Arsen Ostrovsky is a leading human rights attorney and CEO of The International Legal Forum (ILF). His digital media reaches millions of users, making him truly heard around the world, both on-line and in person. In 2018, Ostrovsky was awarded the Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion prize for his ‘Israel Advocacy’ and last December, The Algemeiner called him one of the Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him recently.
inFOCUS Quarterly: Tell us about the International Legal Forum.
Arsen Ostrovsky: ILF has been at the forefront of some of the most significant legal battles against antisemitism, BDS, and terrorism during the past year, including initiating successful legal proceedings against Unilever over the Ben & Jerry’s boycott, taking on Amnesty International over “apartheid” allegations and proudly standing up for the Jewish nation against relentless lawfare attacks before the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.
In a landmark case, ILF is now taking on University of California-Berkeley, following its unprecedented attempt last summer to exclude Jewish and Zionist students from campus activities, and more recently, was instrumental in stopping the flow of funds to an American charity that had been funneling money to a PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine)-affiliate terrorist group.
Underpinning ILF’s mission, is the belief that the law can, and must, be utilized as a powerful tool, in order to change the paradigm from defense and reaction to pro-active work in the fight against antisemitism, terrorism and the delegitimization campaign against the State of Israel.
iF: How much trouble are Jews in?
Ostrovsky: Sadly, I see many gathering dark clouds on the horizon for Jews in the United States, where antisemitism and violence is at record highs, and where some neighborhoods are virtually becoming no-go zones for Jews, something unfathomable barely a decade ago.
Today’s antisemitism is vicious, relentless and multifaceted. We see it playing out on the streets of America, in classrooms and boardrooms, in communications media and civil society, by celebrities and on-line, in the cultural arena, courtrooms and beyond.
Whereas previously, it may have been unfashionable to target Jews or be openly antisemitic, today we see violence against Jews skyrocketing, neo-Nazism and Holocaust distortion surging, and antisemitic tropes spreading like wildfire.
Antisemitism is like a virus, that continues to morph and mutate through generations.
Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (of blessed memory) observed:
In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were hated because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation state, the state of Israel. It takes different forms, but it remains the same thing: the view that Jews have no right to exist as free and equal human beings.
Against Nation and People
Ostrovsky: In other words, today’s modern manifestation of antisemitism is directed not only against Jews as individuals, but against Israel as the Jewish nation and collective embodiment of the Jewish people.
We see this increasingly expressed through the BDS Movement, which seeks to paint Israel as a pariah state, ostracize it from the world and ultimately dismantle it.
We see it in the way human rights discourse is turned around and weaponized against Jews and as a means to vilify the State of Israel, for example through antisemitic blood libels, by organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, which charge Israel with the grave crime of apartheid.
We see it on campuses across America, which have become ground zero in the fight against antisemitism and where Jewish students are being attacked, harassed, intimidated, marginalized and excluded, often even forced to conceal or deny core elements of their very Jewish identity.
We see it from the halls of Congress, where elected officials are engaging in antisemitic tropes, highly divisive rhetoric and incitement.
And we see it in a relentless campaign waged against Zionism, the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and liberation in their ancestral homeland. These antisemites masquerade behind a façade of anti-Zionism or vilification of Israel, but underneath it, is sheer, unadulterated Jew hatred to the core.
Ostrovsky: This antisemitism today comes from all directions: the progressive far left, the resurgent far right, and the Islamists. Although these groups come from widely disparate political beliefs, the one unifying factor is a deep-seated hatred of Jews, and by extension, of the Jewish state, Israel.
Then pouring fuel on this antisemitic fire today, we have the phenomena of social media, which has contributed to creating an environment in which we see antisemitism on steroids, with Jew-hatred, incitement, Holocaust distortion and conspiracy theories spreading on-line unabated.
We need to recognize also that violence against Jews does not occur in a vacuum. It is a direct result of a pervasive discourse, demonizing Jews and vilifying the sole collective Jewish state, all under the guise of purported criticism of Zionism and Israel. As we have seen throughout history, and indeed today, words have consequences, and such hate, incitement and peddling in antisemitic tropes directly contributes to a climate of fear, harassment and violence against the Jewish community.
Yet, at the same time, notwithstanding the grave challenges before us, I refuse to give up hope.
Jews are Not Mere Victims
Today, Jews are also not mere victims. We have legal tools at our disposal, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which our organization has invoked against UC Berkeley, over its exclusion of Zionist students, and anti-BDS laws throughout the United States.
We have a widely endorsed and adopted definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which serves as an indispensable tool in identifying antisemitism when it occurs and allows us to educate and take action.
We see also many civil society groups and thought leaders speaking out against antisemitism, and despite a small number of vocal antisemites in Congress, the overwhelming bipartisan majority remains outspoken in the fight against Jew-hatred. I am also immensely uplifted and inspired by the incredibly courageous students on campus, who taking on the antisemites head-on.
Antisemitism might be the oldest and most enduring of hatreds, but we must never give up hope in the fight against this great evil and continue to hold our heads high, as proud Jews and Zionists.
iF: Is the International Criminal Court (ICC) the most serious threat Israel faces in the international arena?
Ostrovsky: Having understood long ago that they could not defeat Israel militarily, the Palestinians, aided and abetted by elements in the anti-Israel civil society, embarked upon a different strategy, “lawfare” – that is, weaponizing and politicizing international law and its institutions for the purposes of attacking, vilifying, and delegitimizing the Jewish state in the international arena.
One of the most egregious examples of this campaign was the Palestinian case against Israel before the International Criminal Court, which has the power to investigate and try individuals accused of the most heinous of crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, especially when the countries of origin do not have independent judiciaries able to do in a bona fide manner.
In making the absurd finding in 2021 that the Palestinians are a state with standing before the ICC, the Court opened an investigation over purported war crimes committed by Israelis.
This move also underscored the legitimacy of concerns by Israel and the United States, which refused to sign on to the Rome Statute authorizing the ICC, primarily because both countries already had fully functioning judicial systems capable of honest and independent investigations, and out of fears that the court would become politicized – a concern that this case only underscored.
Court of Injustice
Ostrovsky: Today, on top of the ongoing ICC investigation, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will also come into the fray, following a UN resolution requesting an Advisory Opinion by the Court on the purported illegality of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria (“West Bank”).
Although such advisory opinions are non-binding, they carry considerable moral weight and are regarded highly as a reference point by the legal community, as well as civil society and the UN.
On the ICJ case, we need to make clear that not only is the opinion sought against Israel baseless, completely one-sided and entirely without merit, but that it is solely an instrument of Palestinian lawfare, for the purposes of delegitimizing and undermining the legal rights of the Jewish state, and ought to be dismissed outright.
The US has a number of tools at its disposal. In addition to making any potential legal submissions, the US should consider revoking any budgetary allocations with respect to these cases, implement visa restrictions on the prosecutors and senior officials, and threaten punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority in the event they continue to pursue these cases, as part of their ongoing lawfare campaign against Israel.
The United Nations
iF: The same set of issues arise at the United Nations. Is this a losing battle? The numbers certainly suggest Israel cannot “win.”
Ostrovsky: There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and that the Jewish state will always be found guilty before the United Nations.
The UN, which was founded in the wake of the Holocaust to prevent war and genocide, has today become the world’s foremost body for disseminating Jew hatred and antisemitism.
Take for example the UN Human Rights Council, which has a visceral and pathological obsession with Israel, having condemned the Jewish state almost more times than the rest of the world combined, and which allocated a spot on its permanent agenda solely to condemn Israel, the sole country-specific item, whereas human rights issues in the entire rest of the world are shoved into one solitary agenda item.
In the last few years alone, the Council has counted China, Russa, Venezuela, Cuba and Qatar amongst its members. This is inexcusable, unconscionable and intolerable.
Instead of holding to account the world’s most egregious human rights abusers, the Council continues its relentless obsession with Israel. The Council has never condemned Hamas or passed a resolution condemning the Palestinian Authority over its repulsive “Pay-to-Slay” policy of paying terrorists and murderers of Israelis.
UN Commission of Inquiry
Ostrovsky: Israel of course is not above the law, but the undeniable fact is that the Jewish state has been systematically denied equality before the UN Human Rights Council, which has displayed systematic, disproportionate, and visceral bias against it.
But just when you thought the UN could not stoop any lower in its relentless obsession with Israel, last year it established an unprecedented “Commission of Inquiry” to investigate the Jewish state in perpetuity, having already since issued two reports condemning Israel for just about every crime imaginable.
Created purportedly in the wake of the 2021 conflict between Hamas and Israel, to investigate supposed “underlying root causes” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the resolution establishing the commission did not even mention Hamas, a US-designated terror group sworn to Israel’s destruction, which fired almost 4,500 rockets at Israeli civilians during the 2021 war.
From the very beginning, it was evident that this was no more than a kangaroo court, in which the Jewish state’s guilt was already predetermined before the ink on the resolution establishing the commission was dry.
In fact, Israel never stood a chance of getting a fair hearing, given the decision to appoint Navi Pillay as chair, with Miloon Kothari and Chris Sidoti as commissioners. All have denounced Israel in the most vicious terms.
This kind of blind bias is a direct and flagrant violation of the UN’s very own Rules and Guidelines on Commissions of Inquiry and Fact-Finding Missions, which state that “Members should, in all cases, have a proven record of independence and impartiality.”
In any democratic court of law, a judge exhibiting such blatant lack of impartiality would never have been appointed in the first place. But at the UN, you get promoted and rewarded for exhibiting antisemitism and hostility toward Israel.
Truth of the matter is, this is not a commission, but a fixed inquisition, representing a singularly unprecedented assault against the Jewish state.
Can the UN Be Fixed?
Ostrovsky: Although the United States and dozens of liberal democratic nations have condemned the one-sided and biased nature of this commission, and in particular the abhorrent antisemitic remarks of Kothari, condemnations, while important, are not sufficient.
Congress must lead efforts to immediately and permanently disband this sham of a commission. In the meantime, there are options to legislate that no US funding goes toward the commission of inquiry. The commission members should also be denied visa entry into the United States, where they continue to lobby for support and to advance their racist objectives.
Today, there is no international body more rooted in unhinged antisemitism, Jew-hatred and hostility towards Israel than the UN Human Rights Council.
One need also look here at Francesca Albanese, the “UN Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories.” This is someone who has engaged in Holocaust distortion with Nazi analogies against Israel, invoked gross antisemitic tropes, like control by “the Jewish lobby,” and has expressed support for the BDS movement.
Because of the nature of her position and the make-up of the UN Human Rights Council, Albanese essentially has tenure and is immune from removal from her post.
Is it Time to Leave?
iF: Is it time for the US to leave the UN?
Ostrovsky: There have been a number of principled calls from Congress urging that Albanese be removed from her post, including a recent bipartisan letter led by Democrat Brad Schneider of Illinois and Representative Ann Wagner of Missouri, a Republican. However well-intentioned, these efforts are likely to fall on deaf ears. Seemingly the only pre-requisite for such position at the Human Rights Council is hostility and bias against Israel.
In re-entering the UNHRC, the Biden administration admirably sought to reform the body from within. Two years later however, the council has counted gross human rights abusers like China, Cuba, Qatar, and Venezuela among its members.
One needs to ask, therefore, is it time to discard the notion that the US (or anyone) can influence the council for the better, and withdraw from this irredeemably antisemitic, anti-democratic body of hate, which has become rotten to the core, defined by its unrelenting obsession with Israel and defense of the world’s worst tyrants, dictators and murderers.
It is unfathomable that US taxpayers continue to be the primary funders of this sham of a council.
What is needed urgently is the creation of a new body, one that will be made up of democracies and free societies, its mission focused unwaveringly on standing up for the victims of human rights abuse, not their abusers.
The Middle East Paradigm
iF: Is there positive space out there for Israel?
Ostrovsky: Amidst a sea of challenges across the Middle East, the one beacon of light and hope in the last three years, has been the Abraham Accords, which have been nothing short of a tectonic geo-political realignment of the Middle East.
In 2016, former Secretary of State John Kerry now infamously said that “there will be no advance and separate peace between Israel and the Arab world, without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace … no, no, no and no.”
The Abraham Accords proved his theory and decades of prevailing thought on the Middle East “peace process,” spectacularly wrong. After the Abraham Accords, what was once a broad Arab-Israeli conflict, is no longer; now reduced almost exclusively to a Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In 1973, legendary Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously quipped: “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Today, whereas the Palestinian leadership is continuing to squander every opportunity before them, Arab states, courageously led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, now also Morocco and Sudan, are leading the way by grasping them.
Today, Israel is embraced more than ever by the Arab and Gulf world, while peace prospects between Israel and the Palestinians have never been further away, due to ongoing Palestinian terrorism, incitement and refusal to engage in any meaningful peace efforts.
Changes in the Arab World
Ostrovsky: The simple fact of the matter is that even the Arab world has grown frustrated with the Palestinians’ relentless intransigence, selfishness and rejectionism, refusing to be held hostage to their veto on peace and normalization with Israel.
What was the national interest for the Arab countries in acquiescing to Palestinian demands and pouring billions after billions of dollars in aid, when they could be collaborating with Israel on security, innovation, science and technology and actually seeing real, tangible benefits?
It was Albert Einstein who reportedly defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That is a rather apt description of decades of failed Middle East foreign policy, which prioritized appeasement of the Palestinians and pressure on Israel to make further concessions as the only path to peace.
The Benefits for the US
Ostrovsky: The Trump administration ought to have been commended for recognizing that instead of obsessively focusing on the historic grievances between countries in the region, it made more sense to foster an alignment of these countries around their common interest, primarily with respect to the Iranian threat, and the immense opportunities to gain out of opening of relations with Israel.
Unlike Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, the Abraham Accords are a truly warm peace, which is what distinguishes them. Whereas agreements are signed between leaders and diplomats, real, and durable peace is made between people and in the last three years we have seen exponential growth between Israel and the region in trade, investment, and civil society engagements.
The only question remains which country will be next to sign onto the Abraham Accords. Recently, Oman opened up its airspace to Israeli airlines, and Israeli negotiations are already on with a number of Muslim countries, including reportedly Indonesia.
But all the talk remains on Saudi Arabia, because open Saudi-Israeli relations would transform the Middle East. The only question here is not if, but when!
Although the Abraham Accords have received a solid bipartisan support under the current Biden administration, it will require further, actively engaged United States’ diplomacy if the Accords are to be expanded.
I believe in order for this to happen, there also need to be far greater understanding that the US has also benefited tremendously from the Abraham Accord, including directly through jobs, regional stability and strength in national security.
iF: Arsen Ostrovsky, on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Quarterly, thank you for an enlightening – and scary – picture of our world.