No reasonable observer would ever accuse Mehdi Hasan of providing thoughtful, balanced, and insightful discussions on the newsworthy subjects of the day, especially when the subject has anything to do with Jews. On June 4th, that happened to be the antisemitic screed at the City University of New York School of Law’s commencement ceremony, in which the speaker, Fatima Mohammed, called on her audience to use their rage to “fight against…Zionism around the world” and railed against “investors.” The speech was widely criticized and condemned by Jewish groups, university officials, and political leaders.
Once again upholding his reputation, the MSNBC host rode to Mohammed’s defense. The result was nine minutes of Hasan and his guests enthusiastically embracing willful blindness, legal nonsense, and material omissions.
Let’s start with the legal nonsense. One of Hasan’s guest, Naz Ahmad, a staff attorney at CUNY Law’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project, objected to “calling [Mohammed’s] speech hate speech when it doesn’t meet the legal definition of it in any manner of words.” It’s a bizarre remark that perhaps reflects on the quality of legal education at CUNY Law, given that there is no “legal definition” of “hate speech” under U.S. law. Hasan, too, insisted Mohammed’s remarks “did not come close to” this mythical “legal definition” of hate speech.
Hasan also tried to cast the widespread condemnation of Mohammed’s speech as an attempt at “cancellation.” But criticism of speech is not contrary to free speech. Quite the opposite. Criticism of speech fits squarely within Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous admonition: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” If harsh criticism of another’s speech amounted to “cancellation,” then Hasan himself would have plenty of accounting to do for his own past remarks.
Now let’s move on to the willful blindness. Far from being a victim, Mohammed herself has exemplified the type of authoritarianism that courts and free speech advocates have warned against. Just over a year ago, she demanded Zionist students and faculty (95% of American Jews are supportive of Israel, and 80% feel an attachment to Israel) be banned from CUNY. Given his expressed concern for free speech, surely Hasan would view such overt demands to silence and ban an entire category of people because of their expression of their religious, ethnic, and national identity to be a serious threat to free speech.
But rather than contend with Mohammed’s history of trying to ban Jews and their expression, Hasan resorts to projection. The host employs a textbook case of the “Livingstone Formula,” in which Jews expressing concern about antisemitism are merely trying to manipulate those around them for ulterior motives. “This isn’t the first time people have been shut down with accusations of antisemitism when they speak about Israel,” Hasan says, because they want to cancel “pro-Palestinian voices.”
In other words, to Hasan, the evil is not Mohammed calling for nearly every Jew to be banned from CUNY and calling on a crowd to “fight” them “around the world.” The real evil, Hasan suggests, is when Jews object to such hateful rhetoric.
Hasan points at the radical CUNY Jewish Law Student Association’s (JLSA) defense of Mohammed’s speech as proof her rhetoric wasn’t antisemitic. The members of JLSA are free to express their fringe beliefs, which are at odds with the vast majority of American Jews, but that doesn’t make their opinions any more reflective of the Jewish community than those of “Jews for Jesus.” Moreover, their “anti-Zionism” doesn’t diminish the meaning of Zionism to the rest of the Jewish community. Not all Jews observe the Jewish sabbath, but that doesn’t make the Jewish sabbath any less Jewish. Not all Jews are Zionists, but that doesn’t make Zionism any less Jewish.
Finally, let’s address some of the material omissions. Hasan’s carefully selected token Jewish guest, Dov Waxman, argued it was a stretch to suggest antisemitic tropes were at play in Mohammed’s references to “investors.” Mohammed had claimed that an “investor-focused admin” attempted to “cross the BDS picket line,” which, we’re told, was defeated only because “our morality will not be purchased by investors.” Surely Father Coughlin, with all his thinly veiled rantings about “international bankers,” would applaud.
It becomes less of a stretch, however, when one bothers to look at other statements from Mohammed’s own Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, which also refers to that “investor-focused admin” as “the Zionist administration.” In one instance, the SJP claimed Zionists are the cause of their problems at CUNY, particularly the high tuition costs. Whereas white nationalists may chant “Jews are our misfortune,” CUNY’s SJP chapters simply replace the word “Jew” with “Zionist.” The only stretching here is by those who grasp for any angle to tie society’s ills to the Jews.
Hasan also blatantly lies to his audience, claiming that Mohammed just “attacked a foreign country, a foreign government, not a race or a religion.” But when Mohammed appealed for the “rage that fills this auditorium” to “be the fuel for the fight against…Zionism around the world” (a clip Hasan conveniently refrains from showing or quoting), she was not referring to Israel. Israel, a geographically defined place, is not “around the world.” The Jewish diaspora – the vast majority of which are Zionists who believe in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland – however, is.
The “fight” against “Zionism around the world” has been against the likes of Matt Greenman, a Jewish New Yorker who was beaten at a protest organized by an extremist anti-Israel organization at CUNY. Indeed, Mohammed herself was there, announcing to the audience, amidst a wave of deadly terror attacks against Jews in Israel: “glory to the martyrs, glory to the resistance!” The same “fight” against “Zionism around the world” also saw nearly the entire Jewish population of Arab-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa (~800,000) forced to flee, including from Mohammed’s native Yemen, where 87 Jews were slaughtered in an orgy of violence against “Zionists” on December 2, 1947, months before Israel was even established.
Hasan’s standards would likely declare CAMERA’s criticism of Mohammed’s speech and Hasan’s commentary as an attempt at “canceling” “pro-Palestinian voices.” Let us be clear: both Hasan and Mohammed are entitled to their opinions and their free expression (though no one is obligated to provide either of them a platform). It would just be nice if their speech came with a little less anti-Jewish demagoguery and with a lot more factual accuracy.