Biden Civil Rights Chief Calls Columbia Students 'Inspiration' in Graduation Speech, Ignores Anti-Semitism

Kristen Clarke makes no mention of anti-Israel demonstrations at university where protesters assaulted Jewish students and burned Israeli flags

Kristen Clarke (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
May 14, 2024

The Biden administration’s civil rights chief Kristen Clarke praised Columbia Law School’s graduating class as an "inspiration" on Monday—but made no mention of the surge of anti-Semitic demonstrations on the campus that have drawn international attention this spring.

"Being back here at Columbia Law School, to witness and experience your graduation, is an immense source of renewal and inspiration," said Clarke, who graduated from the school over two decades ago, in her keynote address. "I hope that you will use your law degree to make our nation a more just and equitable place."

Clarke, the head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, has so far resisted calls from Jewish leaders to investigate anti-Semitic protests at Columbia and other universities. Her address to the law school comes as members of Congress have questioned her ability to prosecute attacks against Jews at Columbia, given her history of associations with anti-Semitic activists.

Clarke’s speech also followed an announcement last week from over a dozen federal judges saying they would not hire new graduates of Columbia Law School due to the rise in bigotry at the university.

Columbia has been roiled by anti-Israel demonstrations that have at times turned violent. Anti-Israel protesters have called for killing supporters of the Jewish state, assaulted Jewish students, burned Israeli flags, and chanted at Jews to "go back to Poland."

Last week, the Columbia Law chapter of the National Lawyers Guild issued a statement declaring that "No Jew is safe until everyone is safe, and no Jew is free until Palestine is free."

Clarke made only one mention of anti-Semitism during her speech, as part of a list of examples of discrimination.

"Justice is working tirelessly to prosecute hate crimes, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia," said Clarke.

Instead of addressing the attacks on campus, Clarke joked about missing her bar exam due to oversleeping and spoke about her own record of fighting for civil rights.

"I encourage you to use your law degree as a tool to make our democracy stronger, our world more just, our systems more equitable. Be bold and creative, be visionary, courageous, and stay fueled and hydrated, because the work of promoting justice is a marathon not a sprint," she said.

Last month, Avi Gordon, the executive director of Alums for Campus Fairness, told the Washington Free Beacon that Clarke had a responsibility to address the anti-Semitism during her Columbia Law speech. Failing to do so would "tacitly endorse" the behavior, he said.

"We're hopeful that she'll be able to address [the campus discrimination] directly and not kind of gloss over it," said Gordon. "It would be a dereliction of duty to not address it."

Last week, a group of Republican House members wrote to Clarke that they were "deeply concerned that your history of association with known anti-Semites hinders your ability to impartially support an investigation into violations of Title VI at Columbia University," according to the New York Post.

The letter noted that Clarke, while attending Harvard University in the 1990s, invited an anti-Semitic speaker who wrote a book claiming there was a Jewish conspiracy to subjugate black people. Clarke also defended former Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory against criticism of Mallory’s relationship with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.