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A Wall Street Law Firm Wants to Define Consequences of Anti-Israel Protests

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For as long as students at colleges across the United States have protested the war in Gaza, they’ve drawn the fury of some of the financial world’s mightiest figures — investors, lawyers and bankers — who have flexed their financial power over universities, toppling school leaders in the process.

It didn’t stop the students. The protests intensified this year until campuses emptied out for the summer.

Now, a prominent Wall Street law firm is taking a more direct approach with protesters. Sullivan & Cromwell, a 145-year-old firm that has counted Goldman Sachs and Amazon among its clients, says that, for job applicants, participation in an anti-Israel protest — on campus or off — could be a disqualifying factor.

The firm is scrutinizing students’ behavior with the help of a background check company, looking at their involvement with pro-Palestinian student groups, scouring social media and reviewing news reports and footage from protests. It is looking for explicit instances of antisemitism as well as statements and slogans it has deemed to be “triggering” to Jews, said Joseph C. Shenker, a leader of Sullivan & Cromwell.

Candidates could face scrutiny even if they weren’t using problematic language but were involved with a protest where others did. The protesters should be responsible for the behavior of those around them, Mr. Shenker said, or else they were embracing a “mob mentality.” Sullivan & Cromwell wouldn’t say if it had already dropped candidates because of the policy.

“People are taking their outrage about what’s going on in Gaza and turning it into racist antisemitism,” Mr. Shenker said.

Private employers in the United States can hire whom they want, with only a few restrictions meant to prevent discrimination. Some have fired workers over their actions or statements since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Sullivan & Cromwell’s policy stands out because of the way it holds applicants accountable for the actions of others and considers commonly used protest slogans to be out of bounds. No other law firm on Wall Street has publicly discussed a similar policy toward protesters, but leaders at four of Sullivan & Cromwell’s elite rivals privately said they are considering adopting similar rules.

To Sullivan & Cromwell’s critics, the policy is an effort to silence criticism of Israel on campus and to paint all protesters as equivalent to those who have been heckling and threatening Jewish students.

“When we went through big law recruitment, we knew your social media better be clean, you better not have on there anything that you can’t defend, you have to be a respectable person to be able to get a job at any of these places,” said Rawda Fawaz, a lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “That has always been the practice. Why do you have to have a special policy on this?”

Ms. Fawaz, who worked as an associate at a large law firm after graduating from Columbia University Law School in 2022, said many Muslims and Arabs working for big firms already felt discouraged from discussing their views on Israel and its actions.

“Your political activism is part of your identity,” she said. “In a way, it’s good because law students will know who they can work for and still maintain their identity.”

Sullivan & Cromwell is not asking applicants for privately expressed views, seeking to exclude everyone who has criticized Israel or condemning the general act of protesting, Mr. Shenker said. He and others who support this approach argue that it is an extension of existing workplace prohibitions on hate speech.

“What’s happening here is really just the implementation of basic work force decency standards,” said Neil Barr, the chairman of Davis Polk, a global firm employing more than 1,000 lawyers. Davis Polk rescinded job offers over students’ involvement with groups that had released statements blaming Israel for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Sullivan & Cromwell’s screening will take place after students apply for a job or arrange for an interview through top law schools, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and New York University. The firm has engaged a background check company, HireRight, to scour social media and recordings of public appearances for statements or actions about the conflict. Applicants will also be asked to list student groups they have joined.

Participation at a protest or involvement in a group that Sullivan & Cromwell finds objectionable will prompt questioning. Applicants will have to explain their role, including what they did to stop other protesters from making offensive or harassing statements.

The policy shows how businesses are trying to influence the behavior of people they cannot hope to directly control for several more years, said Roderick A. Ferguson, a Yale professor of American studies who has researched universities’ responses to student movements. Disqualifying people based on what someone else nearby may have been doing seems to characterize all protesters as having a single mind-set, he said.

“How do we make the leap that it’s all the students?” Mr. Ferguson said. Such thinking, he said, “can mimic racist thinking, sexist thinking, homophobic thinking, that one instance becomes a character of all.”

On the list of unacceptable slogans and statements, Mr. Shenker said, is one that has been seen or heard at virtually all pro-Palestinian rallies: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The chant’s intent has been fiercely disputed. Many Palestinians see it as a call for the end of Israeli oppression in Gaza and the West Bank and as a plea for equal rights for Arab citizens of Israel. Many Israelis see it as a threat to wipe their country off the map.

Mr. Shenker isn’t Israeli, but he has strong ties to the country. His great-grandfather was the leader of an influential Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem a century ago and he belongs to a synagogue there. Mr. Shenker was in Israel during the Oct. 7 attack.

He’s used his professional status to play a prominent role in trying to address antisemitism and define acceptable speech at law schools.

Mr. Shenker, 67, served as Sullivan & Cromwell’s chair — its most senior position — from 2010 to 2022. He has helped clients, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi investor; the billionaire hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman; and Frank McCourt, who has said he’s interested in purchasing TikTok, buy and sell everything from buildings to sports teams.
He has also helped clients survive divorces and settle bitter inheritance feuds.

Soon after Oct. 7, he wrote a letter, signed by around 200 other firms, calling on law school deans to impel campus protesters to act civilly and to do more to protect Jewish students. If the schools had done so, Mr. Shenker said, his firm’s new policy wouldn’t be necessary.

But to Kenneth S. Stern, the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate who studies antisemitism, the policy’s failing is that it doesn’t separate unpopular opinions from hateful speech. Mr. Stern, who said he believes in the importance of Israel as a Jewish homeland, thinks rules like this one will exclude candidates who would be valuable to the law firm.

“I’m offended by some of the chants, but that’s it — I’m offended,” he said.

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