Why was Julian Burnside’s message antisemitic?
Jul 29, 2021 | Naomi Levin
In 2009, barrister Julian Burnside was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for his service as a “human rights advocate”.
In 2018, 2019 and 2021, Burnside has used his platform as a human rights advocate to make comparisons between both the Israeli Government and the Nazis and the Australian Government and the Nazis (see “further reading” below)
Most recently, on July 28, Burnside tweeted that “The curious thing about the Israeli stance is that their treatment of the Palestinians looks horribly like the German treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust.” He deleted the tweet, without explanation, 18 hours later.
In making this appalling accusation, Burnside – a former high-profile candidate for the Australian Greens – is not pursuing human rights. Nothing about this statement will help a single Palestinian. The statement demonstrates Burnside’s blatant disregard for the horrors of the Holocaust.
Here is a quick reminder of what German Nazis did to Jews during the Holocaust. The Nazis developed and implemented a government-directed, industrial-scale plan to foster hate against and then annihilate the entire Jewish population. The Nazis deployed vast national resources to implement this plan in a systematic way, resulting in the murder of six million Jewish men, women and children. In 2021, the world’s Jewish population has still not recovered to pre-World War II population numbers, such was the effectiveness of the Nazi genocide.
Nobody could reasonably argue that the Israeli Government or the Israeli military has made any attempts, in any way, to replicate what the Nazis did to the Jewish people.
Many people, Burnside included, are staunch opponents of Israeli Government policies or Israeli military action, but this is not the same thing as comparing Israeli policies or activities to those of the Nazis.
US Holocaust Museum historian Dr Edna Friedberg explains the phenomenon of this erroneous comparison.
She writes: “The Holocaust has become shorthand for good vs. evil; it is the epithet to end all epithets.”
“And as the most extensively documented crime the world has ever seen, the Holocaust offers an unmatched case study in how societies fall apart, in the immutability of human nature, in the dangers of unchecked state power.”
What Dr Friedberg is saying is that regardless of how you feel about the actions of the Israeli Government, the comparison with the Holocaust is bogus. There is nothing, anywhere in the world today that can reasonably be compared to the Holocaust.
Anne Frank House, an esteemed Holocaust museum in Amsterdam, also addresses the comparison of the Israeli Government to the Nazis.
“The comparison is not only inappropriate, it is also wrong and offensive. Although the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has claimed victims, it cannot be compared to extermination. Making such comparisons really is antisemitic.”
It is for these reasons that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has included “drawing comparison of contemporary Israeli policies to that of the Nazis” as an example of Jewish hate that fits into its globally recognised definition of antisemitism.
This definition in full is: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The definition then lists 11 examples of antisemitic conduct, including making comparisons between Israeli policies and the Nazis.
This definition is used to define and fight antisemitism by countries including the US, UK and Canada, and by dozens of institutions, ranging from the Australian Labor Party to the German Budesliga football competition and Cambridge University.
Australia, while a member of IHRA, has not yet officially adopted IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, although a statement by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2019 noted that “the conduct captured by the definition is consistent with existing domestic discrimination and vilification protections”.
Kenneth Stern, one of the drafters of the IHRA definition, has warned against flippantly accusing people with whom we disagree of breaching the IHRA definition of antisemitism. And Stern is right; it is a lofty claim and should not be made lightly. But Nazi comparisons are a clear cut and explicit case.
Stern says the definition was drafted with the intention of better monitoring antisemitism.
It is time for Burnside, who has been recognised by the Australian Government as a human rights advocate, to stop making antisemitic comparisons that erode rather than promote the pursuit of universal human rights.
Further reading on Julian Burnside