A Wall Street law firm wants to define the consequences of anti-Israel protests

As college students across the United States protested the war in Gaza, they drew the wrath of some of the most powerful figures in the financial world — investors, lawyers and bankers — who wielded their financial power over universities, toppling school leaders in the process.

That didn’t stop students. Protests intensified this year until campuses emptied out for the summer.

Now, a prominent Wall Street law firm is taking a more direct approach to 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 or off campus — could be a disqualifying factor.

The firm is examining students’ behavior with the help of a background-checking firm, noting their involvement with pro-Palestinian student groups, scouring social media and reviewing news reports and footage of protests. It is looking for overt instances of anti-Semitism, as well as statements and slogans that it considered “triggers” for Jews, said Joseph C. Shenker, a leader at Sullivan & Cromwell.

Candidates could face scrutiny even if they were not using problematic language but were involved in a protest where others did. Protesters should be held accountable for the behavior of those around them, Mr. Shenker said, or else they were adopting a “mob mentality.” Sullivan & Cromwell did not say whether it had ever ruled out candidates over politics.

“People are turning their outrage about what is happening in Gaza into racist anti-Semitism,” Mr. Shenker said.

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

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

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

“When we went through recruiting for big law firms, we knew that your social media had to be clean, that you had to have nothing that you couldn’t defend, that you had to be a respectable person to get a job at any of these places,” said Rawda Fawaz, a staff attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “That’s always been the practice. Why do you need to have a special policy about that?”

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

“Her political activism is part of her 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 candidates for their privately expressed opinions, seeking to exclude anyone who criticized Israel or condemned the general act of protest, 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 standards of workforce decency,” said Neil Barr, chairman of Davis Polk, a global firm that employs more than 1,000 lawyers. Davis Polk rescinded job offers over student involvement with groups that had released statements blaming Israel for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Sullivan & Cromwell’s screening will occur after students apply for a job or schedule an interview at top law schools, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and New York University. The firm has hired a background-checking firm, HireRight, to scour social media and recordings of public appearances for statements or actions about the conflict. Applicants will also be asked to list the student groups they are a part of.

Participation in a protest or involvement in a group that Sullivan & Cromwell considers objectionable will lead to questioning. Candidates will be asked to explain their role, including what they did to prevent other protesters from making offensive or harassing statements.

The policy shows how companies are trying to influence the behavior of people they cannot hope to directly control for a few more years, said Roderick A. Ferguson, a Yale professor of American studies who has researched university responses to student movements. Disqualifying people based on what someone else close to them may have done seems to characterize all the protesters as having a single mindset, he said.

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

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

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

Mr. Shenker is not 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 October 7 attack.

He has used his professional status to play a prominent role in trying to address anti-Semitism and define acceptable speech in law schools.

Shenker, 67, served as chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell — its top job — from 2010 to 2022. He has helped clients including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi investor; billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman; and Frank McCourt, who has said he is interested in buying TikTok, buy and sell everything from buildings to sports teams.
He has also helped clients survive divorces and resolve inheritance disputes.

Shortly after Oct. 7, he wrote a letter, signed by about 200 other companies, asking law school deans to urge campus protesters to act civilly and do more to protect Jewish students. If the schools had done so, Mr. Shenker said, his company’s new policy would not have been necessary.

But for Kenneth S. Stern, the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, who studies anti-Semitism, the flaw in the policy is that it does not separate unpopular opinions from hate speech. Mr. Stern, who said he believes in the importance of Israel as a Jewish homeland, said rules like these would exclude candidates who would be valuable to the law firm.

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