July 18, 2019

Israel’s Digital Defender

Photo by Jared Bernstein
Arsen Ostrovsky is a loving husband and doting father, a shameless carnivore and an Israeli breakfast aficionado with as much zeal for shakshuka as sirloin steak. However, it’s his fierceness in defending the Jewish people and the Jewish state that makes him stand out online and in real life.

An international human-rights lawyer, Ostrovsky has taken his debating skills to the digital sphere – what he calls the “central battleground” – in fighting modern anti-Semitism. His advocacy has not gone unnoticed. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency named Ostrovsky to its list of the 25 most influential Jews on Twitter; he has almost 50,000 followers. Nefesh B’Nefesh awarded him its prestigious Bonei Zion Prize for Israel Advocacy, and he regularly is featured defending Israel on television and in print.

While Ostrovsky spoke with the Journal, a news story broke that Sydney’s Central Synagogue, the synagogue Ostrovsky attended growing up, had received an online threat of a shooting attack – less than 24 hours after the Chabad of Poway shooting in San Diego County.

“The acts of pitiless slaughter and violence like we saw [at the] Tree of Life [synagogue] and yesterday in San Diego don’t occur in a vacuum,” Ostrovsky said. He thinks the mainstream legitimizes a culture of hatred, whether it’s cartoons in the media featuring anti-Semitic tropes or anti-Israel sentiments elected officials freely express. “Words lead to actions and actions lead to violence,” Ostrovsky said.

“Words lead to actions and actions lead to violence.” —  Arsen Ostrovsky

The Talmudic dictum of “kol yisrael arevim zeh le’zeh” (all Jews are responsible for one another) has been a guiding principle in Ostrovsky’s life and work. “An attack against a Jew anywhere ought to be seen as an attack against Jews everywhere,” he said.

Ostrovsky currently serves as executive director of the Israeli-Jewish Congress (IJC), an NGO that works with Jewish communities around the world to combat anti-Semitism and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Last month, he defended Israel at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. He began working for IJC soon after making aliya from Sydney in 2012. His family fled to Australia from the Soviet Union and Ostrovsky’s birthplace of Odessa when he was 7 years old.

“[In Odessa] we were made to know our place as Jews in society,” he said. “We felt the full brunt of anti-Semitism.” The same was not true of Australia.

“It’s not that I ever felt I did not belong in Australia,” he said. “It’s just that in Israel, it feels as if I have returned home, where I truly belong. It is the yearning for an emotional connection to the land and people of Israel that, for me, could only be fulfilled in the Jewish state.”

Three months after he arrived in Israel, war broke out with Hamas. Ostrovsky recalls huddling in the bomb shelter of a supermarket. An Israeli turned to him and said, “I bet you regret making aliyah now.” Ostrovsky’s response was unequivocal. He said, “I have never been more certain of anything in my life. This is my country and my people. Just as we rejoice and celebrate together, so, too, do we grieve and fight together. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else now.”

Since the birth of his daughter two years ago, Ostrovsky knows the kind of future he wishes for her. “One where she does not have to be concerned with anti-Semitism and delegitimization based on her nationality.”