The former chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Peter Gration, yesterday distanced himself from a petition he signed on behalf of an allegedly anti-Semitic organisation linked to the extreme right-wing American Lyndon LaRouche political cult.
General Gration, who chairs a foundation dedicated to one of the most respected members of Australia's Jewish community, General Sir John Monash, was one of about 90 signatories to the petition published yesterday in three newspapers, including The Age.
The Melbourne-based Citizens Electoral Council paid $30,000 to publicise the petition, headed "Stop the police-state Anti-Terrorism Bill 2004."
General Gration said he was concerned on hearing allegations against the CEC. "It is all very disturbing to me," he said.
The council was described yesterday "as the Australian arm of the infamous American-based LaRouche organisation . . . that promotes insane conspiracy theories, many of which have an anti-Semitic flavour" by Dr Paul Gardner, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, the Jewish community's human rights body.
The federal Labor member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, said it was "disgraceful that this group of well-known extremists continues to con respectable Australians into putting their names to these advertisements."
Dr Colin Rubenstein, executive director of Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, described the CEC as a "loopy Australian political cult."
In 1996, The Age reported that the CEC had brought in "intelligence operatives" from LaRouche's US headquarters to spy on leading members of the Jewish community.
But General Gration and some of the other signatories told The Age they knew nothing about the CEC's links to LaRouche.
General Gration had agreed to the use of his name on the petition because of his concerns about the legitimisation of the detention of terrorist suspects by the US and the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Another reason was his opposition to the establishment of a military commission to put the terrorist suspects on trial. The detention centre and the commission was tantamount to walking away from the Geneva Convention, which had mechanisms to deal with these situations, he said.
General Gration is chairman of the General Sir John Monash Foundation, which honors the memory of Monash, who was Jewish. He said he would be concerned if his name on the petition was interpreted to mean anything other than that he had concerns about the anti-terrorism measures.
But CEC spokesman Robert Barwick rejected the anti-Semitic tag. "It is garbage. It has never been true. That has been bandied around for a long time."
Mr Barwick said those who accused the CEC of anti-Semitism were aligned with the extreme-right politics of Israeli politics and with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We do not resile from the fact that we oppose that, but there is nothing anti-Semitic in that," he said.
"Why can't you have an argument about the extreme right of Israeli politics without being accused of being anti-Semitic?"
Other signatories are Ken Wriedt, a former federal and state cabinet minister, two former senators, several leaders of Muslim and Arab communities in Australia, including Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali, the Mufti of Australia, and Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam, Imam of the Islamic Society of Victoria, church ministers, trade union officials and local government counsellors.
Sheikh Fehmi said he knew of allegations that the CEC was anti-Semitic but had checked and found that they had done nothing against the Jewish community. He said the allegations were not fact.
Mr Wriedt said he knew nothing about the CEC's alleged anti-Semitic activities but knew of its links to LaRouche.