Big Law Firms Have Gone Back to Some Bad Habits | Opinion

In 1961, I was turned down for a summer job by every major big law firm in New York and Washington. The reason was that I was Jewish. Let there be no doubt about that historic fact. When I applied, I was first in my class at Yale Law School, editor-in-chief of the law Journal and a soon-to-be Supreme Court law clerk. But I got almost no interviews, and no job offers.

Nor was I the only big-firm job applicant subjected to anti-Semitic bigotry. Back in those days, law firms were operated on a pseudo-apartheid basis: there were firms that didn't hire Jewish lawyers; there were Jewish firms that hired both Jewish and non-Jewish lawyers; and mixed firms, which hired a few token Jewish applicants. Everyone was aware of this discriminatory system. I reported my experiences to the dean of Yale Law School who assured me it was not "personal." That it was "just the way it is."

And that is the way it was until the mid- and late-1960s when the civil rights movement caught up with most big firms. A few continued to discriminate, both in hiring and in job assignments, but most ended the barriers to Jewish associates and partners. Indeed, today many of these same law firms boast many Jewish partners and associates, as well as women, Black people, members of the LGBTQ community, and of other faiths and ethnic groups.

So, has the problem of antisemitism in big law been solved? No. The trend toward wokeness and political correctness has resulted in a new antisemitic problem, and it's one I'm dealing with.

Berkeley's Golden Bear
Berkeley's mascot is the Golden Bear. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Many of these same law firms now sponsor and support law school clubs that practice this latest brand of antisemitism, anti-Zionism. At the University of California Law School at Berkeley, nine of these clubs have now enacted constitutional amendments forbidding anyone who is a "Zionist" from speaking at the clubs about any subject—taxes, abortion, gun control, or anything else. The ban extends to all Zionists—that is all speakers who openly believe that Israel has the right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people. That's 90 percent of Jews at Berkeley, according to the law school's dean.

It applies to Zionists like me, who have long supported a two-state solution and have been critical of some of Israel's policies, especially on the West Bank. To speak at any of these clubs requires, in effect, a complete disavowal of Israel, similar to the disavowal of communism required by McCarthyism of the 1950s. I could not take such an oath or pass such a test since I am a proud, if critical, Zionist. And it applies only to Zionists, not to speakers who support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese detention of Uyghurs, the Iranian policy of killing gays and other clear human rights violations.

It would be as if these clubs prohibited any speaker who believes in Black Lives Matter or believes that the Palestinians have the right to a peaceful state. Of course, none of these clubs would, in practice, impose such a ban, but they have imposed a total ban on speakers who believe in Zionism.

This antisemitism has spread beyond clubs that have anything to do with the Middle East. They include Berkeley's women's, gay, South-East Asian and other groups that rarely have speakers who discuss the region at all. The ban is not a subject matter ban: it is ad hominem ban against all speakers who refuse to single out the nation state of the Jewish people for special discrimination.

Members of these clubs include decent people who are just going along with the bigotry of the times, the same as the law firms that discriminated against me when I was a student. But the votes amending their constitutions to exclude all Zionists show that these clubs are dominated by bigots (some of whom are Jewish). A few members and officers of these clubs have resigned in protest, but many others have not.

The following question—and it is a controversial one—is raised by this new bigotry: should the names of those officers and members who advocated, supported and voted for this new brand of antisemitism be exposed for all to see, so that future clients, decent law firms, and judges who might hire them can be aware of their complicity in this hate? Surely the law firms who continue to finance clubs that practice antisemitism should be named—and some have. But what about the members? Should there be a "brown list" of student bigots? Or is that fighting McCarthyite censorship with McCarthyite exposure?

I don't have a clear answer, but I do know the current situation—big law firm support of antisemitism by law student clubs is unacceptable.

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The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.