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UK law firms’ deafening silence on campus anti-Semitism

Protestors hold banners as they march against anti-Semitism on November 26, 2023
Protesters hold up banners at an anti-Semitism march in London - Alishia Abodunde/Getty Images

Ross Stevens, the founder and chief executive of New York-based fund manager Stone Ridge, was once a frequent donor to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

His millions proved crucial in the creation of a fintech hub at the college business school, which provided students with key data analytics to aid their education.

However, in a significant withdrawal of support, Stevens recently scrapped a $100m (£79.5m) donation over claims the Ivy League university has failed to tackle anti-Semitism.

The move comes as the university’s president, Elizabeth Magill, faces calls to resign after refusing to say whether calls for the “genocide of Jews” breach school rules.

Her comments echoed those made by Harvard University president Claudine Gay earlier this month, who told a congressional hearing that the school’s commitment to free expression covered “views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful”.

Unsurprisingly, the comments caused anger among those who have been calling for Jewish students to receive greater protection after Hamas’ terror attacks on October 7.

Among those urging for more to be done has been one graduate employer in particular: law firms.

Calls for campus crackdown

Hundreds of US firms last month signed a letter asking college deans to crack down on the rise of hate speech and harassment on campuses.

The letter said: “As employers who recruit from each of your law schools, we look to you to ensure your students who hope to join our firms after graduation are prepared to be an active part of workplace communities that have zero tolerance policies for any form of discrimination or harassment, much less the kind that has been taking place on some law school campuses.”

The letter was signed by scores of so-called white shoe law firms, the country’s most prestigious outfits known for their clients and high profits.

Among them was Davis Polk & Wardwell, one of the world’s largest law firms, which in October revoked job offers to three Columbia and Harvard students who allegedly signed letters criticising Israel’s role in the war.

However, when asked by The Telegraph, many of these same US firms remained silent on how their London offices have responded to the rise of anti-Semitism at UK universities.

Although the US letter has since been forwarded to some British universities, UK law firms have failed to publicly raise similar concerns about the safety and treatment of Jewish undergraduates in this country.

Rise in anti-Semetic incidents

It comes despite reports from Community Security Trust, a charity that protects Jewish people, that 140 university-related anti-Semitic incidents have taken place in the UK since October 7.

This is more than double the 56 incidents recorded across the entirety of 2022.

Earlier this week, students at the Cardiff University Jewish Society said: “We now fear for our security on campus and we feel unsafe walking between lectures.”

Protesters against anti-Semitism attend a march in London
Protesters against anti-Semitism attend a march in London - Guy Bell / Alamy Live News

There are exceptions. City law firm Mishcon de Reya last week accused Queen Mary, University of London, of paying “lip service” over anti-Semitism on campus after Jewish students were reportedly subject to Hitler jokes.

The university responded: “We continue to ask everyone within our diverse and inclusive Queen Mary community to come together to support each other, with compassion, understanding and empathy for others’ pain.”

One explanation for the difference in law firm reaction is the size of the Jewish population in each country.

There are about 271,000 Jewish people in England and Wales, according to the UK’s 2021 census.

By contrast, the Jewish population in the US topped eight million people in 2020, which in turn has meant greater representation in the legal profession.

“You might think that there’s a lot of us because we have a number of people that have managed to get to senior roles in firms and as barristers, but the numbers [in a UK firm] are different compared to a New York firm,” says one London-based lawyer, who is Jewish.

‘They’re worried about safety’

A lack of representation has fuelled fears among UK law firms that vocal support of Israel could put employees in jeopardy, according to Dana Denis-Smith, founder of Obelisk Support, which supplies flexible legal services.

“[Law firms] feel that they are being protective in not being too loud about the issue,” she says. “They’re not sure what’s the right response but they’re worried about safety.”

Another possible explanation for the muted response is the weaker link between law firms and universities in the UK, some experts say.

“It’s different here. Law is an undergraduate subject whereas law schools in the States are graduate schools,” says Professor Graham Zellick, chairman of the UK Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.

“Many law graduates in the UK do not enter and have no intention of entering the legal profession, and half of lawyers here haven’t done law at university.”

US law schools are instead regarded as the gatekeepers to white shoe firms and trusted with producing a pipeline of new recruits, resulting in a more transactional relationship with US law firms.

Others have argued UK law firms are cautious about saying anything that could upset international clients, including those from countries hostile to Israel.

Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UK Lawyers for Israel, says: “They would be concerned about the risk of appearing to support one side or the other – especially if it is unnecessary because other organisations are dealing effectively with the issues.”

‘Isolated and unsupported’

It comes as companies that were quick to issue statements on the Black Lives Matter movement and the Ukraine war rethink their commitments to ethical and green goals, including whether they should be as vocal on political issues as before.

“Some workplaces are wondering whether that’s the correct thing that a workplace should do,” says Denis-Smith. “You’re a corporate entity, not an individual.”

Dentons, the world’s largest firm by headcount, came under such pressure when it deleted and replaced its response to the Israel-Hamas war after an initial statement was criticised for not recognising Palestine deaths, as first reported by

However, the reluctance of UK law firms to intervene on campuses in fear of getting it wrong is being noticed.

As one Jewish City lawyer says: “The problem with not saying anything is that those people internally who are affected by it, they will be feeling isolated and unsupported by their organisation.”