Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Media Microscope: Samah time blues

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Allon Lee


Pro-Palestinian activist and writer Samah Sabawi's play "Tales of a City by the Sea," set in Gaza during the 2008/09 Hamas/Israel war, made waves with media reports that 1,300 students are studying it as part of their drama course in the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE).

Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) was widely quoted expressing concern the play is "anti-Israel propaganda" portraying the country as a "bloodthirsty, evil war machine".

In the Australian (May 10), reporter Jennine Khalik - a journalist with a history of pro-Palestinian activism - seemed to analogise the play's subject matter with the Holocaust, writing that it "is one of 16 works, including two dealing with the Holocaust, being studied."

Khalik's report described Sabawi as a "poet and author" and quoted the playwright saying, "it is intentionally written in a depoliticised sense."

Sabawi is actually a pro-Palestinian activist, a former professional advocate with Australians for Palestine and a vocal proponent of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) - a fact reported by Timna Jacks in the Age (May 10).

Meanwhile, the website of the theatre staging the play, La Mama, itself describes the play as "undeniably political." 

On ABC Radio 774 Melbourne's "The Conversation Hour" (May 10), Sabawi told host Jon Faine the play is not anti-Israel propaganda but merely states facts, including that "phosphorous bombs were dropped on Gaza... a historic fact. That's not an opinion and it's not a political statement."

Sabawi is right - it's not an opinion, it's a fabrication. During the war, Israel used shells containing phosphorous to create screening smoke, which are legal and deployed by many armies. These were not bombs.

Sabawi accused the play's critics of trying to "colonise the discourse...we are being colonised by this poisonous discourse," before calling the play an opportunity for "bridge building" by citing support for the play from the tiny, far-left Australian Jewish Democratic Society.

Considering that BDS's goal is Israel's elimination and it usually rejects any contact with Israelis, Sabawi's supposed "bridge building" looks like nonsense - especially since those who disagree with her are not considered dialoguing but engaging in "colonising" and "poisoning" the discourse.

Faine admitted he hadn't read the play, but said the controversy stemmed from the experience of the Holocaust and the alleged Jewish belief that "no matter what, Israel must be defended. Therefore any public acknowledgement of anything negative about Israel... shouldn't be allowed...Many of the leaders of the Jewish community... they try and shut down any criticism of Israel whatsoever."

Criticism of Israel is one thing, but so much of it is either factually wrong or a red herring masking other more nefarious agendas, such as those often seen among BDS supporters. Such misinformation is also a significant barrier to achieving a two-state peace.

However, in Faine's condescending worldview, if the Jewish community point this out, their arguments can be dismissed because they are the product of the psychological scarring of the Holocaust. On May 27, Faine interviewed ADC's Dvir Abramovich who critiqued the play.

On ABC Radio National "Book and Arts" (May 14), Sabawi said, "Gaza has been under siege and under occupation since 1967... since 2006 the siege has been tightened as a result of the Hamas winning the elections" and claimed that by 2008 "the siege has had a horrible impact on the population with children not receiving enough nutrition, food not getting in." 

Before 1967, Gaza was under an oppressive Egyptian occupation for 19 years. Israel has never imposed a siege, only a limited blockade after Hamas began firing rockets at Israeli civilians, something Sabawi ignored. The blockade never applied to medicine, food or vital aid.

Sabawi also claimed attempts to stage the play in Gaza in 2014 were prevented because "two-thirds of [Gaza] city was turned to rubble" during that year's war. This is a ridiculous untruth. Most of the war damage was sustained in two suburbs along the border - Beit Hanoun and Suhjaiyeh - and data compiled by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows that Gaza City itself was largely unscathed.

Australian foreign editor Greg Sheridan (May 14) aptly described the selection of Sabawi's play for students as a marker of how our education system is infused with "an exaggerated hostility to the West... Israel is demonised in part because it is a Western-patterned society in the Middle East, so naturally Victorian Certificate of Education students study a locally written play depicting Israel as evil and the oppressor of the Palestinians," he wrote.

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