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Graduation speaker at California college invokes ‘oppressive apartheid state of Israel’

‘I definitely felt singled out,’ said a Jewish student at El Camino College commencement ceremony

Higher education graduations drew controversy for the second month in a row, as Israel appears to be a main topic.

A graduation speaker last week at El Camino College, a community college in Southern California, condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.​​

“If I was told seven years ago, as a Palestinian refugee stepping foot for the first time in this country, that one day I’ll be standing on this stage — I would not have believed it,” said Jana Abulaban, president of the Associated Student Organization at El Camino College. “I’m extremely thankful to have gotten to this point.” 

“I gift my graduation to all Palestinians who have lost their lives, and those who continue to lose their lives every day, due to the oppressive apartheid state of Israel, killing and torturing Palestinians as we speak,” she continued. Mild applause could be heard in the background. 

Abulaban’s graduation, which was livestreamed on YouTube, drew widespread engagement on social media — from both supporters and critics. 

In an interview with the New York Post, a Jewish student who was graduating at the ceremony expressed his unease with the speech. “I definitely felt singled out,” he said. “From who I talked to, they were outraged that was allowed to be said.” 

The commencement at El Camino follows a similar incident at the law school graduation at City University of New York in May, when class speaker Fatima Mousa Mohammed criticized Israel. 

“Israel continues to indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshippers murdering the old, the young, attacking even funerals and graveyards as it encourages lynch mobs to target Palestinian homes and businesses,” she said. “Saying loud and clear that Palestine can no longer be the exception to our pursuit of justice.”

Mohammed came under fire, as politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, and Rep. Mike Lawler, a Republican from New York, criticized her speech as antisemitic. The Lawfare Project, a Jewish nonprofit, is appealing to the Supreme Court, in an effort to prevent Mohammed from practicing law. 

CUNY Law School has faced its share of criticism as well, with some lawmakers calling on the school to be barred from receiving federal funds. Fifty protesters this week, organized by the Lawfare Project, assembled at CUNY’s headquarters in Manhattan and demanded the law school’s dean, Sudha Setty, be fired for allowing Mohammed’s speech. 

Responding to public outcry, the CUNY chancellor and board of trustees condemned Mohammed’s speech. “Free speech is precious, but often messy, and is vital to the foundation of higher education,” they said in a statement. “The remarks by a student-selected speaker at the CUNY Law School graduation, unfortunately, fall into the category of hate speech as they were a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race or political affiliation.”

As Mohammed faced attacks from lawmakers and the CUNY administration, some students, alumni and faculty have come to her defense. 

The CUNY School of Law Jewish Law Students Association released a statement affirming its “solidarity with our friend and classmate Fatima, who is currently being targeted by a racist hate campaign from external organizations after delivering a commencement speech that addressed the struggle for Palestinian freedom.”

Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish human rights organization, also issued its support for the recent graduate. “We stand with Fatima, a CUNY Law student who is facing racist and Islamophobic harassment after fearlessly speaking out against Israeli oppression of Palestinians in her commencement address,” it said.

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