An Open Letter to Michael Burd

February 18, 2013 by  
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J-Wire recently published an open letter to Human Rights advocate Julian Burnside QC from reader Michael Burd crticising him for an apparent lack of support for Jewish refugees whilst acknowledging the barrister’s support for Arab and Muslim communities…Julian Burnside responds.

Dear Mr Burd

Thank you for your email.

Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside

I should correct one thing: you say that I am “a  major supporter of the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim  community”.  That is not accurate.  I have had very little to do with the Palestinian and Arab communities; I have a fair bit to do with the Afghan community, and it is true that they are Muslim; I have acted in a number of refugee cases, but because they are refugees rather than because of their religion or ethnic origins.  In my human rights work, and in my public advocacy, a person’s religion or ethnic background are matters of no interest to me.  Human rights do not depend on religion, ethnicity or anything else apart from the fact of being human.

I do not know a great deal about the events of 1948 in Israel/Palestine: I am principally concerned with recent events in Australia, and in particular the erosion of Australia’s values by its tolerance of unethical and immoral mistreatment of refugees, regardless of ethnicity or religion.  To be candid, I am not religious and I am not interested in religion.

The implication in your email that I am pro-Palestinian and therefore anti-Israel or antisemitic is simply wrong.  Of course that may not be what you are suggesting by your reference to the Antony Lowenstein event.

Anyway, if you are at either of the events I am speaking at next weekend, come and say hello.

Very best wishes


17 Responses to “An Open Letter to Michael Burd”
  1. Sam says:

    michael, your silence is deafening!

  2. Liat Nagar says:

    Dear Paul,
    I would like to assure you with all sincerity that I do not see you as a person who is ignorant or bigoted. I always find your posts intelligent, articulate and well worth reading. I am aware of your own personal history as a refugee insofar as the details you posted on 18/02/13, and your experience and what you had to bear as a result of that, I do not take it lightly. Not at all. As a person devoted to learning, with a developed and active imagination, as well as having made huge and ongoing efforts to study HaShoah, I can only say that I carry in my heart and head the terrible history you’ve been part of, but of course am totally ignorant of it as a real experience. Before, during and after HaShoah, there were different Jewish experiences relating to ‘escape’, and some of those who tried used boats, which in many cases turned to tragedy; this is something no doubt you are aware of. We would never have expected these people not to try to survive, no matter what regulations existed elsewhere – indeed those regulations were used by many countries as excuses for non-acceptance of those Jews. I am not seeking to compare the horror that Jews sought to escape with the circumstances of peoples today – I will say, however, that if even one person genuinely feels they live within a horrific scenario (whether today’s Syria, Afghanistan, the Sudan, or yesterday’s Cambodia), fear for themselves, fear for their families, see themselves ‘dead’ if they stay put, then that is of enough consequence to warrant their efforts to go elsewhere. The notion of queues and regulations are not going to have a place in these people’s minds, or only insofar as how to get around them to ensure survival. We should not use HaShoah to deny them acknowledgement of this situation.

    I am most certainly not a bleeding heart (have no time for them), nor a person who sees through rose-coloured glasses, nor even a ‘group joining’ person,in fact I consider I don’t have many illusions left in life. I dislike generalising of any kind for all the important factors or elements that can be ignored or left out. So, my opinions and response to the plight of contemporary refugees comes from a well-considered place and involves, more than anything else, Australia’s inept and at times cruel handling of the situation. I am certainly aware of the fact that people as refugees might try ‘tricks’ or ploys to make a change for themselves in this world. I would say though that it has been ever thus. If someone is desperate or feels under threat their behaviour will become extreme, calculating, manipulative … I think it quite ridiculous to look at the overall situation in the world of refugees as that of any kind of order or queue – it’s a terrible problem of turmoil and individuals in all sorts of varying degrees of circumstance. Of course, it’s important within the framework of that to establish the genuine refugee status of those who come.

    I would like to apologise to you for the impression I left of you sitting in comfort at home making judgements. I didn’t intend my words to create that impression. On the other hand, you are assessing the matter from a position of relative comfort (perhaps never though within your own psyche and heart due to your own personal experiences), as am I, and anybody else fortunate enough to be living in their own house in Australia (I don’t usually make assumptions, but am risking the assumption you are in your own home). Our judgements and opinions can change outside our own personal circumstances – this was illustrated in the SBS programme ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’ – and for myself, I try as much as I can to put myself in the shoes of others when thinking through a situation or problem.

    I agree HaShoah is special to itself, despite the terrible atrocities that have occurred since in other places. And I never believe in making comparisons (although fail on that score sometimes), which I think a futile and unhelpful thing to do. In assessing contemporary refugee situations, I don’t think it fair to measure past refugee situations as a comparison and as a result deny their veracity. I prefer to see each individual and situation for its own authenticity and reality, and, as hard as that is, that’s what the Australian government should be seeking to do.


  3. Liat Nagar says:

    I think it’s a big thing to make a judgement on those who ‘throw away their passport’ and choose to come to Australia by boat. That desperation is an element to their motivation is a given, and who is anybody sitting in a position of comfort to denounce that? It’s a huge thing to uproot yourself from your country, and sometimes your family, and leave. During the 1930s and ’40s there were also boats of anxious and/or desperate Jews attempting to secure life for themselves out of Europe, in Palestine/Israel and America, under differing circumstances and processing situations – not all of these ended up as happy stories.
    As to Australia’s treatment of refugees, it is an actual disgrace, and there’s no excuse for it. There’s especially no excuse for the interminable time it takes to process these people and the years so many have to spend incarcerated in what becomes a prison. It’s also lacking in transparency, and therefore liable to injustice or corruption, to refuse to give reasons for rejecting refugee applications for staying in Australia, even to the applicant concerned. For ASIO to say they’re a security risk and we all leave it at that is not good enough by a long shot. People have a right to defend themselves against these sorts of allegations. ASIO have been proven wrong before.
    P.S. Who in their right mind would want to try escaping to set up a life in Pakistan? And I dispute the statement that refugees are completely safe in Indonesia – they’re not allowed to work, often fear for their safety in the streets, especially at night, and corruption is rife at every level of Indonesian government and society. Displaced people or people who need to become refugees cannot necessarily fit into a nicely organised queue or suit the framework designed by comfortable, unimaginative people, sitting in chairs in the well-organised offices of our sanitised and increasingly inaccessible cities.

    • Paul Winter says:

      Liat, before you write that it is abig thing (for me) to make a judgement, please read my post of 18.2.13. I was a refugee. I do not sit in the comfort of my home in affluent Australia and make ignorant bigoted judgements. Unlike so many bleeding hearts (and running tongues), I know what I am talking about.

      It is understandable for people to run away from danger. And it is understandable that some will try a few tricks. But it is not understandable and it is in fact unforgivable, for people to play the system to jump the queue. There are millions of refugees who don ‘t have enough to buy food to keep their children alive, much less to pay 5 to 10 times the air fare to a people smuggler.

      And while I have nothing against the Hazara, a great many others, who burn accommodation, damage equipment and thank Australia for refuge by making baseless complaints.

      I take strong exception to groups who use the experience of Jews to show unreserved acceptance of people whose plight is nowhere as dire as was that of Jews and ignore masses of humanity whose situation is far more desparate. Such attitudes cheapen the tragedy of the Shoah. And worse still, far too many have that all accepting attitude to refugees also support the “Palestinians” and do their utmost to make refugees (should any survive) of the descendents of the survivors of the Shoah.

  4. Michael says:

    You guys just don,t get it .It is not about Burnsides refugee activism .i,m sure he does a great job representing the interests off Afgani ,Iraqi, Iranian ,Pakistanin,and Palestinian refugees amongst others .Its about our naive Jewish community representatives mostly left wing I would imagine giving a platform for supporters ,activists or those that constantly appear at Palestinian lobby events .
    In Burnsides own words he knows nothing about the events of 1948 when the Arabs ignored the UN mandate and went to war against the Jews .
    David why wiould such an intelligent man a so called human rights activist who admits ignorance on this subject would in A speech he gave to NSW Parliament ask for a minutes silence for the killing and occupation of Palestinians by Isralies part of a poem he read out. no mention of Jews being killed by the same people. what the Jews in Israel don,t have human rights .. .if Burnside knows nothing about the subject then why by does he appear with the likes of. Loewenstein , Australians for Palestine.and along side notorious israel hater Michael Leunig at another pro Palestinian event.
    I could go on but if our Jewish organizations can’t find guest speakers that have some or equal compassion to other ethnic or religious groups these human rights activist support then it says more about who ever is in charge at these Jewish organizations.They are ignorant and not very street smart.
    I doubt if say Danny Lamm supported a cause that Muslims and Arabs connected with they would invite him to talk at the Islamic council of victoria or the Lakemba mosque. they would not think about giving him a platform and why would they .?
    The Jewish community representatives could learn something from them

  5. David says:

    Having read Michael Burd’s letter, I didn’t find it incendiary at all.

    It was, however, reaching a fair distance in seeking to equate the issues surrounding the recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 with the situation of refugees in Australia today.

    Quite apart from the fact that it would be somewhat presumptuous and a waste of time for Mr Burnside to attempt to mete out justice across nations and time, he can only confront the refugee problem here in Australia as it presents itself now. A lot of that will involve people whose religion is Islam, but others as well, I presume, where human rights violations are deemed to have occured.

  6. Peter says:

    Julian Burnside QC is one of the leaders of the Victorian Bar, highly educated a regular commentator
    on important public issues and an eminent Australian; if a person like him is by his own admission ignorant of middle east history ( viz says he knows little of the events of 1948 ie the establihment of the State of Israel), then little wonder that the general population can be so easily persuaded towards views and conclusions totally inconsistent with facts and the history of the middle east conflict

    • Lynne Newington says:

      In an answer to my question, looking up members of the Victorian Bar, I can well understand why he never spoke up on abuse of children [Catholic that is], especially Peter O’Callaghan QC being the “independant” commissioner for the Melbourne Archdiocese now under scrutiny by the Parliarmentry Inquiry.
      At least one, Phillip Opas spoke up when Michael Rozenes was chosen by then Archbishop Pell to represent him in his abuse inquiry, claiming he had an obvious conflict of interest, previously representing Pells accuser a member of the Painter and Dockers Union.

  7. Liat Nagar says:

    One should never reach conclusions, especially automatically, without a genuine attempt to find out the depth and breadth of a person or situation.

    Julian Burnside has been around for a long time, is passionate about the basic rights of human beings (no matter their religion or ethnicity) as well as the need for self-dignity. In that regard he’s been regularly and widely reported in the media.

  8. Paul Winter says:

    Mr Burnside’s concern for human rights is heart warming. His statement of concern for Afghan refugees and his distancing himself from the Jewish/mohammedan conflict is welcome.

    Having re-read MIchael Burd’s letter, I note that Mr Burnside was due to address a March of the Living meeting and, according to Saen’s post did in fact do so. I have a great number of problems with that. MOTL commemorates our martyrs. I find it offensive that it is used to advance some human rights agenda. The plight of the Hazara is indeed dire; just yesterday scores were murdered in Quetta. And the Hazara I have met were fine people indeed. But comparing the fate of a persecuted minority to the fate of European Jews, is inappropriate and distasteful. Let us not forget that the Hazara could (or maybe I ought to say should) find refuge in Iran. Hazaras share Iran’s brand of Islam – Shi’ism – and speak Dari, a language related to Farsi. But the Iranians who are such fanatical supporters of Sunni Palestinian Arabs, want no part of the oriental looking Hazara. And of course the Hazara could try finding refuge among the Azeri, whose religion they share. Moreover, the Hazara are not helpless as European Jews were: they, along with the Tajiks and the Uzbeks were in the Northern Alliance which overthrew Afghanistan’s Talibaan regime.

    Human rights work is admirable. But I am concerned when people decry Australian society as for “the erosion of Australia’s values by its tolerance of unethical and immoral mistreatment of refugees…”. This is the same comment that is made when people voice concern over documented mohammedan activities in this country. This is the same accusation of intolerance against those who do no blind themselves of what is happening in our society, when one does not worship at the shrine of multiculturalism and won’t tolerate the intolerant and doesn’t go with the herd that accepts those who reject assimilation.

    The simple fact is that when Afghan refugees get to Pakistan, they are relatively safe; that is their place of first asylum. When they fly to Indonesia, they are completely safe and they should register with the UNHCR and await – yes AWAIT – resettlement along with the other millions of refugees. Instead, they throw away their passports, pay a king’s ransom in their societies to smugglers and force their way into Australia. They are economic invaders and queue jumpers and I don’t want them here. I object to their chutzpah on Q&A when some of them cheekily asked how long should they have stayed in Indonesia. When I was a child in a DP camp in Germany after WW2, we waited until we were resettled in an orderly fashion after processing. And we didn’t have money to buy food, much less to bribe smugglers.

    Lastly, as far as I am concerned, any person who is a friend of Antony Lowenstein is no friend of Israel or the local Jewish community or even of genuine refugees, like the Nuba of Sudan – an ancient people – who are facing extermination. I would never in a million years have invited such a person to address a MOTL rally.

  9. Peter says:

    I speak of michaels ‘tale’ not michaels ‘tail’, you onto it now paul?!

  10. Peter says:

    I think michael might now be suffering from foot in mouth with tale between legs syndrome!

  11. Lynne Newington says:

    I still ask, where was his voice years ago where children were being sexually abused and crimes covered up by those in authority, resulting in many suicides, here in Victoria alone.
    Ref. lawyer Judy Courtin and Angela Sdrinis to name a couple.

  12. Sean says:

    I heard Julian speak at the March of the Living function on Sunday – he is a brilliant scholar able to argue in the clearest of terms. He simply stands up for what is right and moral. Our treatment of refugees to this country is shameful and when put into perspective as Julian does the amount of money and time our governments waste because of bad decision making is outrageous, let alone the suffering and humiliation we put these people through
    Julian speaks passionately in support of the refugees trying to make a new life in this country and his voice should be echoed loudly and to every corner of this land and we as Jews should embrace all he has to say simply because our recent history is identical the atrocities that occur daily around the globe.
    Sean Meltzer

  13. Sam says:

    Mr Burnside’s talk at the March of the Living event yesterday was excellent, and a real call to action.
    My friends and i were so inspired by what he had to say that we look forward to getting involved with the ASRC and Jewish Aid and supporting refugees and asylum seekers.
    I’m surprised Mr Burnside even took the time to respond to Michael’s vitriolic letter.

  14. Shirlee says:

    Mr Burnside

    I mean no insult or disrespect to you. I literally know nothing about you at all, so I can only judge you by what I now read here on J-Wire.

    One automatically reaches the conclusion that a person is anti-Israel/Jewish, when they hear of that person appearing on the same programme as Antony Loewenstein.

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