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CUNY Law School Condemns Antisemitism, Then Backtracks Amid Controversy Over Student Threatening Violence

Nerdeen Kiswani.jpeg

The City University of New York School of Law condemned antisemitism, but then later backtracked, after a video recently emerged online recently that appeared to show one of its students threatening to set on fire a man wearing an Israel Defense Forces sweatshirt.

The video is said to show student Nerdeen Kiswani holding a flaming lighter near the stomach of a Black man wearing a sweatshirt displaying the logo of the Israeli military.

“I hate your shirt,” a female voice is heard saying. “I’m gonna set it on fire. I’m serious!”

The circumstances of the incident, such as when it occurred, or whether the video was in fact genuine were unclear. The alleged victim has not been identified.

The video went viral on social media when the advocacy group Stop Antisemitism posted it on Twitter last week, calling it “horrific.”

“We demand this is immediately looked into and the (sic) Ms. Kiswani face disciplinary actions,” the group said.

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.”

The backlash to the university’s original condemnation had been intense. Shortly after it was posted, a far-left Jewish group at CUNY, the Jewish Law Students Association, issued a statement saying the exposure of Kiswani’s act was “hateful” and “Islamophobic.” It also asserted that the school’s initial comments “wrongly conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism.” It further claimed that those who revealed the video were “antisemitic.”

A meme with a statement over the hashtag #WeStandWithNerdeen also made the rounds, claiming that the university chose to “cave into racist Zionist pressure” and place Kiswani “at risk.” The message said that CUNY Law had “committed itself to protecting and enabling Zionism.” Kiswani, it added, was “a valued community activist” who was “being bombarded with vile, Islamophobic, anti-Palestinian violence.”

There is no evidence that Kiswani suffered any acts of violence as a result of the video or CUNY’s first statement.

In February, The Algemeiner reported the story of Rafaella Gunz, a CUNY Law student who was pushed out of the school by a campaign of antisemitic harassment.

“If you are Jewish and you believe that Israel should exist in any way, shape, or form, you’re basically blacklisted, there’s no room for your point of view on the CUNY Law campus,” she charged at the time.