Pro-Israel advocates decry ‘one-sided’ apartheid panel at New York law conference

Close to 100 professionals and community leaders allege anti-Israel bias at Saturday event featuring Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

American citizen Omar Shakir, the director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, is pictured at Ben Gurion Airport on November 25, 2019, after being expelled from Israel. (Jack Guez/AFP)
American citizen Omar Shakir, the director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, is pictured at Ben Gurion Airport on November 25, 2019, after being expelled from Israel. (Jack Guez/AFP)

NEW YORK — Pro-Israel advocates have decried a panel on apartheid law at a legal conference in New York this weekend as a “one-sided” assault against the Jewish state.

Saturday’s panel at the International Law Weekend conference, titled “Racism and the crime of apartheid in international law,” features several strident critics of Israel.

The talk is part of the American Branch of the International Law Association’s annual meeting at New York City’s Fordham University.

Among the panelists is Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch. Shakir and his organization have been vocal critics of Israel, and he was deported in 2019 for his alleged support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.

Close to 100 Jewish professionals and community leaders sent a letter to two prominent law firms sponsoring the conference urging them to withdraw from the event.

The apartheid law event “is slated to present a sharply one-sided, anti-Israel panel,” said the letter sent Thursday, while urging the firms to “separate your institutions from the egregiously biased event.”

“The panel was never intended to be a serious exploration of an unsettled area of law but was designed as an occasion to demonize the Jewish state,” added the letter, which was spearheaded by the advocacy group CAMERA.

The American Branch of the International Law Association, or ABILA, highlighted “the Israeli authorities’ systematic oppression of Palestinians” in an initial description of the event, along with Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims and China’s persecution of the Uyghurs.

After ABILA came under criticism, the text was revised and all three references were removed. For balance, the group also added a speaker to the panel who is supportive of Israel, though the other four panelists have accused the country of apartheid or systematic oppression.

“It’s an insult to the intelligence of the public to suggest this late-hour change has created any semblance of balance,” the letter to the law firms said.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“After careful consideration, in finalizing the panel we made the decision to add additional speakers to assuage any concern that the discussion would be one-sided,” ABILA said in a statement.

“ABILA has a long history of sponsoring controversial panels and speakers, and our commitment to open debate remains unchanged. Panels do not reflect in any way the views of the Branch or any of our sponsor organizations, and ABILA does not engage in academic censorship,” the group said.

The organization said it welcomes “broad and lively discussion” and in past years has addressed controversial topics including US torture at Guantanamo Bay, the Syrian civil war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the use of drones in warfare.

The two law firms named in the protest letter are the event’s lead sponsors, White & Case LLP and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.

The New York-based White & Case is a leading international law firm with offices worldwide.

A spokesperson for the law firm said it has been a sponsor of the conference for several years, along with many other law firms and schools.

He said the conference has over 30 panels and discussions on a range of topics, adding that White & Case was not involved in or consulted on programming decisions and expressed concern over the apartheid event.

“We expect the viewpoints presented at any event we support to be within a range that is non-extremist and overall balanced. We believe the panel being presented this Saturday titled ‘Racism and the Crime of Apartheid in International Law’ did not meet these criteria, and we have shared this view with the event organizers,” the spokesperson said.

Other prominent sponsors of the conference include Columbia Law School, Georgetown Law, Harvard Law School, the American Bar Association’s International Law Section and Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law.

White & Case was also hired by the multibillion-dollar investment firm Morningstar to investigate alleged anti-Israel bias by one of its subsidiaries.

Morningstar had come under heavy pressure from Republican state officials and Israel advocates over the issue, but denied any support for BDS and hired White & Case as a third-party investigator.

The law firm’s report did not find evidence Morningstar’s subsidiary Sustainalytics recommended divestment from Israel or exhibited systematic bias against the Jewish state, but reported some bias in overrepresenting firms linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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