Palestinian Playwright Falsely Accused Of Anti-Semitism Wins Victorian Drama Awards


Fairfax Media’s attempts to manufacture controversy around a Palestinian play have fallen very flat, writes Michael Brull.

Tales of a City by the Sea, a play about life in Gaza by a Palestinian playwright, has won two Drama Victoria Awards. One award was for Best Performance by a Theatre Company for VCE Drama. The other was for Best New Australian Publication for VCE Drama and/or Theatre Studies Teachers and Students.

Playwright Samah Sabawi accepted the latter, and gave a short speech.

“This one goes for anybody who has ever fought for freedom of expression. This one goes for anybody who has ever used their art to light a candle in the dark. This goes to anybody who has ever had the courage to speak truth to power.”

In May this year, alleged Fairfax journalist Timna Jacks started a gratuitous controversy about the play. Based almost entirely on false claims about the play by the right-wing pro-Israel group, the Anti-Defamation Commission, Jack’s article suggested the play was anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

She claimed that “characters” in the play call Israel “tyrannical”. In fact, the word tyrannical does not appear in the play a single time. When I put this to Jacks, she changed the story, without notifying readers of the correction, so that “characters” compare Israel to “tyranny”. In fact, one character uses the word tyranny – and it is clearly a joke, as the comparison is to another character’s mother.

Likewise, Jacks referred to the ADC as “a body raising awareness about anti-Semitism and hate speech”. She did not acknowledge that the current chair thinks “strong support of Israel is integral to the ADC’s brief”. She should be aware of that fact, as she wrote it in her report on his appointment for the Jewish News.

Jacks, who showed no signs of having read the play, failed to correct his factually false claim about tunnels in Gaza. Jacks also offered the comments of someone who claimed that the play could “create negative views” about “Jews in the classroom”. The words “Jew”, “Jews”, “Jewish”, and “Judaism” don’t appear in the play either.

The entire controversy was created by her quoting – or in the case of the tyranny quote, plagiarising – specious accusations about the play by pro-Israel advocates. This was then followed by more attacks on the play in other media outlets, which then sought to show both sides of an utterly absurd argument, with the critics showing zero familiarity with the play. The Age naturally gave an op ed to the ADC.

To give another representative example of the critics of the play, let us remember the performance of Rabbi James Kennard. He claimed that the play was “one sided” and “presents Israelis as monstrous committers of genocide”. I asked him if he had read the play. He declined to answer that question.

Rabbi Kennard complained that the play “denies all students, Jewish or not, the right to create their own informed opinion”. He is the principal of a school which, by his own admission, “cultivates a close affinity with Israel… encourages its students to consider living in Israel and [support]Israel in various ways, including serving in its army.” It is hard to even ridicule the oblivious performances of those who wanted to shut the play down for its imaginary anti-Semitism.

I read the play, and I also saw it when it was performed in Sydney. After the performance, I moderated the question and answer period that followed. The play is wonderful, and so were the performances.

I am proud and honoured to call Samah a friend, and I was deeply flattered to moderate the Q&A. Samah is a woman of considerable courage and talent, and the awards that the play received were richly deserved.

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 (click on the icon below right).