(New York Jewish Week) – The daughter of the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is boycotting the opening of a CUNY institution named after her father due to a speech at the university’s law school commencement that she called antisemitic.
Maura Moynihan, 66, told the New York Jewish Week that she believes the university system has not done enough to combat and condemn antisemitism on their campuses. In protest, she said that she intends to skip the Thursday opening of The Moynihan Center, a City College institution dedicated to cultivating new public affairs leaders.
“The speech by Fatima Mousa Mohammed at the CUNY Law School commencement shocked and horrified so many people in New York and around the world,” Moynihan said, referring to a May 12 graduation speech by a student who praised the law school as a rare place where students could, in her view, “speak out against Israeli settler colonialism.”
Moynihan added that her father, an Irish Catholic, was a great supporter of Israel. She said that by not condemning Mohammed’s address, The City College of New York — which is also part of the CUNY system but operates separately from the law school — is “taking his name in vain.”
The Daniel Patrick Moynihan Center is part of City College’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. It will host two new fellowship programs and a slate of events dedicated to advancing public scholarship and public service. The center received a grant of nearly $7 million from the Leon Levy Foundation, which is known for supporting many Jewish causes in New York City, including the Tenement Museum and the Center for Jewish History.
The younger Moynihan’s boycott comes after years of salvos against CUNY by Jewish and pro-Israel activists, both inside and beyond the university. Advocates have charged that the school has tolerated expressions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism from faculty and students, and in 2016, in light of those allegations, the university opened a probe into antisemitism at the school. The report concluded that some incidents on campus, including at a 2015 Students for Justice in Palestine rally, were antisemitic. But it said, “As a public university, CUNY is limited in the ways that it can respond to hate speech, whether the words are anti-Semitic, racist, anti-Muslim, or anti-LGBT.”
Particularly in recent years, the law school has been the focus of accusations of antisemitism. In 2022, after faculty and student associations at the school endorsed a boycott of Israel, the New York City Council held a hearing grilling CUNY officials on bigotry against Jews on campus. Mohammed’s speech renewed the antisemitism allegations.
CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez and the university’s board of trustees denounced her address as “hate speech” on May 30 and said it amounts to “a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race or political affiliation.”
A spokesman for City College told the New York Jewish Week that “we, as a campus, including our Centers and Institutes, cannot comment on issues that are specific to other colleges.” The spokesman added that “City College, like all schools within the City University of New York system, has an unwavering commitment to all of our students, faculty and staff.”
Maura Moynihan believes that by not doing more, CUNY is not living up to her father’s legacy. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who studied for a year at City College before enlisting in the military, began his political career in the 1950s in the office of New York’s governor. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1975, where he became well-known for his staunch defense of Israel after the U.N. officially declared that “Zionism is racism.” His speech following that decision was a key moment in his political career, coming two years before he won a senate seat in 1977. Though the U.N. resolution passed, Moynihan successfully worked to get it overturned in 1991. He retired from the Senate in 2001.
Maura Moynihan said that while watching Mohammed’s commencement address, she was reminded of a line from her father’s 1975 UN speech: “A great evil has been loosed upon the world; the abomination of antisemitism has been given the appearance of international sanction.”
“That’s how I felt when I watched it, several times,” she said. “That the abomination of antisemitism has been sanctioned.”
And though her father “worked tirelessly to see it overturned, the damage had been done,” the younger Moynihan said. She believes that Mohammed’s speech, in which Mohammed encouraged “the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world,” had the same effect. Moynihan, like her father, is not Jewish, though she once worked as a communications consultant at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
At issue, Moynihan added, was the setting: Mohammed’s speech occurred at an event held by a publicly-funded university. “Had she said it privately, in a different context or forum, that would be disturbing enough, but we do have free speech in this country,” she said. “But she said it at the CUNY Law School commencement, which is paid for with our tax dollars as New Yorkers and New York has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world.”
Moynihan feels that the condemnation by CUNY leadership was “simply not enough.”
“I’m so sick of people, when these antisemitic statements and incidents come up, they somebody writes a tweet or a statement condemning it, but they don’t take action,” she said, questioning why the law school’s dean, Sudha Setty, was not fired after she was seen applauding the speech. She wants the Moynihan Center to release a statement echoing the chancellor’s condemnation of Mohammed’s speech. “It is illegitimate to have a Moynihan Center that will not invoke his famous speeches at the United Nations,” she said.
Moynihan is no stranger to controversy: In March 2021, she was filmed by an Asian couple in Kips Bay, who alleged that she repeatedly yelled at them to “Go back to China.”
In a statement, Moynihan told ABC 7 New York that the incident was a “misunderstanding.” “It had nothing whatsoever to do with any bias or racism or anti-Asian American prejudice, as has been wrongly suggested,” she said, adding that the dispute was over a taxi cab.
Moynihan said that she has tried to contact City College several times to encourage them to make a statement. She said hasn’t been able to get in touch with administration, which she found “extremely disappointing.” It is unclear as to whether the late senator’s wife, Moynihan’s 93-year-old mother, Elizabeth, will attend Thursday’s ceremony.
“If you can’t stand up against antisemitism in the CUNY system, in my father’s hometown of New York, what is the point of a center that bears his name?” she said. “We cannot stay silent about this dangerous normalization of antisemitism.”