Nerdeen Kiswani, a student of Palestinian descent at the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School, is a nasty piece of work. According to articles in the New English Review and stopantisemitism.org, Kiswani, as President of the anti-Semitic organization Students for Justice in Palestine, has celebrated terrorists who killed Israeli civilians, herself celebrated the death of those civilians, has been expelled several times from New York City Council meetings for disrupting them, and has issued a variety of statements that can only be interpreted as anti-Semitic, repeatedly decrying Zionism and chanting and tweeting statements like this:
“There is only one solution Intifada Revolution !! It is right, to rebel Israel, Go to hell We don’t want no two state We want ‘48.”
That, of course, means that she doesn’t want any Jewish state in the Middle East, but wants to return to 1948, when four Arab countries invaded Israel after the UN declared it a state the previous year. Both articles above document her history of anti-Semitic bigotry, hatred, and so on, and I won’t bother to repeat it, as it makes me ill.
What makes me more ill is this video of Kiswani recently threatening to set on fire an IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) sweatshirt—worn by a black student. You can hear her say, “I hate your shirt. I’m gonna set it on fire. I’m serious!” Fortunately, she didn’t set the guy on fire, but if this isn’t a threat, I don’t know what is.
Technically, this is assault, and it’s illegal.
Now Kiswani has the right to say what she wants at CUNY; it is, after all, a state school, and must abide by the First Amendment. But she should have the right at any school to spew her venom and anti-Semitism. And while you can argue about whether her extolling of terrorists who killed Israelis civilians, or her calling for the abolition of Israel, is simply criticism of a country or true anti-Semitism—I happen to think the latter—you can’t defend her threat to set someone on fire, holding a lit lighter, as “free speech”.
Yet that’s exactly what CUNY Law School Dean Mary Lu Bilek did. After first condemning anti-Semitism based on this incident, Bilek, having received pushback on social media from Israel-haters, retracting her condemnation, and then defended Kiswani’s act as freedom of speech. The Algemeiner reports Bilek’s reversal:
The law school initially condemned the incident, saying, “CUNY School of Law stands against hate and antisemitism.”
After an uproar from backers of Kiswani, however, CUNY Law School Dean Mary Lu Bilek subsequently issued a statement to all students withdrawing and apologizing for the initial denunciation, claiming that Kiswani had simply “exercised her First Amendment right to express her opinion.”
“In responding to this situation, we moved too quickly, which led to several mistakes,” Bilek asserted. “I apologize for taking these actions and for the words we used and for the harm they caused.”
She lamented the first statement’s failure to “communicate the school’s position or to support the student” — i.e. Kiswani.
“In that post, the header said that the Law School ‘stands against hate and antisemitism,’” Bilek continued. “I know the difference between opposition to Israel’s armed forces (or Israel’s policies towards Palestine) and antisemitism, and the student’s post was clearly expressing the former.”
“As a Law School with our values, this mistake is inexcusable,” she added.
She then announced that the university would make sure that it would “have the benefit of the Anti-Bias Response Team from the Race, Privilege, and Diversity Committee to help guide our response and ensure that it is consistent with our obligations, the law, and the Law School’s values.”
“We also will have the hard lesson learned from our mistake in this situation,” Bilek concluded. “We pledge to better foreground our support and restorative justice practices in our responses in the future.”
Look at all that penance and wokespeak, all claiming that Bilek was simply criticizing Israel’s armed forces. And then she says that the anti-bias response team will guide her response! (That’s like having a tiger guard a herd of goats.) The Algemeiner article also reports on the dozens of people who defended Nasreen’s act and claimed that the school had harmed her. That pushback is what made Bilek start flagellating herself.
Now imagine if the shoe was on the other foot, as the New English Review did:
And as a final thought, ask yourself the obvious question: If a non-Muslim male student at CUNY Law School had told a hijabbed girl that “I hate that thing you’re wearing. I’m gonna set it on fire. I’m serious!” while holding out a flaming lighter, what would have happened? All hell would have broken loose. Everybody — Dean Mary Lu Bilek, the Anti-Bias Response Team, the Race, Privilege, and Diversity Committee, the New York chapter of CAIR, would all be on him like a ton of bricks. He’d be expelled in a New York minute.
Indeed. Such is the hatred of the Left for Israel, its right to exist, and for Jews, that we embrace this kind of double standard. But perhaps the sanest take on this incident came from lawyer David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy. Leaving aside whether Kiswani’s acts were anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, anti-IDF, or something else, he simply declares this (my emphasis):
. . . it’s not Dean Bilek’s job to mediate between those who think that this incident reflects antisemitism and those who think it only reflects opposition to Israel or Israeli policy.
That said, it seems to me that the whole controversy misses the forest for the trees. Regardless of what one thinks of the antisemitism issue, a CUNY Law student threatened to burn someone’s sweatshirt with that person wearing it, while holding a lit lighter. She said she was serious. She posted the video stating that she almost burned the guy’s sweatshirt.
Was she really serious? Maybe not. But in legal parlance, what she did was an assault, generally defined as “intentionally putting another person in reasonable apprehension of an imminent harmful or offensive contact.” This is a criminal act, and is not protected by the First Amendment. And thus not only is there no reason for Bilek to “support the student,” if the law school is going to make any official comment at all, it should be criticizing the student for using a threat of violence in the guise of expressing her opinion.
Back in 2018, writing about Bilek’s failure to investigate, much less punish, students who disrupted Josh Blackman’s talk at CUNY Law, I wrote a post entitled CUNY Law Needs to Fire its Dean. I can’t say the recent incident has changed my opinion.
I’m a big fan of free speech, but not of violence or the immediate threat of violence shown above. When a University defends the latter, it’s truly lost its way.