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When does robust free speech descend into hate speech?

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When it emerged that a 2022 Sydney Festival dance production was being supported with a $20,000 grant from the Israeli embassy, more than two dozen performers boycotted the festival and demanded it be shut down for “normalising apartheid”.

When it was revealed that this month’s Adelaide Writers Week would feature authors who have published what reads like violent abuse towards supporters of Israel, mocked Jews over the Holocaust and expressed support for Vladimir Putin, the response from festival organisers and participants was of a different kind.

The show must go on.

In the past fortnight, Adelaide Writers Week has become a national flashpoint for those who believe that, far from being challenging spaces which invite the exchange of multiple ideas, arts festivals are now captive to fixed left-wing orthodoxies, including questioning whether the state of Israel has the right even to exist.

The furore invites broader questions. Are there limits to free speech? At what point does robust free speech descend into hate speech? Do the social media ramblings of a person count towards an assessment of their output and character?

Key Jewish-Australian organisation have been appalled by the conduct of Adelaide Writers Week and its director Louise Adler, the former chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing, in crafting a line-up which they say gives a platform to bigots.

Adler is curating her first Adelaide Writers Week under a three-year deal, having taking the reins from previous director Jo Dyer, who ran unsuccessfully as a teal candidate for the SA seat of Boothby at last year’s federal election.

Critics of AWW say that not only is the festival stacked in favour of the Palestinian cause, it has rolled out the red carpet to people they regard as extremists.

Their anger is shared by Australian Ukrainians, who in the lead-up to the first anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion were dismayed to learn Adelaide was playing host to an author who believes the continuing war is the fault of the Ukrainian government and people.

The fallout so far has been significant – three authors have cancelled in protest, sponsors have threatened to pull funding, The Adelaide Advertiser has removed all its staff from the daily “Breakfast with Papers” program, and Premier Peter Malinauskas has been urged to intervene.

The two authors who sparked the dramas are Jerusalem-based Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd and Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa.

Sky News host Chris Kenny says PricewaterhouseCoopers is the latest company to give Adelaide Writers Week… “the flick” over some speakers who spout “hateful and ludicrous views” on Israel and Ukraine. “So, they’ve demanded that PwC’s Adelaide Festival sponsorship dollars go nowhere near Writers Week,” Mr Kenny said. More

Aged just 24, El-Kurd is hailed by his supporters as one of the most important new voices in Palestinian literature, his 2021 debut collection Rifqa credited with “laying bare the brutality of Israeli settler colonialism”. He also works as the Palestine correspondent for The Nation and in 2021 was named, with his twin sister Muna, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine.

El-Kurd’s grace as a poet is less evident in his tweeting, where he has described supporters of Israel as “sadistic barbaric neo-Nazi pigs” with an “unquenchable thirst for Palestinian blood”.

“I hope every one of them dies in the most torturous and slow ways,” he has tweeted. “I hope that they see their mothers suffering.”

He has ridiculed Jews for having to wear so much sunscreen – suggesting it proves they don’t belong in the Middle East – and made Holocaust references, including accusing Israel of “kristallnachting” the Palestinian people.

With this back catalogue of vitriol, it’s not surprising that the Anti-Defamation League and Executive Council of Australian Jewry have both written to the Adelaide Festival arguing that El-Kurd is not so much the Wordsworth of the West Bank but a peddler of anti-Semitic abuse.

His fellow author Abulhawa is also well regarded as a writer; her latest book Against the Loveless World lauded as a moving exploration of statelessness and resistance in the context of the Palestinian struggle.

But again, less elegant on Twitter, where she has written “It’s possible to be Jewish and a Nazi at the same time” and described Israel as “the only ‘nation’ that systematically kidnaps and tortures children daily”.

It is Abulhawa’s views on Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine that have caused the most blowback for AWW. In multiple tweets, Abulhawa has declared the war is Ukraine’s fault for trying to join NATO and parroted the Moscow line with a tweet which simply read: “Denazify Ukraine.”

She has described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “a depraved Zionist trying to ignite World War III” and said: “This man is no hero. He’s mad and far more dangerous than Putin.”

It was for this reason that three Ukrainian authors have withdrawn from the festival, all of them writing to Adler saying they would not share a platform with someone who peddled Russian propaganda in defence of genocide.

“I feel saddened that calls to be sensitive in relation to Ukrainians who have been attacked in this genocidal war and to not give a platform to voices that repeat Kremlin propaganda are not always heard,” author Olesya Khromeychuk wrote.

Fellow author Kateryna Babkina wrote to Adler: “I’m afraid I can’t participate in any kind of event that gives voice to the person considering Ukrainians should give up their right to decide what to do with their destiny and their independent country and just become a ‘neutral nation’ pleasing Russian ambitions in order not to be killed.”

The fallout from all this has been acute for the Adelaide Festival. Board members have been lobbied urging them to intervene; sponsors Minter Ellison, PwC and IT firm Capgemini have demanded their signage be removed as they weigh future support for the festival; Malinauskas vowed not to attend any sessions involving the offending authors, despite grudgingly honouring a pre-made commitment to speak at the opening of the event.

But Malinauskas, who has Lithuanian ancestry from his refugee grandfather, has made no secret of his concern at the presence of the pair on the AWW line-up.

“There is a distinction between provoking thought and facilitating the spreading of a message that simply does not accord with basic human values,” he said. “That is worthy of contemplation for Writers Week.”

Adler has now made several public statements saying authors at AWW have been reminded that hate speech or bigotry of any kind will not be tolerated.

But she is sticking to her guns with the line-up on free speech grounds, arguing that it is vital that different ideas be put forward and contested.

“I am interested in creating a context for courageous and brave spaces where we can have civil dialogue and discussion about ideas that we may not all agree on,” Adler said.

“If we all gather together just to agree with one another or with people who share our views, well some people might enjoy that, but I don’t think that’s the point of a literary festival.”

Adler’s detractors laugh at the assertion of diversity, with former federal Labor MP Jewish-Australian Michael Danby noting there are seven Palestinian authors and not one Israeli at the event.

A quick look at the AWW political line-up does little to bolster Adler’s claims to it being a freewheeling orgy of disagreement. From the world of politics, Liberal moderate Amanda Vanstone will be joined at AWW by Bob Carr, Wayne Swan, Bob Brown, Steve Bracks, Gareth Evans, Sarah Hanson-Young, Maxine McKew, along with ACTU secretary Sally McManus and teals founder and funder Simon Holmes a Court.

If this is diversity, it is a brand of diversity which extends all the way along the ideological spectrum from the rabidly left-wing to considerably left-wing to somewhat left-wing.

In defending the presence of El-Kurd and Abulhawa, Adler has tried to draw a distinction between their published works and their social media posts, as if the tweets can almost be expunged from the record.

“Twitter is more for succinct targeted polemic rather than nuanced discussion,” she told this newspaper.

It’s a defence which is rubbished by the third Ukrainian author to withdraw from the festival, Kharkiv-born Australian author Maria Tumarkin, who in a withering blogpost made it clear she regarded AWW as an intellectual indulgence while an actual war was going on.

“I’m a Ukrainian Jewish Australian, no hyphens or hyphens, I don’t care. My world (as I knew it) ended on February 24, 2022. I have no connection to any ‘interest groups’, ‘sponsorship money’, ‘Zionist lobby’, ‘pearl-clutching’ (snort!), ‘attempts to silence marginalised voices’, ‘propaganda’ propagation – what else have you got for me?

“I’d rather not be lectured on developing a higher tolerance for ‘confronting ideas’. All good on that front, thanks.

“In the last 12 months I’ve learned a lot and changed my mind a lot. Perhaps the most salient lesson is that anti-war can mean pro-genocide. It means pro-genocide right now in Ukraine.

“Statements in which Zelensky (who’s Jewish) is called a Nazi, fascist, someone responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and/or WWIII are not anti-Zelensky and/or pro-Putin. They are forms of genocide cheering (a step up from genocide apology). They do not exist in the space of discourse only and do not represent something that can be classified as merely a contentious political opinion. If only.

“And while we’re on the subject, I see no difference between Twitter feeds and books if tweets are pro-genocidal and knowingly so.”

Adler is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. As such, she invites a degree of awe with her bulletproof commitment to free speech principles. But she is clearly out of step with a great number of Jewish and Ukrainian people who regard this not as free speech but hate speech. And her promise of diverse speech is not backed up by the AWW program.

In the broader context of the cultural arc of these modern-day festivals, one wonders if he were alive today what kind of reception the Italian chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi would receive were he scheduled to appear in Adelaide this week at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden.

Would If This is a Man be hailed for what it is, the definitive first-person chronicle of the high point of human evil, or a tendentious sob-story aimed at bolstering Israeli hegemony? The answer would probably be the latter, especially if the Israeli embassy dared sponsor Levi’s appearance.

Article link:
Article source: The Australian | David Penberthy | 4 March 2023

2024-02-22 05:36:48.000000