Almost immediately after the Biden administration announced its national strategy to combat antisemitism, it was put to the test.
In mid-May, at the commencement ceremony for the famously progressive CUNY School of Law, a graduating, student-selected Yemeni-immigrant speaker named Fatima Mohammed gave a 13-minute speech that included a 3-minute anti-establishment and anti-Israel diatribe that was deeply troubling.
Mohammed’s ill-informed, hate-infused pronouncements charged Israel with, among other things, “indiscriminate” killings of Palestinians by “rain[ing] bullets and bombs on worshipers,” denounced CUNY’s collaboration with “the fascist N.Y.P.D.,” and called for a “fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world.”
Standing alone, Mohammed’s screed was bad enough. And then, its offensiveness was compounded when CUNY Law School circulated the speech to the public so that those who missed it in person could share the hate online. But does the White House view the Mohammed rantings as antisemitic?
The administration’s antisemitism strategy includes what the White House says are “over 100 new actions and over 100 calls to action to combat antisemitism, including new actions to counter antisemitism on college campuses and online; whole-of-society strategy [that] includes new stakeholder commitments,” and lays the foundation for reducing antisemitism “over time.” The strategy has four main goals: increasing awareness and understanding of both antisemitism and Jewish American heritage; improving safety and security for Jewish communities; reversing the normalization of antisemitism; and building coalitions across communities to fight hate.
But when it came to defining antisemitism, the administration chose a confusing course. Rather than adopting the widely accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Association working definition of antisemitism — which in its appendix recognizes that applying a double standard to demand of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation — is antisemitism, the White House highlighted IHRA and also referenced an alternative definition that says applying double standards and singling out the Jewish state for criticism is not antisemitic.
Most Jewish organizations went along with the White House’s weak-kneed deference to progressive pressure, declared victory and pointed to the fact that the IHRA definition was featured most prominently in the statement.
And now the CUNY test case.
The White House has recognized that Jewish students on college campuses are feeling threatened and victimized by the rising level of vitriol against Israel and the blaming and targeting of campus Jews for what critics call Israel’s crimes. IHRA labels these positions as antisemitic.
How should they be treated under the new White House policy? CUNY itself condemned Mohammed for what it called her “hate speech.” The school’s Jewish Law Students Association disagreed and came out in solidarity with “our friend and classmate Fatima.”
Politicians and pundits on the right and the left have weighed in on the issue. No surprises there. But we haven’t yet heard from the White House. How the White House responds will be important, and we hope it is stronger than a mere, “It never should have happened.” It’s the administration’s move. ■