The Age’s Sordid Controversy: The Campaign Against A Palestinian Play

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Fairfax helped stir-up controversy over a supposedly anti-Semitic play. A little more research would have revealed the campaign to be a farce, writes Michael Brull.

Last week, the Age started a controversy, claiming that a play was under attack by various Jewish groups for being anti-Israel propaganda. Soon, other media outlets such as SBS and the Australian were on board. A national scandal about a Melbourne play was underway: was the play anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda, and should we protect our children from it?

The controversy is devoid of substance. The play in question is beautiful and moving. Those interested can read a warm review of it by Ann Fink from the progressive Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS), here. It is not a work of political propaganda: it simply tells a story of human beings, who find love and try to find happiness in trying circumstances.

Many on the left were deeply supportive of the Safe Schools program, and opposed attempts by reactionary lobby groups, News Corp and right-wing politicians to gut the program. In this case, the campaign against Samah Sabawi’s play has been led by the Age journalist, Timna Jacks, a privately funded pro-Israel lobby group, and a few conservative politicians who later signed on.

So far, leftists and progressives have not showed similar sympathy or interest. Yet this is a case of aggressive bullying by right-wing forces, who are determined to prevent teenagers from seeing a play which presents Palestinians as human beings.

 

The Context

new matilda, samah sabawi
Director Samah Sabawi.

Tales of a City by the Sea was chosen as a play that schools can select, among other options, for year 12 drama students in Victoria to study. The playlist in question can be found at this website. It includes various plays, along with some warnings for things like coarse language and “one scene of a sexual nature”.

Teachers are told to be aware that some sensitivity may be needed in relation to some of the issues discussed in the plays. Some plays come with warnings that they are only appropriate for children from years 10-12, indicating it is envisaged that older high school children will attend some of the plays. It is also anticipated that some of the plays will be controversial, though no such advice appears for Tales.

Although the plays selected came with a warning that they could be offensive to students, only Tales has become controversial. The controversy began with the story by Jacks on May 9. The controversy about a play accused of being “anti-Israel propaganda” is seemingly bolstered by a handful of quotes from the play.

Most of the case against the play was made by Dvir Abramovich, the chair of the Anti-Defamation Commission. There was then a brief quote by Jennifer Huppert, president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, who claimed the play could create “negative views” about “Jews in the classroom”.

It ended with defences of the play by Sabawi, Jordy Silverstein from AJDS, and a brief comment by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Jacks’ Favoured Source Is A Privately Funded Pro-Israel Group

The framing of the story that Jacks presents is a dichotomy of Jewish community groups, versus an anti-Israel play by a Palestinian. By presenting this as a story of “Jewish groups”, she obscures the nature of the Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC), which is given four paragraphs of quotes to say how the play presents Israel as a “blood-thirsty, evil war machine”. Whilst the ADC may be a Jewish group, it is just as accurate to describe it as a privately funded pro-Israel lobby group.

Among its self-described core mission, the ADC includes working to “counter the delegitimisation and defamation of Israel and the Jewish people”.

Defamation of Israel? That is how it refers to criticism of the Israeli government. Among forms of anti-Semitism, it lists with a big heading “anti-Israel propaganda”. It explicitly conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, writing that “Anti-Zionism is the fastest growing anti-Semitic ideology.”

It further claims that, “Enemies of Israel spend considerable resources demonising and delegitimising Israel, spreading misinformation and inciting hatred.” Spreading “misinformation” about Israel has thus become included as a form of anti-Semitism.

Jacks does not just describe the ADC as a Jewish group. She identifies it as “a body raising awareness about anti-Semitism and hate speech”. In fact, it is a hard-line pro-Israel group, that refers to “disputed territories” rather than occupied ones, and impossibly contends that Palestinians within Israel are afforded the same rights as Jews in Israel.

It doesn’t address the question of Palestinians denied political and civil rights living under Israeli occupation, but explains that they aren’t Israeli citizens, and “They have their own schools, hospitals etc”, so presumably it would be anti-Semitic to criticise Israel on this issue.

The ADC more or less regards itself as a private lobby for the interests of the Israeli government. In the last month, it has attacked Sky News for an “anti-Israel slur”, praised Hillary Clinton for expressing opposition to BDS again, and denounced UNESCO for “anti-Israel resolutions”.

In 2009, it lobbied New Matilda to stop printing articles which “presented the Palestinian narrative”, which was “linked” to an increase in anti-Semitic attacks. That’s right: it explicitly argued that presenting the Palestinian narrative caused anti-Semitic attacks.

It singled out two particular offenders: me and Antony Loewenstein, who are “well-known as polemicists for the Palestinian position”. The fact that we’re both Jewish is apparently irrelevant.

It should be noted, the current chair of the ADC takes a particularly hard-line position. Abramovich wrote an article in 2010, in which he rejected the idea of allowing a Palestinian state. He explained that while “the widely accepted” notion for peace is the “two-state solution”, the “big question is whether this model can actually work”.

After all, “A two-state model can only work if the other side doesn’t want to destroy you.” He seems to have reaffirmed this position in an op-ed in the Jewish News in August last year, in which he wrote that “no serious Israeli leader would apply an identical approach of land for war and political appeasement to the West Bank and allow a militarised Palestinian state that will breathe down Israel’s neck and threaten the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem”.

Although the ADC explicitly identifies opposing a Jewish state as a form of anti-Semitism, its current chair opposes a Palestinian state.

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To summarise: The ADC is a hard-line, privately funded organisation, which aggressively lobbies for the interests of the Israeli government. Its chair is opposed to creating a Palestinian state. It has lobbied against a progressive online magazine presenting the Palestinian narrative, claiming that doing so causes anti-Semitism. It defines anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic, and includes as signs of anti-Semitism concerns that Israel denies rights to Palestinians, or otherwise discriminates against them.

It is unsurprising that such an organisation would object to any play presenting life under occupation in Gaza. It doesn’t matter what the content of the play is: it is ideologically opposed to presentations of “the Palestinian narrative”.

The only relevant question is why a pro-Israel lobby group – whose pro-Israel media releases are usually ignored by media – was given credence by the Age.

How Not To Convince People You Actually Read The Play

After briefly giving context about the play, Jacks offered quotes which purported to show that the play was biased against Israel. These served to give credibility to the ADC’s criticisms.

Jacks claimed that, “Characters in the play describe Israeli rule as ‘tyrannical’.” In fact, this quotation is a fabrication. The word “tyrannical” does not appear once. The nearest approximation to this claim – that multiple characters refer to Israel as “tyrannical” – is that one male character says to a female one: “Sometimes, your mother’s tyranny exceeds that of the Israeli army’s.”

This is clearly a joke, and is hardly proof that the play portrays Israel as a “blood-thirsty, evil war machine”. Though the context was clearly relevant, Jacks did not supply the context in her story.

Rehersals

I put the fact that “tyrannical” did not appear in the play to Jacks in an email, along with a series of other questions. After repeatedly asking me why I was asking my questions and what my “contention” was, Jacks replied to a few of my questions indirectly.

Jacks said, “Of course I read the play; I’m a journalist.” She did not then explain why she had falsely attributed a word to multiple characters. She said she had changed the word “tyrannical” to “tyranny” in the online version of the story. No notice of this correction is offered on the current version of the story. It still claims that “characters” make this comparison, even though only one does. The humorous context is not mentioned.

How can a journalist find that a word repeatedly appears in a play, when it doesn’t appear once? One possibility – distinctly unflattering to Jacks – is that she read the play, and then lied about it. A more likely possibility is that she was simply informed that the play demonises Israel, given a series of false and out of context quotes, and told that those quotes prove it demonises Israel and Jews.

Jacks did not attribute those quotes to whoever gave them to her, but flatly claimed they were in the play. Presenting them in that way without verifying that they were accurate is sloppy reporting at best, and dishonest reporting at worst.

In her reply to me, Jacks claimed that, “I asked many questions in order to verify facts and provide context.” It is hard to take this claim seriously.

For example, aside from Abramovich’s demonisation of the play, he made other factual claims which could be checked. For example, he claimed that, as a sign of the play’s bias and malevolence, it excluded “the Israeli perspective”, such as “the deaths of more than 160 children who were forced to dig tunnels by Hamas”.

This claim derives from a misreading of, and an error in, an old edition of the Journal of Palestine Studies. It corrected the record almost two years ago, as could have easily been verified by Jacks.

It showed that only nine children died in the tunnels, and none of them were forced to do so by Hamas. Jacks clearly made no effort to verify this claim by Abramovich.

It is hard to believe she applied scepticism to other claims by Abramovich, when she failed to do due diligence on an easily disprovable factual claim from 2014.

As another sign of Jack’s lack of good faith, consider her introduction of the perspective of AJDS Executive Member, Dr Jordy Silverstein. Silverstein wrote her PhD on Holocaust education of children in Australia and the US. Also representing a Jewish group, she had no objection to the play, which undercut the entire framing of Jacks article, of Jewish groups versus the play. One might also regard Silverstein’s academic specialty as relevant, but Jacks omitted this too.

Jack managed to overcome this by identifying the AJDS as a “far-left Jewish group”. This is the kind of introductory put-down standard to right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Andrew Bolt. Its purpose is to indicate that a source shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

In fact, the AJDS identifies as a “progressive” organisation. Identifying it as far left makes it seem more marginal, and less worthy of consideration. On what basis was this identification made? Jacks declined to answer this point in her email.

When told that AJDS was not a far left group on Twitter, Jacks replied “No? that was my understanding…” I asked Dr Silverstein about this. She explained that Jacks did not put this description of AJDS to her at any time, and observed that “it’s not an accurate description”.

So what was it based on? Why was ADC characterised as a Jewish group, and a body raising awareness about anti-Semitism and hate-speech, while AJDS was simply characterised as far left, and not included as a relevant Jewish group?

Well, it seems that when Jacks “asked many questions in order to verify facts and provide context”, this process didn’t include an effort to ask the AJDS about itself to gain context.

The distortions may seem minor, but they add up to a coordinated attempt to demonise the play and its author. This agenda was facilitated by Jacks.

Take the claim by the JCCV President that the play could “create negative views” about “Jews in the classroom”. The words “Jew”, “Jews”, “Jewish”, and “Judaism” don’t appear once in the play. Not once.

Jacks offers a misleading quote from a character, wondering, “What Holy Scripture gave the command ‘Thou shall wipe out their villages and scorch their land?’” Readers may form the view that this implied some kind of attack on Jewish scriptures, and thus legitimises claims that the play is anti-Jewish.

In fact, the context of the passage clearly indicates disbelief in religion authorising any such thing. For example, the preceding lines include the passage: “What sacred verses can explain/ Sniper fire”. Obviously, no sacred verses reference sniper fire.

On what basis can it be claimed that the play creates negative views about Jews, when there is not a single reference to Jews, and even an oblique reference to Jewish scriptures indicates that Jewish scriptures wouldn’t authorise cruelty?

There is no relevant basis. Claims that the play is anti-Semitic are clearly false, made by people who probably haven’t read the play. The fact that gratuitously false claims could be reprinted – and then create a national controversy about the play – is outrageous.

And the Age’s central role in this should be remembered.

The Wrong Kind Of One-Sided

new matilda, james kennard
Rabbi James Kennard.

Rabbi James Kennard, principal of the Jewish Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne, expressed his outrage at the play on J-Wire. He said that it was a “one-sided play”, which “presents Israelis as monstrous committers of genocide”.

The word genocide does not appear in the play. Nor does monstrous. Nor anything of the sort.

I emailed Rabbi Kennard to ask if he read the play. He declined to answer my question. He gave me permission to quote his emails, then expressed his “fear” that I would “paint” his reply “in some sort of negative light”.

Readers can speculate as to his familiarity with the play. It should be noted that the word “army” appears three times in the play. One of them is the apparently offensive joke about “tyranny”, mentioned above.

In his comments, Kennard went on to complain that the play, “especially if presented as part of the school curriculum, denies all students, Jewish or not, the right to create their own informed opinion regarding such a prominent and sensitive area of conflict. This is not education; it is propaganda”.

I interviewed Rabbi Kennard in May 2013. I asked him if he thought it inappropriate for a school principal to glorify the Israeli military. He replied: “No, I have no problem with being a Principal of a school in Australia which cultivates a close affinity with Israel, that encourages its students to consider living in Israel and [supporting]Israel in various ways, including serving in its army.”

That is, as principal, he ensures that his school “cultivates a close affinity with Israel”, encourages its students to support Israel and serve in its army. He now thinks that denying a student the right to create “their own informed opinion” about “such a prominent and sensitive area of conflict” is wildly inappropriate. Indeed – that is “not education; it is propaganda”.

Ms Jacks did not quote Rabbi Kennard in her article for some reason. Perhaps a story that humanises Palestinians offends her more than a school like Mount Scopus encouraging students to join the Israeli army. Whatever the case, it is likely that Jacks has some familiarity with Jewish students being indoctrinated to love Israel and join its army. After all, according to her Linked In account, Jacks was the School Captain of Mount Scopus in 2008.

The Terror Of Children Seeing Palestinians As Human

The controversy exists because of the Age story. The Age story is basically Jacks recycling false and inflammatory claims by a hard-line pro-Israeli lobby group. Having uncritically repeated its false claims, Jacks then offered a semblance of balance, finding quotes to present it as an issue of two sides of legitimate debate.

Unhappy with manufacturing a fraudulent controversy, Jacks put her thumb on the scale to bias it towards her preferred conclusion. Thus, the ADC fights anti-Semitism; the AJDS is far left. False and misleading quotes were presented, which I believe lends itself open to the interpretation that Jacks appears to have never read the play in context, nor ever seen it performed. This is the basis of the present campaign against the play.

The play itself is sweet and wonderful. If readers are interested, it is only a few hundred dollars away from reaching a fundraising goal that would enable it to go on tour to Adelaide and Sydney.

It received a positive review in Fairfax, and a rave review by the progressive Jewish group, AJDS (“stunning theatrical experience”). Yet the ADC – which has expressed the view that presenting the Palestinian narrative causes anti-Semitism – is seeking to prevent senior high school children from seeing the play or studying it.

Even though the play doesn’t mention Jews once, the Age laundered claims that it is somehow anti-Jewish. Such claims of anti-Semitism can more easily be understood when we remember how expansively the ADC defines the concept.

It is true that there are reactionary Jewish groups who want to prevent children from seeing the play. It is hard to square this with their acceptance of Jewish schools openly declaring their desire to ensure that Jewish children be taught to love Israel and serve in its army.

Whatever else might motivate those demonising the play, their concern is plainly not to prevent the indoctrination of children. It is to ensure that children are indoctrinated in favour of Israel.

Though the hypocrisy is unmistakable, it somehow passes unnoticed. And so, debate continues on whether school children should be exposed to anti-Israel material, as though one side of the debate is natural and legitimate, and the other side is inherently racist.

Given the nature of education at Jewish schools, perhaps indoctrinating children against Israel would be balance. Yet the play does no such thing. It simply tells a story about Palestinians struggling to live and love in Gaza.

It is sad that certain groups are afraid of children seeing a play that portrays Palestinians as humans. And it is revealing that the Age supported such an ugly campaign.

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Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MichaelBrullWritings/

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