I felt at home watching IDF ceremony at the Kotel

By Adam Cailler

ISRAELI-Jewish Congress executive director Arsen Ostrovsky fled the USSR at a young age for a new life in Australia.

The 36-year-old was born in Odessa, Ukraine, but was raised in Sydney. He admitted that this caused him to have a more cultural Jewish upbringing.

He said: "There were two kinds of Jews at the time. The Natan Sharansky-type who go to Israel and are free and practice the religion as much as they want to.

"Or, the vast majority, like myself and my family. We felt that we were escaping persecution. We know what it is like so we want to get away from it.

"So I was raised by my parents, Emil and Zoya Ostrovsky, in a manner which meant I didn't have to live with that persecution.

"I didn't go to a Jewish day school, didn't do Shabbat, although I did have a barmitzvah and we do mark the festivals in a symbolic way."

Arsen told me of a tipping point to rediscovering his Judaism while at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, reading law and business.

He recalled the "chilling last words" of Daniel Pearl - the journalist murdered by Pakistani militants in 2002: "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, therefore I am Jewish.

"That really struck a chord with me and got me thinking about what Judaism really means to me and what Zionism means.

"Where does Israel fall into this? That really awoke me and started the process of searching for my own identity, what is important to me and how did these pieces of myself and my character shift in to place?

"I became more involved in the Jewish student society on campus and also went on a Birthright trip to Israel."

Arsen joked that he did the "good Jewish thing" and finished law school.

He continued: "I became a litigation attorney for a big corporate law firm in Australia, but throughout this period was an evolving process to get me to Israel.

"I was researching all the time, involved in various advocacy organisations and I started to speak out a rallies.

"It got to a point where it all became too much and the scales tipped.

"I remember during the time of the Gaza flotilla saga in 2009 and we had a huge, precedent-setting case at work, which we won.

"I thought 'oh, that's nice,' but tomorrow there will be another one, and another etc.

"At the same time, I was involved in leading a rally in support of Israel.

"We had thousands of people turn up at barely a day's notice to show support for Israel and the IDF, and I went home that night and though 'wow, that means something to me'.

"It was something that struck a chord in my heart."

Arsen felt this moment made him "think about my future".

He went on: "It became clear to me, and clearer even now, that what defines me is that I am a Zionist and a Jew.

"I went on a MASA trip to Israel, which I saw as an aliya trial run.

"I was then on a internship, but stayed to work at the Knesset as an adviser to one of the members. It was a real eye-opener.

"It was a six month position, so I quit my job at the law firm, where I had just been promoted to senior associate.

"You can imagine how my Jewish mother was feeling, having decided to move to a country where I have no family, don't really speak the language and there's all sorts of unfriendly folks surrounding us.

"I knew after the first week that this was the right place for me."

Arsen admitted that, although he comes from a "very Zionist family", the journey was one he took on his own.

He said: "Initially it was by myself because I needed to know where I stood.

"My parents know the history and are very supportive of Israel, but they know what antisemitism is first-hand.

"They used to tell me stories about how a Soviet passport had no references to religion, but there was a line under nationality that said Soviet . . . unless you were Jewish.

"It said their nationality was 'Jew'. They wanted a future for me where I didn't have to live with that."

Arsen found himself living in Jerusalem, while working at the Knesset. He continued: "It really reaffirmed that this was my country and my people.

"I am exceptionally grateful for the life and opportunities that Australia had given me, but it was coming to Israel when I truly felt a sense of belonging.

"I remember being at the Kotel and there was an IDF graduation going on.

"The soldiers saluted with an Israeli flag and the Hatikva being played.

"That was the moment I knew I was home."

The majority of stories involving daily life in Israel tend to involve taxi drivers . . . something which Arsen can attest to.

He recalled: "You really get to know a society by its taxi drivers. I told one of them I had just made aliya from Australia.

"He looked at me and said, 'Hold on, we have all these problems, violence from the Palestinians, the charedim don't like the secular and the secular don't like the charedim,we pay too much for electricity and food and my grown up children still live with me - and you move from Australia?'

"He asked me if I was crazy and what problems in Australia made me move here.

"In truth, Australia is an oasis - the weather is nice, the economy is stable, there's no antisemitism and our biggest concern was the football rivalry and which pub to go to after work.

"I told him that Israel is home and I've come home. He said 'Welcome home'."

For all the concerns and issues in Israel, Arsen knows that there is a "deep respect" for those who move to build a life there.

"It didn't seem so hard," he continued. "I didn't wake up one morning and say 'that's it, I'm moving to Israel' on a whim, like a lot of people do. It was a well thought out, carefully done process."

The Israeli-Jewish Congress was founded by former Russian senator Vladimir Sloutsker in 2012 with the aim of promoting the principal of Israel as a Jewish state around Europe and to strengthen the ties between Israel and the diaspora.

Arsen said: "We really wanted to create a structure that could help unify and consolidate the Jewish communities of Europe and their bond with Israel.

"We don't go in and tell them what needs to be done because the communities on the ground around Europe know what goes on - we go in, try to empower them and give them the voice they need.

"We bring Jewish community leaders to Israel and introduce them to senior government officials and take them to see other communities in the country.

"Another aim is to strengthen EU diplomatic relations with Israel."

Being entrenched inside Israel's political world, Arsen has a good knowledge of how Israel views political situations outside the country.

He insists that the appointment of Boris Johnson as the UK's Foreign Secretary was "positive".

He said: "David Cameron was an outstanding friend of Israel.

"The steps he and his government took to combat BDS was welcome. New Prime Minister Theresa May has also spoken out very positively about Israel and the Jewish community.

"We remember fondly Boris' visit Israel last year where he was very outspoken against BDS, so much so that the Palestinians cancelled meetings with him.

"We are confident that the relationship we had with Cameron will continue with May and Johnson."

A battle that Israel has started to win is in the online world, something Arsen feels is very important.

He said: "Too often Israel has been looked at in the 2D prism of 'The Conflict'.

"There are so many positive aspects such as food, music, history, culture and scenery that we need to get out there and social media, specifically Twitter, is a way to do this. It's also an opportunity to expose the lies and hate towards us.

"My own Twitter account is a mixture of tweets about Iran, Syria etc and then there's a picture of this great shakshouka I had and the fantastic weather on the beach.

"People need to see these positive attributes. This is the main way we can engage the next generation to want to advocate for Israel - it has an unlimited audience."

Arsen, who met his wife Tzeira - an American from Richmond, Virginia - in Israel, is a "die-hard" Arsenal fan.

He explained: "With a name like mine, I wasn't going to support anyone else. I've been supporting them for many years, initially when manager Arsene Wenger joined, but since then, I have become a big Gunners supporter.

"My favourite ever player is Thierry Henry. I went to see them play - once at Highbury and once at the new ground, The Emirates.

"It was just the most incredible atmosphere - although it was another deflating draw."

Arsen admitted that Israeli football can be "a little on the depressing side".

He said: "Israeli people are sports-mad and are always out running and keeping fit, but the football isn't so great.

"I'm more of a basketball fan here and follow Maccabi Tel Aviv.

"One of the IJC advisers is the Israeli basketball legend Tal Brody. He keeps promising to take me to a game, which I really do need to hold him to."

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph