Peter Slezak

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Email to Jewish friend on war crimes

My email below is to a Jewish friend who forwarded a circular email calling for signatories to a petition to pursue Hamas figures for war crimes:

Dear ...

I'm impressed that you are so concerned about pursuing violations of international law. I fully share your concerns, though I guess I missed your interest in these matters when vast war crimes have been committed according to leading legal figures - recently by our own high officials and US leaders in Iraq, for example (see Australian academic experts such as Hilary Charlesworth).

Then, I'm sure you were equally concerned about the immense crimes of the Indonesian military and politicians in East Timor that amounted to a near-genocide - with our decisive, material and other aid. Or perhaps you missed that one next door. Nevertheless, I'm entirely with you on this one: by all means, we should apply international law and pursue war criminals whoever they may be, including Hamas. ...

So, now according to this principle that you evidently share with me, I wonder whether you care to think seriously about whether Israeli government officials might be also prima facie subject to serious war crime accusations arising from the Gaza events? You will be aware that this issue is being raised all around the world by foremost legal experts and even explicitly being discussed in papers such as the recent issue of the Wall Street Journal - not exactly an anti-Israel publication.

Above all, as Jews, perhaps we might be particularly sensitive to the lessons to be learned from the Nuremberg trials in 1945 that were famously expressed by Justice Jackson. You might imagine that Jews would take the lessons of Nuremberg seriously, so I offer the following comments and would be interested to hear how you and other Jewish friends feel about the profound legal and moral lesson of Nuremberg:


U.S. Justice Robert Jackson, the chief of counsel for the prosecution at the Nuremberg Tribunal, addressed the Tribunal on the principle of universality, which is the foundation of any moral code that can be taken seriously. It‚s the principle that we apply to ourselves the same standards that we apply to others, if not more stringent ones.

Justice Jackson admonished the Tribunal that this elementary principle must be its guide, or else its proceedings would be nothing but legal farce, an act of vengeance, victor‚s justice. To quote Jackson's memorable words:

If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own
lips as well.

The judgments of Nuremberg are incorporated into contemporary international laws as founding principles, and although the Tribunal was seriously and admittedly flawed, it‚s regularly invoked as the precedent and the standard for subsequent tribunals up to today, which are presented as high-minded efforts to approach the standards of Nuremberg, invariably falling short.

One fundamental reason for their failure and their profoundly immoral character is that the principle of universality is universal in only one crucial respect: It's universally rejected, with scarcely any departure. Worse, the rejection is scarcely if ever even noticed, and so deeply ingrained that we are now immune to fundamental moral and legal principles. The poisoned chalice has never approached the lips of the powerful.


I didn't give a citation for the foregoing paragraphs on Jackson and Nuremberg in my original email, but they are from an article by Noam Chomsky.

Speech to rally for Gaza in Melbourne

Melbourne. Sunday 18th January 2009.

I am one of many Jews – here today, in Israel, and around the world – who are distressed and shamed by what Israel has been doing in our name.

Many Australian Jews have signed our declaration condemning this criminal assault on Gaza. Using the words of the former Israeli parliament member, Uri Avnery, we condemned the military assault as “inhuman, superfluous” and “abominable”.

This was two weeks ago. Since then, the numbers of dead and injured have tripled!

I am proud to join you today to express our anguish at this carnage and our anger, and to express our solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Their desperate plight today comes on top of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis already caused by two years of Israeli blockade. And, of course, this is on top of 60 years of Palestinian suffering – their dispossession that Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has called “ethnic cleansing” – and a brutal military occupation.

But we who are here today know all this. WE are here, because there are so many who are NOT. If we are not to just talk to ourselves, we must do something about the widespread indifference, or worse.

We have a responsibility to turn our moral concern into meaningful action, because it is here, in the West, that the fate of Palestine is decided. We must find ways to counter the barrage of deceit that prevents people from understanding what is going on and reacting to it as human beings.

History is being re-written even as it happens. So, it is a lie that Israel is defending itself. There are no Palestinian F-16 jets bombing Israel. There are no Palestinian tanks in the streets of Tel-Aviv.

The assault on Gaza is not a war, but a cowardly act of terrorism.

It is perpetrated by the most sophisticated military force against a defenceless population. The casualty figures are sufficient evidence of this crime against humanity.

But this is not how it is presented in our media, or by our own politicians, who endlessly, uncritically, repeat the official lies of Israeli propaganda.

Under the guise of “balance”, the victims are blamed for their suffering and have no voice. And the world stands by doing nothing.

It is also a lie, endlessly repeated by our media and politicians, that Hamas does not want to negotiate. The record is clear: Israel has rebuffed serious proposals because it would have to make just concessions.

It is also a lie, endlessly repeated by our media and politicians, that Israel had no choice but to launch this assault. It had a clear choice: to preserve the effective cease-fire that they, the Israelis, violated.

Israel had carefully prepared the military assault long before it had a convenient pretext.

It is a lie that Israel is attacking Gaza to stop rockets. You could learn this from the official website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs: On November 4, Israel violated the cease-fire that held for six months and was protecting Israeli citizens from rockets – as emails from the residents of Sderot clearly reveal.

The official Israeli website showed that Hamas launched its missiles in retaliation for the Israeli attack. However, on December 27, the very day that Israel launched its savage bombardment, the Foreign Ministry changed its website, removing the charts giving the numbers of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza. Of course, these charts revealed the near-total cessation of fire during the truce and provide striking evidence of Hamas’s good faith, and considerable restraint:

Hamas kept the cease-fire despite the crushing blockade against the entire population of Gaza, a blockade which was a violation of Israel’s obligation under the cease-fire, and, in any case, a crime in international law. By what right did Israel and the US impose this collective punishment on the people of Gaza for their exercise in Democracy?

The former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, described the blockade as the destruction of a civilization. This was before the bombing that one Israeli military officer said makes Gaza look like they were bombing it for years, not weeks! And the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni has the depravity to say now “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza”.

But we are here because we understand these facts and their moral significance. We must ask ourselves: How is it possible for our respectable media and our politicians to reverse the truth and to portray Israel as the victim?

But we have a weapon that is more powerful than the well-funded propaganda machine of the Israel Lobby and its willing apologists in our media and politics. We have compassion, we have a sense of justice, and we have the truth.

We can make a difference.

However, what we are up against is not just bias, but a kind of culpable ignorance. This is a kind of psychological aberration or deviance that reverses truth. It is a moral blindness that fails to notice the gross imbalance of terror and suffering. Israel’s violence is not merely “disproportionate”; it is barbaric.

We need not wonder that Israeli officials utter depraved lies. Rather, we must wonder why so many other people can accept them so willingly.

We have to try to penetrate the veil of mystification and self-deception that prevents people from thinking clearly and responding as human beings to the heart breaking pictures we see from Gaza.

So, I am here today because I share a motivation with many Jews here and around the world. My 83 year-old mother is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. I grew up with her questions: Why didn’t anyone help the Jews? Why didn’t anyone else care? Why did the world allow it to happen?

These are the same questions we must ask today about the crimes against the Palestinians.

So I’m here because the State of Israel does not represent all Jews. If we have learned the real meaning of the slogan “never again”, we can’t remain silent when the crimes are being committed in our name. We must universalise the lessons of our own tragedy to include others in our moral universe.

This is the lesson of that great Palestinian, the late Edward Said. People have deep emotional identification with their various customs, language and other traditions. But, while we cherish our cultural identity, we must also recognize our shared humanity with others.

The Nazis made Jews wear a yellow Star of David to stigmatise them. I grew up with the immensely moving image of others, non-Jews, like the King of Denmark, who showed their humanity by wearing the yellow star to symbolize their solidarity with the Jewish victims of persecution.

This is the spirit in which I wear a Palestinian badge today and the spirit in which very many Jews and others around the world stand with Palestinians.

It is the spirit captured by an Italian volunteer working in Gaza right now, called Vittorio Arrigoni. I would like to conclude by reading an email from him, sent over a week ago on Friday January 9. He wrote:

The Italian Consulate has just contacted me, saying that tomorrow they shall evacuate a fellow Italian, an elderly nun … The consul gently urged me to seize this last opportunity to escape this hell with the nun. I thanked him for the offer, but I’m not moving from here – I just can’t. For the sake of the losses we endured, before being Italian, Spanish, British or Australian, right now we are all Palestinians.

Thank you.

Dr. Peter Slezak
Independent Australian Jewish Voices

Gaza crisis

The editorial of the Sydney Morning Herald of Tuesday, December 30, like the letter from Diane Armstrong on the same page are typical of the misinformation campaign that goes into hyperdrive at such times when Israel is committing indefensible atrocities. One might expect more from such sources, but their blindness or cynical disregard for the facts is revealing.

The indisputable facts are simply reversed, denied or unmentionable. It was the same in 1982 when Israel committed large-scale terrorism against Lebanon and again in the 2006 war on Lebanon with its violations of international law. This time, so-called "supporters of Israel" feel that they must justify crimes by denying the uncontroversial evidence regarding the immediate causes of the current hostilities - the violation of the fragile cease-fire. The facts are not open to dispute and even the Israeli press is quite capable of presenting the truth. The issues are set out in our piece written today with Antony Loewenstein in the ABC's online news pages "Unleashed". It takes the form of a response to Vic Alhadeff, senior representative of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. His article is a case-study in partisan propaganda and spin which hardly helps the cause of peace and security for Israel, quite apart from the profound, ongoing tragedy of the Palestinians.

Left wing ideological bias at universities

Well, after an absence from blogging I can't resist returning to note the outcome of the recent Senate Inquiry into academic bias. The inquiry had special interest to Jewish groups since not one, but three groups made submissions: AIJAC, ECAJ and AUJS (the latter two jointly). I had published an Opinion article on the subject in the Sydney Morning Herald titled (by the editor) 'I am guilty as charged of bias and prejudice' confessing my own failure to uphold the high standards required by these paragons of objectivity and neutrality. My article speaks for itself concerning the absurdity and delusion of these submissions that are, in fact, a thinly disguised, pseudo-intellectualized effort to suppress uncomfortable truths that are contrary to official Zionist propaganda. Here, I am simply pleased to report that the Senate Inquiry has found the the submissions were generally childish and a waste of time.

On the subject of bias, I must add that at the present time when the Israeli press itself is describing the violence of Jewish settlers against Palestinians as a 'pogrom' and Gaza is descending into a humanitarian crisis, the Australian media and especially the Australian Jewish News manage to avoid letting their readers know such disturbing facts. A few weeks ago, together with a few others, I had submitted the following letter to the Australian Jewish News, but regrettably they didn't publish it. Undoubtedly, it was too biased.


In view of the dire humanitarian tragedy in Gaza just reported by the Red Cross
(Independent 15 Nov), it is a welcome sign that the AJN editorial (14 Nov) on
'Tough Love' recognizes the need for friends of Israel to be critical when it is
deserved. AJN expresses the sentiments of the many signatories of the public
statement by Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV) in early 2007. However,
representatives of the Jewish community such as AIJAC and ECAJ evidently can't
dissociate themselves from the policies of the Jewish State to support their own
Government's stance on international humanitarian law. It is little wonder that
others may fail to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.

The West Bank settlements, the separation wall, house demolitions and brutal
collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza are crimes violating the Fourth
Geneva Convention. Above all, the very possibility of a two-state solution that
the Jewish community professes to support is completely undermined by the
illegal settlements that it refuses to condemn. It is no contribution to
Israel's peace and security for friends of Israel to follow Zionist spokesmen in
rejecting the principles of international humanitarian law.

Peter Slezak
Michael Brull
Eran Asoulin
James Levy
Antony Loewenstein


Finally, one more item of relevance here is the recent ABC Radio National program 'Street Stories' in which I was interviewed together with others on our experience as dissenting Jews which may be heard here, titled 'No Excuse Not to Know'.

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