Graduates fear that pro-Palestinian activism could deter employers

When University of Chicago senior Rayna Acha learned about the lawsuit filed by a Lebanese-American lawyer alleging that a job offer from a national law firm was rescinded because of her pro-Palestinian views on Gaza, the retraction confirmed a of her greatest fears.

“The reality is that we may not get jobs because of (our activism),” said Acha, an undergraduate anthropology student at the U. of C. and an organizer with Students for Justice in Palestine.

Acha has more than one reason to worry. She is one of four U. of C. students whose degrees were withheld because of their involvement with the university’s pro-Palestinian camp, which called on the institution to cut its financial ties with Israel.

A spokesperson for U. of C. said the school could not comment on individual student disciplinary matters, but said the process is standard practice after a formal complaint is reviewed by the university’s disciplinary committee. Meanwhile, hundreds of students and teachers walked out over the weekend U. of C.’s summons about the university’s actions.

“All four of us don’t have a job yet,” Acha said. “I’m in this situation now where I have to find a job to make a living, but I also have to keep fighting for the things I have to fight for.”

The fear of long-term professional consequences is a concern for pro-Palestinian students protesting, although several of them, including Acha, plan to enter professions well served by activism, such as community organizing, non- profit work, academia or politics.

“We have some universities, like U. of C., that are promising that they are going to protect student speech and the presidents (of these universities) have recently said that they do that more than their policies actually do, but they do at least.” I’m saying it,” said Kimberly Yuracko, the Judd and Mary Morris Leighton Professor of Law at Northwestern University who specializes in anti-discrimination and employment law. “But I have never heard of a single private sector employer who has said it will contractually protect speech under the First Amendment. Maybe there is one out there, but I haven’t seen it.”

Jinan Chehade, the lawyer who filed a complaint in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, said the law firm Foley & Lardner discriminated against her because of her Arab Muslim background and political statements she made on social media and at public meetings about Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and the resulting crisis in Palestine.

“It was devastating when they turned on me and vilified me in this way, when I really respected their supposed commitment to diversity,” Chehade told the Tribune on Thursday.

Yuracko said that because employers like Foley & Lardner can withdraw job offers for any reason, cases like Chehade’s do not fall under breach of contract.

University of Chicago students gather after leaving the university's convocation ceremony in support of Palestine on June 1, 2024 in Chicago.  (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)
University of Chicago students gather after leaving the university’s convocation ceremony in support of the Palestinians on June 1, 2024 in Chicago. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)

According to the complaint, Chehade, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, was interning at Foley & Lardner in July 2022 when they offered her a full-time position to start in the fall of 2023. Then, 13 hours before she was scheduled to start work, she was fired, according to the complaint.

The Sunday before her first scheduled day of work, Foley & Lardner managers asked her to come to the office where she said they interrogated her “in a very hostile manner” for two hours, the lawsuit said.

As soon as we all sat down, they took out a packet of about 15 to 20 pages with screenshots of my social media posts, about speeches I have given, about my background, my identity,” Chehade told the Tribune. “When I really started to feel the fear and panic was when they asked me about my father, and where he worked – and obviously as a child of immigrants, a big law firm asking you about your father… the alarm bells started going off ringing in my head.”

Chehade’s father is communications director for the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview.

The complaint also alleges that several of Foley & Lardner’s partners openly and publicly supported Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians in Gaza without facing any consequences.

In an emailed statement, a representative for Foley & Lardner said they believed Chehade’s complaint was “unfounded.”

“We stand by our decision to withdraw Ms. Chehade’s employment offer as a result of the statements she made regarding Hamas’ horrific attacks on October 7,” a company representative said.

Chehade’s claim is actionable, Yuracko said, because she claims she is being discriminated against based on race or national origin, not just her political views.

Yuracko said that if a company won’t hire someone because of opposing views, “perspective discrimination by a private employer is fine.” “But what is legally problematic is if they treat people who are, say, participating in protests, who are race A, differently than people who are protesting and are race B,” she said.

Pro-Palestinian protesters link arms during a rally after University of Chicago students left the university's convocation ceremony in support of Palestine on June 1, 2024 in Chicago.  (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)
Pro-Palestinian protesters link arms during a rally after University of Chicago students left the university’s convocation ceremony in support of Palestinians on June 1, 2024 in Chicago. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)

Acha, who is black and was a vocal organizer of the Gaza protest camp at U. of C., said she has noticed different treatment of people who are pro-Palestinian and people who are not.

“For example, there were certain students who so actively harassed us during the camp and who have now graduated,” she said.

Jeffrey Sun, a literature major at the U. of C. who will graduate this summer, said he plans to find a job that aligns with his values ​​and his social work, which includes continuing to raise awareness about Palestine. He said the current climate could put pressure on private sector employers, who are likely to face applicants and clients who are clear and confident about the issues they support.

“So many of us are pro-Palestine – my friends and I once went on a college-sponsored trip to LA and there was a restaurant with Israeli flags, and I remember we all agreed not to eat there , got up and left. ,” said Zon. “I think we’re making it very uncomfortable for private companies, and companies are becoming more aware that we don’t view our work as separate from our lives.”

But not everyone has the same kind of privilege to choose his or her job prospects, he said.

Acha, who comes from a lower-income background, said she is considering cleaning up her social media platforms while looking for work, even though her accounts are private.

Yuracko said more student activists should consider doing the same. She said employers generally want to hire people who will get along and fit into their company culture, rather than be agents of change.

Acha and the three other students whose degrees were postponed still participated in the graduation and hope to receive their degrees after a resolution in the disciplinary process. But if the Permanent Disciplinary Commission on Disruptive Conduct finds that certain policies have been violated, they could be denied degrees, despite four years of coursework and staggering tuition.

“I want to be hopeful about what the next chapter looks like outside of college,” Acha said. “But it’s scary not to know what’s next and not to have my future sorted out because I choose to fight for what’s right and I choose to fight for humanity.”

Caroline Kubzansky of the Chicago Tribune contributed.