Idyllic themes of community, public interest and social justice were woven throughout last month's commencement ceremony of the City University of New York School of Law.
Such phrases should serve as hallmarks of such a law school, whose mission centers on "law in the service of human needs."
But those pillars were overtaken by antithetical remarks from student speaker Fatima Mousa Mohammed. And her disturbing comments reflect a larger question about whether the law school itself is failing in its own mission if it is not teaching its students to succeed within a nuanced world beyond their ideological prisms.
At times, Mohammed's speech contained similar lofty sentiments, about the desire to "protect our communities" and "make this world a better place."
But underneath that word-salad facade was an ugly, targeted undercurrent, a battle cry full of antisemitic rhetoric. Despite supporters' claims to the contrary, the speech was not just anti-Israel; it was antisemitic. The familiar tropes and dog whistles — about Jews and money, Jews and power, Jews in government — weren't hard to find. Mohammed wasn't just lamenting Israeli politics or policies. She was targeting the "oppressors." The "investors." The "donors." Sen. Chuck Schumer. And the isms: Capitalism. Imperialism. Zionism.
"We are the student body and faculty that fought back when investor-focused admin attempted to cross the BDS picket line, saying loud and clear that Palestine can no longer be the exception to our pursuit of justice, that our morality will not be purchased by investors," Mohammed said to applause, referencing the movement of boycott, divestment and sanction against Israel.
Yes, Mohammed is just a student who's entitled to her views — even hateful ones. But she shouldn't get to use a publicly funded platform to espouse such hate — of her classmates, teachers and community.
What's more, Mohammed's anti-establishment, anti-capitalist rant denigrated the very institutions that allow CUNY to function and thrive — the governments, businesses and elected officials who support the university.
Mohammed's speech unsurprisingly became a political hot potato. Conservative officials blasted the remarks, while many progressive voices were supportive or silent. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Rep. Ritchie Torres were among the few Democrats who condemned the speech.
Beyond the politics, there's a larger issue regarding how CUNY must push its students beyond the reflexive desire to blame and scapegoat, toward more educated, thoughtful perspectives. That's especially true given that this wasn't a one-time event; last year's student speaker waded into similar territory.
How can the school better educate its students so its treasured mission of social justice and community good isn't undermined by such disgust and disdain for a particular people, religion or community? Why should representing the underserved and the oppressed lead to hostile finger-pointing at Jews or the Jewish state, who've been oppressed themselves?
It shouldn't. Even legitimate concerns about Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people shouldn't lead to broad, hateful diatribes.
CUNY's Board of Trustees eventually and tepidly criticized the speech, but a real response would take a critical look at the law school and how it can promote awareness and understanding, while allowing dissent and protest.
Taxpayers should not be funding an institution that does not adequately prepare its students to welcome a larger worldview and counter hate-filled rhetoric. And students who care about "human needs" and longingly reach for CUNY's affordable law school to fulfill that mission should not have to fear that when they reach their graduation day, the target will be them.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.