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WA Bar criticised for ‘baffling’ defence of Julian Burnside

Senior partner Mark Leibler has criticised the Western Australian Bar for its “baffling” defence of high-profile barrister Julian Burnside’s controversial tweet, drawing out a clarification from the bar that it does not support the use of anti-Semitic language. 

user iconNaomi Neilson 13 August 2021 Big Law
Mark Leibler
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Referencing a report into violations of international law during conflict between Israel and Hamas militants, Julian Burnside tweeted Israel’s “treatment of Palestinians looks horribly like the German treatment of the Jews”. The now-deleted tweet drew the ire of the Jewish community, senator Sarah Henderson and now Mr Leibler.

In response, Ms Henderson claimed that Mr Burnside’s tweet was “likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession”, a sentiment mirrored by commentators from both sides of politics. Ms Henderson called on the Victorian Bar to “strip” Mr Burnside of his AO and QC, a statement criticised by the Western Australian Bar. 

In a letter to Ms Henderson, Western Australian Bar president Martin Cuerden SC said Mr Burnside was as entitled as any other Australian to express his views on the subject in strong terms “even if others, like yourself, find them offensive”. Mr Cuerden’s first letter did not condemn Mr Burnside’s comments or formally respond to the conflict.

 
 

In his own letter to the Western Australian Bar, Mr Leibler, senior partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler and national chairman of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council wrote to express his “personal and professional astonishment and profound disapproval”. He added he was “genuinely baffled” that the Bar would rebuke Ms Henderson. 

“That your letter should contain no condemnation of Julian Burnside’s blatantly antisemitic post, but rather seek to defend his actions using the principle of free speech is, at best, disingenuous,” Mr Liebler commented. “Let’s be clear, no one is seeking to limit Julian Burnside’s freedom of speech.” 

Mr Leibler said that by deleting his tweet, Mr Burnside recognised that his comments had “crossed the line into antisemitism”. As someone who experienced anti-Semitism as a young lawyer, Mr Leibler added it was “inconceivable” the president of a state bar association would suggest spreading anti-Semitism is a “matter of free speech”. 

“I agree that the WA Bar should have no view on Israel-Palestinian affairs, as you state in your letter, but it most certainly should have a view on whether it is appropriate for a member of the profession to engage in antisemitism, racism or deeply offensive hate speech of any kind,” Mr Leibler wrote. 

Mr Leibler called on the Western Australian Bar to withdraw the letter, apologise to Ms Henderson and issue an unambiguous condemnation of Mr Burnside’s anti-Semitism. He also asked that Mr Cuerden visit the state’s Holocaust Institute and meet with a survivor “who can offer you some much needed education on the subject”. 

Responding to Mr Leibler, Mr Cuerden said that at the time of his first letter, he did not understand the words used by Mr Burnside could be recognised as a form of anti-Semitism. He said that he now wants to make it clear that the language was “highly offensive” and does “warrant public condemnation”. 

“Having reflected and gained a better understanding of the impact that the use of such language may have, I wish to make it completely clear that the WA Bar cannot, does not, and will not support the use of antisemitic language,” Mr Cuerden wrote. 

Mr Burnside has not responded to the tweets or the following controversy. Separately, he has abandoned his attempts to win Kooyong in a blow to the Greens. 

“People can speak as freely as they wish in this country, but when public figures promote ideas that are antisemitic or otherwise offensive, their suitability to hold positions of influence is called into question,” Mr Leibler said.