Source: The Mondoweiss
Nerdeen Kiswani, CUNY Law School graduate and Palestinian American activist, stood infront of her graduating class as the elected commencement speaker and called for collective liberation.
“I wanted to be around the amazing students I got to learn from and grow with the last three years.Those fighting for Palestinian, Black and Indigenous liberation and for the freedom of all people living under colonial domination, imperialism, and white supremacist structures both around the world and here in the U.S., ” Kiswani said in her speech.
She continued: “Mechanisms of law have worked in favor of oppressors over the oppressed. Whether it’s the mass incarceration of Black communities in the U.S. or the failure of international law to stop Israeli war crimes.”
Kiswani also touched on the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh, the contradictions of the system in fighting for justice, and her goal of standing up for the oppressed as a crucial part of her career aspirations.
“I wanted all the lawyers in the room to know that beyond college, there was a space for us to serve people who come from oppressed communities and backgrounds, and in fact it is a responsibility to serve the liberation struggles that have defined us,” Kiswani told Mondoweiss.
Kiswani grew up in Brooklyn, New York and is the founder and chair of Within Our Lifetime – United for Palestine, a community-based Palestinian-led organization whose goal is to revitalize the revolutionary spirit of the Palestinian community abroad in pursuit of a free homeland. She strongly believes in involving her community of Bay Ridge to be politically active, aware and in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and has organized protests, community events, conferences, and teach-ins all in her backyard.
Kiswani’s impressive organizing accomplishments, including being elected class speaker was not an easy feat. Kiswani was subject to extreme intimidation, slander, and smear campaigns by city politicians, rightwing media, Zionist organizations, and even Hollywood actors — all in an attempt to get her kicked out of law school and have her name dragged through the mud. In many ways, Kiswani can be considered one of the most targeted and hated Palestinian activists in America.
Search for her name on the internet and you will find articles and websites calling her “radical”, “hateful,” an “antisemite”, and even a “terrorist sympathizer.” Kiswani was even named “Antisemite of the Year” in 2020 by Zionist pro-Israel group, Stopantisemitism.org.
“When I got accepted into law school, there were Zionists that were really shocked that I would even be let in,” Kiswani said.
“At the beginning of my academic career at CUNY Law, in my very first semester till the end, there was a concerted effort that I believe was very well funded to really try to kick me out and to stop me from speaking at commencement.”
Kiswani helped lead strong organizing efforts for Palestine at CUNY, where the student body adopted a resolution endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which was then adopted by CUNY Law’s faculty. The resolution called for justice in Palestine and an end to CUNY complicity in funding the Israeli occupation.
It was then that Councilwoman Inna Vernikov unleashed a smear campaign against Kiswani and the CUNY Law student government over their adoption of the resolution. Vernikov even pulled $50,000 worth of funding for the CUNY Law School over the faculty’s support of the resolution and alleged antisemitism at CUNY campuses.
Vernikov cited Kiswani’s commencement as an example of this. “The content of her speech is similar to displays of Nazi propaganda that can be found in Yad Vashem, Israel’s major Holocaust musuem,” Vernikov said. She went on to say that BDS is not only defamatory, but also antisemitic.
In a statement, Palestine Legal said that the politically motivated attack is a “clear violation of the First Amendment and an affront to the principles of free speech and academic freedom.”
In another intimidation tactic, Act.il — a now discontinued app with deep ties to Israeli intelligence and military, and partially funded by the Israeli government — assigned daily missions to users to email CUNY Law demanding Kiswani’s expulsion based on a fabricated story that she threatened a fellow student. Act.il, provided critical machinery to badger CUNY Law into punishing Kiswani by “rewarding” users for sending hundreds of pre-scripted emails to the administration. Through this app over 19,000 emails were sent to the administration reporting Kiswani for antisemitism.
“This app was specifically created to harass and report people online or in universities for their organizing work on Palestine,” Kiswani said.
American actor Michael Rapaport, best known for his role in the Netflix series Atypical, personally threatened Kiswani for her strong support of Palestinian liberation. Rapaport commented about her on social media, where he has over two million followers on Instagram, calling her a “Nazi” and even messaged Kiswani personally. “I’m going to get you expelled,” he threatened. “Enjoy expulsion.”
“He posted about me in his stories, he made sure hate was sent my way — and it definitely did,” Kiswani said.
In September and October 2020, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) reported a complaint to the Dean of CUNY Law against Nerdeen, and then even wrote a letter to the Department of justice and the FBI in June of this year to prove that Jewish people are targets of religion-based hate crimes, specifically citing Nerdeen’s activism.
Even American conservative political commentator, Ben Shapiro, posted a video of Nerdeen on his show to paint her as a radical antisemite.
Radicalizing the Palestine solidarity movement
“I really did not understand what it was about me specifically that made these people so concerned with me,” said Kiswani.
Kiswani is modest. She started WOL in 2015 and it grew into one of the most popular grassroots organizations in New York with an Instagram page that has over 62,000 followers. While other pro-Palestinian movement organizations were focused on lobbying Congress, or trying to normalize saying “Free Palestine” on campuses, Nerdeen and WOL pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in advocating for freeing Palestine — from the river to the sea.
Kiswani relentlessly organized marches that were attended by thousands of protestors from all across the five boroughs, and has taken the charge with every major action for Palesitnian liberation — even making a toolkit for young activists who want to follow in her footsteps.
“I helped start WOL because I felt there was a disconnect between what was happening on the ground in Palestine, and what organizers on campuses were calling for. The discussions and a lot of the things that supporters of Palestine were talking about in these academic spaces were not reflective of what the people on the ground are experiencing,” Kiswani explains.
On October 4th, 2015 Nerdeen Kiswani and her organization (then called NYC SJP) published an article titled, “The BDS Ceiling’‘, which gave a critical analysis on what it considered the pacified rhetoric emerging from the BDS movement on college campuses across the country.
The article states that although the “BDS movement has won victories and raised consciousness about Palestine to an unprecedented level…solidarity with Palestine must go beyond symbolic divestment [and] we must go beyond the BDS demands or we risk becoming an NGO masquerading as an anti-imperialist solidarity organization.”
“I really wanted to bridge that gap as much as possible and get students to do community work, not just have theoretical discussions on BDS for example — because for me, BDS wasn’t the ceiling, it was the bare minimum,” Kiswani tells Mondoweiss.
Days following its publication, the BDS National Committee condemned the article by Kiswani and NYC SJP stating that it is a “disservice to those it purports to represent and be in solidarity with” and then accused the piece of “undermining BDS efforts.”
SJP National, although now completely supportive of Kiswani and Within Our Lifetime, once warned SJPs against Kiswani’s group. In an internal email shared with Mondoweiss that was sent to all SJP chapters across the country SJP’s national leadership accused NYC SJP of being a part of a communist political party “striving to gain hegemony” of SJPs on the East coast.
In response, Kiswani and NYC SJP stated that the agenda of their group was always clear: “to create a city-wide organization for Palestine that draws on the strength of campuses, but is not limited to it.”
The name change from NYC SJP to WOL was primarily to steer away from internal politics and focus on empowering their community to stand up for the Palestinian struggle.
“The reason for our name change was to signal community over student orientation and that it was people power over student power,” Kiswani explains. “And we held those views from the very beginning, not just for the name change, but over time we evolved to understand that those views need to be articulated more clearly, which is why we not only changed our name but our points of unity to clearly express what’s needed to support Palestine.”
WOL’s points of unity include the right of return, explicit anti-Zionism, the right to resist by any means necessary, and resisting the violence of US empire through an internationalist lens.
WOL has been met with consistent censorship online because of their unwavering message. On March 8 of this year, Instagram took down WOL’s main account after they put up a post highlighting revolutionary Palestinian women on the occassion of International Women’s Day. It was kept offline for four days.
“We were never really gone” WOL said in a statement, “we are a grassroots Palestinian led- community organization. Our online presence is secondary to base building in our communities.”
With the creation of WOL, Kiswani helped reshape the Palestine movement in America to demand all of Palestine be free, demanding the release of political prisoners, and tying these struggles to an internationalist call for freedoms of all people. Now, these demands are commonplace in many pro-Palestinian organizations and nonprofits.
Kiswani says she has always been political as her family made sure she knew where she came from and what her identity meant. “For almost my whole life I knew it was the right thing to do — to fight for Palestine,” she said.
Yet a major turning point in Kiswani’s life was the moment she tried to enter Palestine, her homeland, in 2015. Kiswani was held in an interrogation room for over 16 hours by the Israeli border officers. They decided to ban her from ever entering, citing “hostile behavior towards Israel.”
“They had a folder about all of my activities concerning SJP from undergrad,” Kiswani said. “They had newspaper articles with my name mentioned, they had details of the protests I went to — they were definitely prepared beforehand.”
Kiswani was asked questions like how did she feel about what happened in Gaza in 2014, only a year before, when Israel attacked the Strip for 51 days and killed over 2,000 Palestinians. “I said it was a sad day when anyone died. They called me a liar anyway,” Kiswani said.
“They told me that I hate Jews and that I don’t let Jewish people into our campus and into SJP — it was obviously false, but it didn’t matter what I said. The worst thing to ever happen to me happened. Being denied entry and banned from visiting my homeland is the worst thing that could ever happen to me,” she continued.
Fighting for liberation within our lifetime
Everything shifted for Nerdeen at that point. She decided that if the only time she would enter Palestine is when it is free, then she will fight for the opportunity to see that day within her lifetime.
“I accepted my fate, but I know I am going to go back one day,” she said.
Almost immediately after being denied entry, Canary Mission, a website that compiles dossiers on pro-Palestinian student activists, academics, and organizations that many have called a blacklist, finally profiled her.
Kiswani says being demonized in the way she has been has been almost liberating.
Now, she does not have to hold back.
“I was always open and honest, but now I don’t have anything to fear, I am going to always say what I believe is right.”
“Being attacked by the enemy doesn’t discourage me,” Kiswani says. “They want to stop me for some reason, and that reason itself is a good thing — it means you’re doing something right, and sometimes, it actually backfires on them.”
Not only did Kiswani finish law school, get elected as class speaker, and pass a BDS resolution on campus, but she also got the backing of her institution in an unprecedented move, especially in the face of many adversaries.
“The biggest reason I maintain hope is because Palestinians on the ground are maintaining that hope. They’re fighting everyday for liberation despite Israeli colonial violence — and so will I.”