Meet the Palestine activist who likes playing with fire

When she was still a young law student, Nerdeen Kiswani filmed herself apparently threatening to torch a man’s IDF sweatshirt while he was wearing it

May 19, 2022 13:34

Excellence is still rewarded in America. The law school at the City University of New York has honoured Palestinian activist Nerdeen Kiswani by asking her to deliver this year’s Commencement address. Unfortunately, one of the things Kiswani excels at is courting anti-Israel controversy.

Kiswani, a Palestinian American, is the founder and leader of Within Our Lifetime, a group supporting “resistance and return by any means necessary”. Within Our Lifetime wants to achieve “the abolition of Zionism” and “defend the right of Palestinians as colonised people to resist the Zionist occupation by any means necessary”, while also getting its term papers written on time.

A precocious talent, Kiswani was a co-founder of the New York City branch of Students for Justice (SJP) in Palestine, which campaigns in support of a boycott of the Jewish state. But she was too radical for them.

In 2018, Kiswani claimed that, “it’s clear that Israel’s plan for Palestine is nothing less than expulsion and genocide”, and called for SJP to “go beyond” the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

As for her next step, Kiswani quoted former aeroplane hijacker Leila Khaled: “BDS, of course, on the international level, is very effective. But it doesn’t liberate land.”

Kiswani had said the quiet part out loud. When the BDS campaign criticised her, she split and formed Within Our Lifetimes. She was still a young CUNY Law student when she filmed herself apparently threatening to set a man’s IDF sweatshirt on fire while he was wearing it.

CUNY Law’s administration condemned the clip, and said CUNY “stands against hate and antisemitism”. The usual hard-left groups objected, notably the useful idiots of the Jewish Law Students Association, who accused the administration of being “Islamophobic” and wrongly conflating a harmless bit of anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

Mary Lu Bilek, the dean of the Law School, responded with the attitude typical of the modern university administrator. She apologised to the mob for her “inexcusable” statement. Kiswani, Bilek said, had only “exercised her First Amendment right to express her opinion”, in this case “opposition to Israel’s armed forces (or Israel’s policies toward Palestine)”. Bilek promised to do better in future: “We pledge to better foreground our support and restorative justice practices in our responses in the future.”

In February, Rafaella Gunz, a pro-Israel student who describes herself as a liberal, bisexual feminist, left CUNY Law due to what she calls endemic antisemitism from student groups who, she says, raised a petition against her after she wrote a pro-Israel article in a student newspaper. CUNY faculty, she says, dismissed her request for help. Gunz has transferred to Yeshiva University and has filed a complaint with the Human Rights Division of New York State.

CUNY is a state-funded university, so it is bound by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 2019, Donald Trump, who some persist in calling an antisemite, issued an executive order extending Title VI’s protections to Jews.

As I reported in April, in 2020 the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigated another New York law school, New York University Law, and found that its administrators had permitted their campus to be made a “hostile environment” for Jews.

On 13 May, CUNY law’s faculty unanimously endorsed the student government’s pro-BDS resolution from last December. Like the mock “apartheid wall” that went up on the Harvard in April, many Jews feel the resolution intimidated them, raising the social and professional costs of supporting Israel’s right to exist and creating a hostile environment. Inviting Nerdeen Kiswani to speak to the class of 2022 took place in that context.

The Biden administration clearly does not treat Title VI violations against Jews as urgent. In February, a group of 22 Congressional Democrats complained to the Department of Education about “significant delay” in the Office for Civil Rights’ investigations of cases alleging antisemitism on campus, and a failure to implement rules for Title VI cases.

In spring 2021, the Biden administration announced that the DoE would set rules for implementing President Trump’s executive orders. But in autumn 2021, the DoE pushed back its completion date for those rules from January 2022 to December 2022.

These delays, the Congressmen and women wrote, “are delaying justice and potentially allowing discrimination to persist on campuses throughout the country”.

Dominic Green is a British historian based in Boston

May 19, 2022 13:34

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