Silencing Palestinian voices

The most recent battleground for Palestinian voices in Australia was the hearts and minds of high-school drama students – and a play portraying love and idealism in the Gaza Strip during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.

When it premiered in 2014, Tales of a City by the Sea, by Palestinian-Australian Samah Sabawi, enjoyed a sell-out season and praise from the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. But a few weeks ago, after pro-Israel groups registered their displeasure, questions about its appropriateness for Year 12 drama students were raised by politicians from both major parties.

More than 1400 Palestinians – 82 per cent of them civilians – were killed during Operation Cast Lead, in which 4000 homes were also destroyed by bombardments and Israeli ground troops. Ten soldiers and three civilians were killed on the Israeli side.

Tales of a City by the Sea’s 2014 premiere was due to occur on the same day in Melbourne and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but two months before that could happen the Gaza Strip was again decimated in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.

Frequently the response to accounts that challenge Israel’s narrative as victim of Palestinian aggression is the mute button – and the response to Sabawi’s play was no different. B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) lodged its concerns along with the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, which states among its aims the ‘effective counteraction of misinformation on Israel, the Middle East and the Arab/Israel conflict’.

Both groups demanded the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) selection process

reflect community standards by ensuring that students are provided with plays that promote understanding of complex issues and which furnish its learners with appropriate context and balance.

The ADC’s definition of balance, however, seems somewhat asymmetrical.

They recently celebrated another victory over plural speech when Limmud Oz disinvited boycott, divestment and sanctions supporter Professor Bassam Dally from its June 25–27 conference.

ADC chair Dvir Abramovich and numerous others were incredulous a Palestinian would be invited to a discussion with the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, titled Fighting for Coexistence.

‘Bassam Dally supports a campaign that would silence and deny Israeli speakers the right to participate in Limmud Oz,’ Abramovich argued, adding, with apparent unconscious irony:

Including [Dally] would have been an insult and a slap in the face to all participants and to the ideals of an open, honest exchange of ideas.

That Victorian Education Minister James Merlino appeased these groups and ordered the VCAA to review its text selection process is unsurprising – he found Israel ‘absolutely inspiring’ during a 2013 ALP study tour [read: junket].

In fact, successive Australian governments have staunchly supported the Israeli state since its inception, including its apartheid policies, and parliamentarians from both major parties regularly enjoy its hospitality.

In his diaries released in 2014, former NSW premier Bob Carr said that Melbourne pro-Israel groups employed tactics such as bullying or sweet-talking to ensure political support. Carr claimed the groups influenced foreign policy positions, with former prime minister Julia Gillard unfailingly supporting Israel and refusing to allow Carr to criticise Israeli West Bank settlements.

Indeed, in 2014 Coalition Attorney-General George Brandis – a Queen’s Counsel – and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop decided to revise the legal status of Occupied East Jerusalem, going against international norms and a United Nations declaration that Israeli settlements in the area were illegal.

Despite the former Labor Government’s support for Israel, the party has recently been accused of waning in its commitment.

The Victorian Liberals seized the opportunity afforded by the Tales of a City faux-controversy to reiterate their anti-Palestine position and win a few political points in the process.

While apparently unable to identify the difference between a book and a play, the Libs claimed ‘James Merlino’s attempt to push anti-Israel books into schools is plain and simple bigotry’.

Tim Smith employed a litany of adjectives to register his protest with the play:

It’s hateful, it’s divisive, it’s provocative … It’s offensive, it’s anti-Israeli, it’s anti-Jewish, and frankly it shouldn’t be taught to our children.

And fellow conservative David Southwick questioned why a play with a ‘heavily biased portrayal of Israel’ that ‘could lead to the demonisation and targeting of Jews’ was a school text option.

Coupled with the support of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, finding a plurality of views of the Arab-Israel conflict within the mainstream media is actually quite rare.

Murdoch papers have the deepest reach of any mastheads in Australia, while commercial television and radio provide little beyond hyper-local or Western-centric headline stories.

And while traditional media remains the most common source of news for Australians, Murdoch has the power to influence how a large number of Australians see Palestine, or if they see it at all.

Murdoch encourages the equation of the state of Israel with Judaism and Jewish people to enable any criticism of the Israeli government, or questions about the state’s legitimacy, to be labelled as anti-Semitism.

In accepting an award from the Anti-Defamation League for his commitment to the Zionist cause, Murdoch said the nature of Israel’s battle for existence had become one of ‘terrorism’ and a ‘soft war that seeks to isolate Israel by de-legitimising it’.

‘The battleground,’ Murdoch said, ‘is everywhere: the media, multinational organisations, NGOs.’

When people see, for example, a Jewish prime minister treated badly by an American president, they see a more isolated Jewish state.

In this war, the aim is to make Israel a pariah.

Every day, the citizens of the Jewish homeland defend themselves against armies of terrorists whose maps spell out the goal they have in mind: a Middle East without Israel.

News outlets that provide a counternarrative are targeted, too.

Michael Brull notes that following the 2008–2009 Operation Cast Lead offensive, the ADC expressed displeasure with New Matilda’s ‘highly prejudiced’ reporting in 18 articles, of which ‘17 presented the Palestinian narrative, characterising Israel as an oppressor and not acknowledging its victims or security concerns’.

The ADC complained eight of the offending articles were written by ‘well-known polemicists for the Palestinian position’ – that being Michael Brull himself and Antony Loewenstein.

They were, of course, completely untroubled by the fact that Loewenstein and I are both Jewish. We adopt the Palestinian perspective, and doing so exhibits prejudice and so on.

In short, if a news outlet ran criticisms of Israel, this would cause anti-Semitism.

There are times when such efforts are thwarted. The voice of Palestinian journalist and Electronic Intifada editor Ali Abunimah was almost silenced when his speaking engagement at University of Sydney was cancelled earlier this year. When petitions protesting the cancellation were circulated, the university claimed the cancellation was due to a visa issue, and the event was reinstated.

These efforts to silence Palestinian voices mirror actions that deny Palestinian statehood and basic human rights. No battle, it seems, is too small in Israel’s war for the world’s hearts and minds.

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Fiona Broom

Fiona Broom is a freelance water, environment and rights journalist.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. The trouble in Australia is that the Christian zionists are often more extreme than the Jewish zionists – if that is possible! Their Israel right or wrong. I often suspect that they are Israel supporters to the extent that they are because they are anti-semitic enough to hope that their Jewish populations will find life so unpleasant for Jews that they will feel they have to go to Israel. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that any more. More and more Jews like Antony Loewenstein and others such as me discovered long ago that there are people in this world whose land has been stolen from them, and as a South African I have seen apartheid at close quarters and it is not pretty. If Rupert Murdoch is such a Netanyahu lover, let him go and live in Israel for a year or two and see what happens with apartheid at close quarters. But Rupert’s mind closed long ago!

  2. As the 2016 director, of Tales Of A City By The Sea, it’s heartening to read a well researched, knowledgeable piece about the pseudo-controversy that was frothed up in the media. You’ve rightly centered your article on the reasons for the mini-maelstrom that confronted our production, rather than the play itself, and have given a rounded political perspective to explain why the play was attacked by conservative Zionists and their supporters. It was a real lesson for me to be in the centre of the “controversy” and experience the craziness that follows when someone sees an opportunity to push forward their agenda. The media and State politicians seemed only too happy to run in hot pursuit without any one of them actually bothering to read or watch the play for themselves.
    In the end, we had a sold-out season (bad publicity is still good publicity) and audiences who spoke to us after the show seemed a tad confused and a little non-plussed; “I came because I read about it in the papers/saw it in the news, but you know, I was expecting something else/something fierce/controversial. I don’t know what they’re going on about.” Audiences were overwhelmed by the beauty they saw in the show, went away with music and poetry in their minds, and yes a little shaken to see how fragile life is, its poetry and music, in the face of bombings. And that was the whole point we wanted to make.

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