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Law firms accused of fueling Islamophobia and chilling free speech

Palestinian flags fly over a rally held by American Muslims for Palestine.

New York (CNN) — A coalition of Muslim bar associations is accusing leading law firms of contributing to Islamophobia and a climate of fear in the legal community.

In a letter to more than 100 of America’s top law firms, 13 national and regional bar associations called for the law firms to address Islamophobia and anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian hate.

“Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and other legal professionals, including many attorneys of color and Jewish attorneys, are terrified to openly express sympathy for the plight of Palestinians for fear of retribution,” the letter said. “Many legal professionals of Palestinian or Arab heritage, or who identify as Muslim are even afraid to reveal their heritage or religious affiliation to their colleagues.”

The members of the Muslim bar associations said they were “dismayed” that there was only a “brief reference” to Islamophobia in the recent letter that leading law firms sent warning elite universities to crack down on antisemitism on campus or else the schools and their students would face consequences. That November 1 letter said there is “no room for antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism or any other form of violence, hatred or bigotry on your campuses, in our workplaces or our communities.”

The firms said they were concerned about: reports of antisemitism on campuses, “including rallies calling for the death of Jews and the elimination of the State of Israel.”

The competing letters from law firms and Muslim bar associations underscores the complex situation facing employers as tensions and emotions remain high following last month’s Hamas terror attack on Israel and as the Hamas-Israel war continues.

The new letter, sent Monday, went out to leading law firms including Davis Polk; Dechert; Kirkland & Ellis; Paul, Weiss; and Sullivan & Cromwell. Dechert declined CNN’s request for a comment.

It notes that while some law firms issued statements of support for Israel after the October 7th attacks, in the weeks since some firms “refused to even acknowledge the killing of thousands of innocent Palestinians” even though employees have loved ones killed in Gaza.

The letter, signed by the American Muslim Bar Association, the National Association of Muslim Lawyers and other groups, added that some law firms raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Israel but did not raise money for humanitarian assistance for innocent Palestinians.

The Muslim bar associations took issue with the November 1 letter to law school deans focusing primarily on antisemitism, arguing that contributes to an “environment of chilling speech advocating for Palestinian human rights.”

“Taken together, the message being sent is that Israeli and Jewish lives matter,” the letter said, “but Palestinian, Arab and Muslim lives do not.”

The Muslim bar associations called for law firms to take a series of steps, including issuing a new letter to law school deans addressing Islamophobia, acknowledging the “equal humanity” of Palestinians and Israelis, “equally condemn the killing of all civilians,” launch educational programs on Islamophobia and engage in pro bono opportunities aimed at fighting Islamophobia.

The November 1 letter was spearheaded by Joe Shenker, senior chair of Sullivan & Cromwell.

A representative for the New York-based law firm did not respond to a request for comment.

“Everyone at our law firms is entitled to be treated with respect and be free of any conduct that targets their identity and is offensive, hostile, intimidating or inconsistent with their personal dignity and rights,” the letter said.

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