It is a familiar fact that some of the best educated in our midst also sometimes seem the most unwise.
Take Melbourne barrister Julian Burnside QC, for example. He voted for the Liberal Party up to and including John Howard’s victory over Labor’s Paul Keating in March 1996. Burnside then gradually moved to the left and eventually joined the Greens, standing unsuccessfully as a candidate against Josh Frydenberg in the Melbourne eastern suburbs seat of Kooyong in 2019.
On Wednesday evening, Burnside sent out this tweet: “The curious thing about the Israeli stance is that their treatment of Palestinians looks horribly like the German treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust.”
This is a statement of profound ignoranceby a man with two university degrees. It demonstrates a lack of understanding about both contemporary Israel and the Nazi totalitarian regime that ruled Germany between the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933 and his death and Germany’s defeat in May 1945.
These days many a school and university debater is advised not to make comparisons with Nazi Germany, irrespective of what side of any topic they are addressing. Put simply, Nazi Germany belongs to a species all on its own – sui generis in legal terminology.
Among the first to respond to Burnside was Victorian Liberal Party senator Jane Hume. She tweeted: “Julian is not unintelligent (though very foolish). He knows what he’s doing when he accuses literal Holocaust survivors of acting like Nazis.”
And Victorian Labor Party senator Kimberley Kitching tweeted that it was “amazing that such an accomplished lawyer would promote such odious nonsense”.
On Thursday morning, I emailed Burnside asking if he has visited Israel and/or Gaza and, if he had travelled to the area, whether he had made contact with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
Burnside replied promptly and said I could use the information in his response provided he was quoted in full.
Here it is: “No: I haven’t visited Israel or Gaza, but I watch the ABC and SBS news. The simple fact is that Israelis kill a lot of Palestinians: certainly the numbers are nowhere near the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust, but the reasons are substantially the same.”
Now a visit to a nation or a region does not necessarily bring with it knowledge or understanding. British scholar Robert Conquest, whose books include The Great Terror, revealed the horror of Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian communist regime in the Soviet Union without visiting the country during the time of Stalin and his heirs.
On the other hand, New York Times journalist Walter Duranty received a Pulitzer prize for his reports on the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Duranty lied about Stalin’s brutal rule and subsequently denied Moscow’s forced famine in Ukraine that led to millions of dead. In short, Duranty was a Stalinist stooge.
Clearly the non-visitor Conquest was correct and the visitor Duranty was wrong. But Conquest did not comment about the Soviet Union on the basis of a Burnside-style 26-word tweet. Rather, Conquest read widely about what supporters and opponents of Lenin, Stalin and the like had to say, and he listened to the accounts of returning diplomats, refugees and the like.
Also, the Soviet Union was not easy to access from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to the collapse of European communism circa 1990. Israel, on the other hand, is an open democracy. For the record, I have travelled to Israel and spent time in Gaza and at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah.
It seems Burnside’s anger was aroused after reading a report in The Washington Post on Wednesday concerning the recent conflict between Israel and Gaza (which is controlled by the Islamist terrorist organisation Hamas).
Human Rights Watch, which is a constant critic of Israel, recorded that Hamas fired 4300 unguided rockets indiscriminately into Israel and that Israel fired numerous air strikes on Gaza.
Certainly more Arabs died in Gaza than did Jews in Israel. But Hamas began the conflict and a nation recognised by the UN is entitled to defend itself. In any event, Israel’s defensive war with respect to Gaza is not comparable to, say, Germany’s attack on France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Britain at the start of World War II or its subsequent attacks on Poland and the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front.
Then there is Burnside’s comment that “the reasons” Israel attacked Palestinians in Gaza “are substantially the same” as why the Nazis killed Jews in the late ’30s and early ’40s.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Israel would know that this comment is profoundly false.
About 20 per cent of Israel’s population is Arab, mainly Muslim with some Christians and some Druze. Arab Israelis sit in the Knesset (or parliament) and on the benches of Israeli courts. Arab Israelis have free speech of a kind that is denied to most Arabs who live in the Middle East.
If, as Burnside claims, the attitude of the government of Israel in 2021 towards Arabs is substantially the same as that of the government of Germany towards Jews during Hitler’s time, then the Arab Israelis would have been murdered or sent to concentration camps by now.
Moreover, if Israel is intent on killing Palestinians, why isn’t it launching attacks on the area under the remit of the Palestinian Authority?
Burnside does not seem to understand that Gaza is close to not only Bethesda and Tel Aviv but also Jerusalem and that Hamas has attacked an area which has been part of Israel since 1948. In short, Hamas wants to destroy the state of Israel.
While Burnside is a vehement critic of Israel, this does not mean he hates Jews in an anti-Semitic way. The problem is ideas have consequences, some of which are unintended.
Melbourne lawyer Mark Leibler made the point when he tweeted on Wednesday: “The curious thing about @JulianBurnside is that it looks horribly like unadulterated antisemitism.”
Burnside has since deleted his message – having realised, apparently, that it was unwise.