Australian literary fest hosts Palestinian writers who peddle antisemitic tropes

Adelaide Writers’ Week lambasted for inviting authors who claim Israel harvests Palestinian organs, poisons wells; one calls recent American Israeli terror victim ‘human garbage’

People at the Adelaide Writers Week in Australia listen to Palestinian author Sarah Abulhawa, March 7, 2023. (Josh Feldman)
People at the Adelaide Writers Week in Australia listen to Palestinian author Sarah Abulhawa, March 7, 2023. (Josh Feldman)

An annual writers’ festival held in the Australian city of Adelaide recently became center stage for a ferocious ideological battle centering largely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Adelaide Writers’ Week is a prominent literary fair where attendees meet, attend panels and discuss literature with both domestic and international writers, covering myriad topics from geopolitics to music.

But this year, the generally placid festival, whose audience largely consists of retirees, sparked a row after it invited two Palestinian writers accused of virulent antisemitism to address the crowds.

Sarah Abulhawa, an American-Palestinian author, spoke a few times at the festival, which ran from March 4 to March 9, despite intense opposition from local Jewish groups, who pointed to Abulhawa’s previous tweets labeling Israel a “Nazi state” and a “racist colonial Zionist military ‘state'” that will “someday be demolished.”

In the midst of the debate over her inclusion in Adelaide, Abulhawa sparked further uproar after describing Elan Ganeles, an American-Israeli citizen and former IDF soldier who was killed in a Palestinian terror attack in February, as a “privileged white man” who “violently colonized another people.”

“Y’all are upset over this human garbage,” she wrote.

Susan Abulhawa. (CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia)

In a subsequent interview with Australian ABC Radio, Abulhawa did not deny that she had engaged in hate speech, but maintained that due to the “powerless” status of Palestinians, they should be allowed to use such rhetoric.

“Why does no one ever take Ukrainians to task for hating the Russians?” she asked.

She also drew the ire of Ukrainian Australians for her description of Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, as a “Nazi-promoting Zionist.”

Writer and Poet Mohammad El-Kurd, an East Jerusalem Palestinian, also addressed festival-goers via video link. Like Abulhawa, El-Kurd has labeled the Jewish state a “terrorist, genocidal nation,” alleging that Israel is actively carrying out ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

“Israelis at large are thirsty for Palestinian blood,” he claimed in 2021.

As media pundits and Jewish organizations scrambled to have the pair removed, festival director Louise Adler, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, doubled down on the controversial writers’ inclusion.

Speaking to a raft of Australian media outlets, Adler repeated that her festival was “not a safe space, but an open space,” asserting that it was the perfect opportunity for the public to hear voices and opinions they did not necessarily agree with.

“Writers are invited for their books, not their tweets,” she said.

Despite her efforts, major supporters of the event withdrew, including MinterEllison, the country’s largest law firm, which said it did not support “racist or antisemitic commentary.”

Australia’s Zionist Federation welcomed the “principled” decision, adding that MinterEllison’s withdrawal was a rejection of both antisemitism and those “prepared to give it a voice.”

South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas declared he would not attend his state’s signature festival over the row, but refused to withdraw government funding for the fair, arguing that to do so would set a precedent that could lead to censorship akin to that practiced in Russia.

Amid the controversy, both writers appeared at the festival in front of sell-out crowds, with some local commentators postulating that the noise created by Jewish and Ukrainian interest groups unwittingly drew more curious festival-goers to their events, strengthening their platform.

At the festival, El-Kurd, via videolink, claimed that Israelis harvest Palestinian organs, a trope he has repeated on multiple occasions. He reportedly told the Adelaide crowd that it was his “favorite line of poetry.”

File: Screen capture from video of Palestinian poet and activist Mohammed El-Kurd as he addressed a solidarity event at the United Nations, November, 2021. (YouTube)

In one of Abulhawa’s sessions, she accused Jewish settlers of poisoning and destroying Palestinian water sources. Jews in medieval Europe were periodically accused of poisoning wells in an effort to kill Christians, often resulting in deadly pogroms.

In one incident at the festival, an attendee speaking during a questions and answers segment said that the Zionist movement had collaborated with Nazi Germany, prompting event organizers to cut the microphone before she could finish.

“Zionists have only existed for over 100 years as an ideology, not a religion or race, started by Theodor Herzl, an Austrian,” she began.

“Because he presented a colonial project that appealed to Western imperialists like the US, and colluded with German Nazis to undermine German Jews and European Jews during the Holocaust,” she added, before the microphone was cut off. Other audience members could be heard gasping and sniggering at the baseless assertion.

Having followed the hubbub in the Australian media in the lead-up to the event, Josh Feldman, 23, a pro-Israel activist and writer, flew from his home in Melbourne to attend the writers’ week in Adelaide.

Feldman, who decided to keep his Jewish identity under wraps at the festival, told The Times of Israel that he was drawn to the event because of the international notoriety of the two Palestinian writers, whom he accused of having “disgusting histories of antisemitism.”

While there was no official counter-demonstration, Feldman noted that at least one national Jewish organization, which he did not name, handed out leaflets detailing the antisemitic remarks of El-Kurd and Abulhawa.

Feldman recalled one incident, where a moderator, in the process of asking a question of Abulhawa, described Israel as an apartheid state.

“I’m glad you described it that way. Apartheid doesn’t even begin to describe what Israel is,” Feldman quoted Abulhawa as saying in response.

“In all these talks there was a clear implication that the Palestinians were indigenous to the land and the Jews have no connection there, they’re European colonialists. It was totally disconnected from reality,” said Feldman, asserting that no one in the crowd objected to any of the comments throughout the five days of the festival.

Caroline Overington, a reporter for The Australian newspaper who also attended the festival, wrote: “Words like pogrom, massacre and apartheid were used, and there was nobody to object. Nobody talked about Israelis being blown up on buses or knifed in the street; nobody talked about suicide bombings that killed thousands of Jews in Israel before the controversial wall went up. Israel was the villain.”

“[Moderator] Sophie McNeill didn’t pretend to be impartial. She told the audience the organization she represents, Human Rights Watch, considered Israel guilty of apartheid,” she said.

McNeill, a former Middle East correspondent for the Australian government broadcaster, was persistently accused of harboring anti-Israel bias in her reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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