series Jewish Matchmaking. Discussing why she moved to Israel and why it’s important for her to marry another Jew, she describes how her great-grandmother escaped Libya, while her grandfather survived the Holocaust: “I want to be a part of a miracle that continues that.”
The fact that so many anti-Zionists offer nothing in the way of a vision for where the Jews living in Israel should go, including the thousands of mizrahim, reveals the limits of their critique. Their offensive, ahistoric righteousness and borderline racism deserves outrage. Just like everyone should be outraged by ring-wing American Jews who don’t believe that Palestine should exist, and the settler colonialism of the Netanyahu government, or the New York Post’s Islamophobic hysterics that put Mohammed on the front page.
But there are appropriate consequences to speech in that people may vigorously disagree with you. Mohammed is not a child: She’s a law-school graduate with a platform who used it to advocate for what she believes, and her supporters shouldn’t infantilize her for it. At the end of her speech, she praised the prospects of the class of 2023, which likely includes everything from future civil rights attorneys and movement lawyers to housing attorneys and public defenders. But her speech wasn’t so much a defense of Palestine as a prosecution of Israel.
And if you’re going to argue for the death penalty, you should be up-front about it.