Eric Holder Says Columbia’s Campus Agitators Have 'Legitimate Concerns.' His Law Firm, Covington & Burling, Said Their Behavior ‘Would Not Be Tolerated.’

April 22, 2024

Former attorney general Eric Holder rallied behind Columbia University’s student protesters on Thursday as the New York Police Department swooped in and tried to clear the campus green of disruptive agitators.

Holder, a Columbia College and Columbia Law School graduate, said in a tweet on Thursday that campus "unrest" is fueled by "legitimate concerns about Gaza" and described congressional hearings about the explosion of campus anti-Semitism in the wake of Oct. 7 as "irresponsible-unproductive-witch hunt-political hearings."

Holder’s defense of the Columbia protesters, who were violating university policy and shouting anti-Semitic slogans including "Globalize the intifada" and "NYPD, KKK, IDF, you're all the same," does not square with his law firm Covington & Burling's decision late last year to sign a letter, along with dozens of white shoe firms, expressing zero-tolerance for the disruptive, anti-Semitic protests taking place on college and law school campuses across the country.

"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 stated.

Chants calling for "the death of Jews and the elimination of the state of Israel," Covington and other firms said, are "anti-Semitic activities" that "would not be tolerated at any of our firms."

A team of Covington lawyers led by partner Dana Remus also represented Columbia and helped prepare Columbia president Minouche Shafik for her appearance before a House panel last week, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Neither Holder nor a spokesman for Covington & Burling responded to a request for comment.

The White House, however, issued a statement on Sunday condemning the protests that have engulfed the Columbia campus. "While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly Antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous—they have absolutely no place on any college campus, or anywhere in the United States of America," deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said. "And echoing the rhetoric of terrorist organizations, especially in the wake of the worst massacre committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, is despicable. We condemn these statements in the strongest terms."

Holder spent several years at Covington before he became attorney general and rejoined the firm after his stint at the Justice Department. He now advises clients on a range of issues including "cultural and social responsibility," raking in as much as $2,295 an hour for conducting racial equity audits.

The former attorney general also weighed in last week on Israel’s war against Hamas. Appearing alongside former Obama secretary of defense and longtime Israel critic Chuck Hagel, Holder called Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "small man" and described Israel’s response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack as "extremely disturbing."

"I don't know exactly how the war should have been conducted, but I can say that the way it has been conducted is extremely disturbing to me, you know, and I think has caused an unnecessary loss of life and does not serve the interests of Israel in the long term," Holder said, adding that the U.S. should condition aid to Israel.

"It is time to have that conversation," he said.

Hagel, who served as secretary of defense from 2013 to 2015, is a longtime Israel critic whose hostility to the Jewish State has veered into anti-Semitism.

"The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," Hagel, then serving as a senator from Nebraska, told the former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller in 2006. (Nebraska had a Jewish population of 6,100 people at the time.) "I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator … I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that," he said.

Hagel is also said to have suggested during a 2007 speech that the State Department was an adjunct of the Israeli foreign minister’s office, according to a Washington Free Beacon report, and to have pressed, as CEO of the World USO, to shutter a popular USO port in Haifa. "He said to me, ‘Let the Jews pay for it’," Marsha Halteman, then the director for military and law enforcement programs at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), told the Free Beacon in 2013.

Those incidents did not appear to have had a negative impact on Holder’s view of his former Obama administration colleague. "It’s always good to see Chuck Hagel," Holder said last Monday. "This is a good man, this is a very good man, and we need more men like him in both parties in Washington, D.C. now."

Disclosure: The Washington Free Beacon is a Covington & Burling client. But the firm, which once represented the Free Beacon in matters of defamation and employment, no longer does so after Covington partner Lindsay Burke and Of Counsel Jason Criss cited a conflict of interest given their discomfort with the Free Beacon’s coverage of Holder’s practice.

Neither Burke nor Criss responded to a request for comment regarding whether they share Holder's view that the Columbia protesters have "legitimate concerns."

Jason Criss dons a Pod Save America shirt.