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The value of facing those with whom you disagree

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The whole point of gathering writers and thinkers together is to embrace the chance to challenge and provoke.

I am a Jewish writer heading to the Adelaide Writers’ Week. Several Palestinian authors, whom I’m looking forward to meeting, are also invited.

Two of them have uttered abusive sentiments about Israel on Twitter. They are accused of antisemitism, although their abuse seems to be directed at the Israeli government and military rather than at Jews.

Our meeting may be uncomfortable and even challenging, but surely that is a reason to embrace the opportunity, not to refuse it. I enjoy breaking bread with people whose views differ from my own and don’t mind meeting people who wish me illwill. Even getting the chance to question fascists and racists, and hopefully inspire them to examine their prejudices, can be interesting.

If a neo-Nazi is unshakeable in their hate, I seek to make them as uncomfortable as they make me.

Uninviting festival guests who advocate outright violence in any circumstances is proper and appropriate. Uninviting guests whose views are hostile and awkward is neither proportionate nor productive.

The whole point of gathering writers and thinkers together is to challenge and provoke.

If I had restricted my circle to people whose world-view was in accord with my own, I would have deprived myself of some of the most important and stimulating experiences of my life. It would become a cloistered existence, leaving me narrow-minded and insular, ignorant of so much of the richness across our global community.

Declining to even hear from or talk to people you disagree with, even those who say they hate you, seems so obviously counterproductive. It achieves nothing. Taking that approach to extremes and applying it beyond curating your own world and demanding as well that nobody else be allowed to hear from your critics – even your enemies – seems arrogant.

All my life, I have dealt with people who express hostility – and more – towards Jews. It started in the playground at primary school and has continued throughout my personal and professional life. Any Jewish public figure would have the same stories to recite.

As a commercial lawyer back in the 1980s, I had to rebuke a client who somehow thought it endearing to express their preference for ‘‘nasty Jewish lawyers’’ to go into battle for them.

Working for three years at Fitzroy Legal Service, I delighted in being the first Jew that some clients had ever met. I had no compunction insisting they desist from their ingrained habit of using ‘‘Jewish’’ as a swear word.

At the ABC, where I hosted the morning radio shift for more than 20 years, barely a day passed without a letter, an email or a text message abusing me in racist terms. One correspondent became so specific in their threats that their toxic letters were forwarded to the Australian Federal Police, who took the appropriate action.

Shortly after 9/11, amid the anthrax scares, opening the mail one day, I became enveloped in white powder that billowed from a parcel. I had to sit in the ensuing cloud while the office was evacuated and the fire brigade hazmat team were called. The harmless powder was accompanied by a card with typical antisemitic cliches and threats.

I prefer to fight ideas with ideas, words with words. Yes, it is a luxury not afforded to those in the line of fire in Ukraine, across the Middle East and other communities not as safe as ours. But my sentiments and comments are for this community, not those. I do not recommend trying to engage in courteous debate with a killer with a machine gun or a suicide vest.

I am saddened that two Ukrainian authors have withdrawn from the festival. Their contribution will be much missed. They may not be there to question, but I look forward to testing the views of any guests who support the murderous Russian dictatorship, and I will challenge any attempt to ignore, rationalise or excuse the war crimes and atrocities of Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Perhaps the Putin supporters will begin to see that bloody regime’s propaganda for what it is.

Critics of the government of Israel have long organised boycotts and sanctions to attempt to force political change there. Supporters of Israel regularly decry that tactic, rejecting it as a legitimate way of trying to influence the internal politics or the policies of the state.

But many of those critics of boycotts and sanctions are doing the same themselves, promoting a boycott of the Adelaide Writers’ Week. There have even been calls for its director, Louise Adler, to be removed, and a major law firm has withdrawn sponsorship. Lawyers should understand the imperative of defending the freedom to express even unpopular views and how vital it is to any democracy to host civil and open debate.

It is easy to say you hate someone if you never meet them.

Article link:
Article source: The Age | Jon Faine | 26.2.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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