Australia’s Special Investigations Unit

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Sir, – While I share Efraim Zuroff’s deep disappointment at the Australian government’s decision to close down its Special Investigations Unit (SIU) hunting Nazi war criminals in this country (May 13), I take strong exception to some of the unfounded criticism he has made of that decision.

The Australian government, let it be said, has acted entirely honorably in its pursuit of justice for Nazi war criminals. It was against the background of widespread public apathy and the vociferous opposition of a broad coalition of antisemitic forces that the Jewish community in Australia was able to persuade the government to enact the necessary war crimes legislation in the first place.

And we can, I believe, take great pride in the conduct of the SIU. Despite constant public criticism of the cost to the taxpayer, the SIU spared no effort or expense in investigating alleged war crimes, sending large teams of investigators to Israel and Europe for long periods of time to seek out witnesses.

In this context, I regret to say the efforts of people like Mr. Zuroff in furnishing long lists of potential suspects, however well meaning, may in the end have proven counter-productive. The lists they provided were often poorly researched, sending investigators on exorbitantly expensive wild-goose chases that contributed to growing public resentment at funds perceived to be ill-spent.

The Australian experience has, in the end, not been a particularly fruitful one, yielding only three prosecutions, one of which is now nearing completion. Like Mr. Zuroff, I deeply regret more fugitives capable of being tried were not found, and it greatly disturbs me that, inevitably, there will be Nazi criminals in this country, as elsewhere in the world, who will evade justice.

But for that, the Australian government cannot be taken to task. It has, I repeat, performed honorably and diligently, against very great odds, earning the deep appreciation of the Australian Jewish community.

That is not to say that the Australian government is beyond reproach in all matters Jewish. Its Middle East policy has taken a deeply disturbing turn in recent days, and Foreign Minister Gareth Evans’ intemperate criticism of Israeli policy on his present visit to Israel thoroughly deserves every public censure.

Isi Leibler, Co-Chairman, Governing Board, World Jewish Congress, Melbourne, Australia.

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