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Law Schools, Firms and Courts Condemn Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

By Natasha Bakirci, LLB, LLM | Last updated on

International news has been dominated for the last month or so by recent events in the Middle East and the heartbreaking death toll and damage to civilian life and infrastructure that has ensued. In response to the unfolding tragedy, protests and calls for action appear to have greatly polarized civic society in the U.S., Europe, and beyond.

Public debate has shed particular light on the limits of freedom of expression in democracies purportedly governed by human rights and the rule of law — and the paramount importance of ensuring peaceful coexistence away from the conflict. There should be room for differing views, perspectives, and narratives to be voiced, without others feeling genuinely threatened or ostracized as a result. This applies across the board — be it on campus, at the workplace, or on the streets in the throes of emotionally charged demonstrations.

They Think They Doth Protest Too Much

In early November 2023, a group of leading U.S. law firms sent a letter to the deans of America's top-ranking law schools, unequivocally asserting that "there is no room for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism or any other form of violence, hatred or bigotry on your campuses, in our workplaces or our communities." This letter was sent shortly after U.S. law firm, Davis Polk & Wardwell had revoked job offers they had made to law students who had signed public statements in support of Palestine, following the Hamas attacks of October 7. Another major U.S. firm, Winston & Strawn, had also rescinded a job offer previously extended to a law student at NYU as a result of comments she had made online holding Israel responsible for Hamas' attack.

Soon after, about a dozen Muslim legal groups, including the American Muslim Bar Association (AMBA) and the National Association of Muslim Lawyers sent a letter to around 100 major U.S. law firms in which they expressed the view that: “some firms' uneven treatment of this highly sensitive issue is sadly dehumanizing Palestinian, Arab and Muslim lives, creating a workplace that is less inclusive, less welcoming and more hostile" and contributing to “an environment of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment."

Against that background, on November 1, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent an open letter to over 650 U.S. college and university presidents, urging them to reject calls to "investigate, disband, or penalize pro-Palestinian student groups for exercising their free speech rights." This was in response to a call from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (Brandeis Center) sent to presidents of almost 200 U.S. colleges and universities exhorting them to urgently investigate their campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine for "potential violations of the prohibition against materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization".

No Time to Court Controversy

The divisive effect of recent events has even been noted in U.S. courtrooms. In early November 2023, U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky, a federal judge in Arkansas asked all law students wishing to clerk for him to categorically confirm whether they had personally or through any organizations with which they were associated, done anything to condone or celebrate the Hamas attack in Israel, engaged in either anti-semitism or Islamophobia, or advocated the targeting of civilians.

Finding Common Ground

It is facile to reduce this into an anti-semitism versus Islamophobia issue, particularly since the definition of those terms is itself obscure and debatable. Semite is first defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: "Originally: a member of any of the peoples mentioned in Genesis 10:21–31 as descended from Shem, one of the sons of Noah, traditionally interpreted as including the Hebrews, Aramaeans, Assyrians, and Arabs." It should not be overlooked that many Jewish protestors have been very vocal in demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, where the latest death toll is estimated at 11,320 people killed, including 4,650 children, as a result of Israel's actions following the Hamas attacks of October 7, in which 1200 people were killed and approximately 250 taken hostage. The organization Jewish Voice for Peace has been very active in what they define as a "grassroots, multiracial, cross-class, intergenerational movement of U.S. Jews in solidarity with Palestinian freedom struggle."

Racist incitement to violence in any of its abhorrent forms is unacceptable in any civilized society. It is incumbent on protestors and commentators to be cautious in their choice of words and expression. Likewise, education providers and potential employers should have the moral integrity to recognize the wide spectrum of grievances and prejudices that different sectors of society have been destined to suffer.

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