Sullivan & Cromwell will scan new hires for anti-Israel protest actions

For months, some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the U.S. have been battling with students as the war between Israel and Hamas has raged on. In the midst of campus protests, schools like Harvard, Columbia, and NYU have tried—and often failed—to uphold longstanding free speech traditions on one hand, while condemning antisemitism on the other. 

Now, one of the country’s preeminent corporate law firms is stepping into the fray, declaring that colleges have failed to protect Jewish students from hateful and antisemitic rhetoric. 

Sullivan & Cromwell, whose recent clients include Amazon, BP, and Goldman Sachs, has employed background check company HireRight to root out job applicants who have participated in recent anti-Israel demonstrations on campuses, according to a recent report from the New York Times

Under the new policy, applicants who have taken part in antisemitic protests, or in demonstrations in which phrases that might be “triggering” to Jews have been uttered, could potentially be disqualified, according to Joseph Shenker, a senior chair at the firm. 

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

According to the Times, the policy could disqualify applicants from the hiring process even if they didn’t participate in controversial chants or rally cries. Simply being present at a protest could warrant scrutiny, and an applicant found to have been at a protest may have to explain to the firm whether they did anything to moderate the behavior of those around them, according to the Times

Gadeir Abbas, an attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Fortune that the new policy was “objectionable.”

“What Sullivan & Cromwell is doing is they’re creating the foundations for future blacklists that will say more about Sullivan & Cromwell than it will about the kids and students that they’re targeting,” he said. 

Abbas also said the policy may constitute a violation of Title VII, a provision of civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and nationality. 

Private employees have fewer free speech protections than those at public institutions. Firms like Sullivan & Cromwell can make hiring decisions based on the publicly expressed beliefs of applicants, provided they don’t specifically discriminate against protected categories like race or religion. 

But because of the breadth of the new policy Sullivan & Cromwell is pursuing, Abbas said it may constitute illegal discrimination against Muslims and Palestinians. 

“Law students and people that may apply to Sullivan & Cromwell, some of them are going to be Palestinian, some of them are going to be Arab or Muslim,” he told Fortune. “And because we’re talking about a genocide, there’s something racial about that kind of crime. It’s just the case that the opposition to the destruction of Palestinians arises inexorably from a person’s ancestry. If you’re Palestinian, you’re going to be opposed to it.” 

A UN human rights expert has called Israel’s protracted assault on Gaza genocide, but the Biden Administration has not

But Shenker told the Times that the policy wasn’t inherently condemning protests against Israel in general, or scrutinizing privately held beliefs. Rather, the background checks were merely an extension of the firm’s existing position on hate speech. He also said that the screenings wouldn’t have been necessary if schools had done more from the outset to protect Jewish students and clamp down on anti-semitic demonstrations. 

Dylan Saba, an attorney at Palestine Legal, told Fortune that the level of scrutiny the policy would subject applicants to was so “draconian,” that he didn’t see how the firm would be able to enforce it without running afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. 

“My charitable assessment is that this is mostly for PR,” Saba said. “They want to signal to some group of people that they’re really out in front of stamping out criticism of Israel and pro-Palestine views.”

Sullivan & Cromwell did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment. 

For many law firms, the thorny issue of student protesters has been a concern almost since theOct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. Shenker wrote an open letter to law school deans pressuring them to rein in the more extreme demonstrations that had begun popping up on campuses. The letter was signed by around 200 other firms. 

While S&C is the first firm to come out with a formal policy towards the protesters, it isn’t the first to factor the demonstrations into their hiring practices. Last year, Davis Polk rescinded offers to three students believed to have led demonstrations blaming Israel for the Oct. 7 attack, and Winston & Strawn pulled an offer to a student who expressed a similar sentiment in a school newsletter. 

The Times also reported that several of S&C’s competitors are privately mulling similar policies. 

“You expect law firms to understand that if we’re going to have a profession filled with smart, independent-minded people who are fierce advocates, many of them are going to speak out against the genocide,” Abbas said. “If you disagree with them, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t exclude them from the profession, as Sullivan & Cromwell seemingly is trying to do.”

Public outrage against Israel’s conduct in the assault in Gaza, which reached an inflection point this spring with mass arrests on campuses across the country, has now spread to Corporate America. Since early June, a crowd of protesters have gathered outside Citigroup’s headquarters in New York City over the financial institution’s ties to Israel. 

In a recent survey of more than 600 pro-Palestine student activists, nearly 30% of respondents indicated that they had a job offer rescinded in the last six months, according to the education news outlet Intelligent. Some 70% reported that interviewers asked them about their involvement in demonstrations. 

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration would begin shipping 500-pound bombs to Israel, partially lifting a two-month hold on shipments due to concerns the weapons would be used to bomb Rafah.