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Jewish Groups Demand Law Firms Withdraw Support for Event Honoring Anti-Israel UN Official

By: Dion J. Pierre | Algemeiner | September 28, 2023


Leading Jewish and civil rights groups this week called on three law firms to withdraw their sponsorship of a conference that will honor UN human rights official Navi Pillay, arguing she has used her position to demonize Israel and defend fellow UN personnel who made antisemitic comments.


The American Branch of the International Law Association (ABILA) is set to give Pillay an “Outstanding Achievement Award” at its International Law Weekend in New York next month. The award recognizes “outstanding contributions in the field of international law,” and one of the key factors in determining who receives it is “visionary and innovative leadership,” according to the ABILA’s website. Pillay will also deliver a keynote address at the event, which is one of the world’s leading conferences on international law.


Over 30 groups signed a letter sent on Tuesday to three prominent law firms sponsoring the event — Debevoise & Plimpton; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; and White & Case — urging them to withdraw their support.


“Pillay has used her platform at the United Nations to further a demonstrably discriminatory agenda against the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” the letter said. “Your financial sponsorship of this conference serves to legitimize this bigotry and appears as a tacit endorsement.”


The letter went on to say that Pillay has “repeatedly demonstrated a bias that fundamentally undermines the fight against antisemitism, Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects, and the integrity of international law.”


Pillay, a South African jurist, chairs the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From 2008 to 2014, she was the UN high commissioner for human rights.


The Algemeiner previously reported that Pillay has been accused of violating rules mandating impartiality for making statements that described Israel as the intransigent party forestalling a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2020, she signed onto an anti-Zionist South African group’s petition to “Sanction Apartheid Israel!” Three years earlier, the UN official claimed in an interview that apartheid is “happening in Israel.”


Pillay has also appeared to minimize the severity of antisemitism. In October 2022, when asked about the alleged antisemitism of her official UN inquiry into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Pillay responded that “this [antisemitism] is always raised as a diversion.”

The letter also noted that Pillay did not apologize after a fellow member of her UN team probing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accused a so-called “Jewish lobby” of controlling social media and spending “a lot of money … to discredit us.”


The Jewish and civil rights groups behind this week’s letter outlined Pillay’s history and expressed outrage over next month’s event that will honor her.


“It is outrageous that Navi Pillay is being honored in the first place given her clear obsession and well documented double standards against the world’s only Jewish state,” StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein said in a statement. “It’s also inexcusable that Pillay has completely minimized the impact of Palestinian terrorism and the role it has played in the conflict. These firms ought to know that by financially supporting International Law Weekend they will appear as though they are legitimizing Pillay’s legacy, which has also excused antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the halls of the UN.”


The letter, also signed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and The Lawfare Project, adds that Pillay has not acknowledged the role that “internationally recognized terrorist organizations” based in the Palestinian territories have played in undermining the peace process with Israel. Instead, the groups wrote, Pillay has chosen to promote debunked claims accusing Israel of intentionally targeting civilians in combat operations.


“We write to ask you to reconsider and withdraw your sponsorship of the International Law Weekend,” the letter concludes. “The ABILA planned award will only legitimize Pillay’s legacy and ongoing agenda, with its destructive and profoundly troubling consequences both for the welfare of the Jewish people and for the rule of law.”


Next months’ conference is not the first time that White & Case, one of the 10 highest grossing law practices in the world, has come under fire for sponsoring International Law Weekend.


The firm also sponsored last year’s conference, which included a panel titled “Racism and the Crime of Apartheid in International Law” whose description accused Israel of employing apartheid policies. It also compared Israeli practices in the West Bank with China’s repression of its Uyghur Muslim population, up to two million of whom have been incarcerated in detention camps amid charges of genocide against the Beijing regime from the US, Canada, France, and several other countries. At the time, White & Case told The Algemeiner that the panel “does not meet the criteria of presenting a balanced, non-extremist viewpoint of the issue that will be discussed” but stopped short of cancelling their sponsorship of the event.


That controversy came one day after White & Case denied being affiliated with a separate event at the University of Chicago Law School titled “Apartheid: International Law in the Israel-Palestine Conflict,” during which two panelists accused Israel of being an apartheid state.


Months earlier, the firm issued a report exonerating the Chicago based investment firm Morningstar of allegedly promoting divestment from Israel. US state officials, however, had argued that Morningstar was likely engaging in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, citing a practice that placed Israeli businesses and those that do business with the Jewish state on a “watch list.”


The Algemeiner has reached out to White & Case for comment for this story.


Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.


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