By Meg Watson
The director of Adelaide Writers’ Week says she’s disappointed and surprised after a major law firm announced it would boycott the festival due to the inclusion of two Palestinian authors.
On Tuesday morning, MinterEllison, which has been a sponsor of the Adelaide Festival for five years and says it is a “strong supporter of the arts community”, announced the decision to step back as a major partner, removing its “presence and involvement with this year’s writers’ festival program” and also “removing [its] support from the broader [Adelaide Festival] program (where feasible).”
Chief executive Virginia Briggs said this was due to public statements made by writers Susan Abulhawa and Mohammed El-Kurd, who are on the festival program, and the law firm’s concerns that “no racist or anti-Semitic commentary should be tolerated”.
Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American writer known for her bestselling novel Mornings in Jenin, has recently been in the media over tweets criticising Volodymyr Zelensky. In March last year, she accused the Ukrainian president of dragging the world into World War III. She has also supported calls to “de-Nazify Ukraine” – an idea which is often regarded as Russian propaganda.
El-Kurd, a writer and poet who creates work about conflict and displacement in East Jerusalem, has previously published tweets saying Zionists have an “unquenchable thirst for Palestinian blood & land” and had “completely internalised the ways of the Nazis”.
In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League – which is dedicated to “stopping the defamation of Jewish people” – characterised his social media and much of his work as anti-Semitic, especially that which uses language historically wielded against Jewish communities.
However, as media ethics academic Denis Muller recently wrote in The Conversation, a counterview could assert that his comments are directed at Zionists rather than the State of Israel or Jewish people more generally, and are therefore “political in nature rather than racist”.
Festival director Louise Adler, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, has stood firm by her decision to include both writers in her festival. She says she’s surprised MinterEllison would decide to step away, given the company’s “staunch defence” of clients in the worlds of newspaper and book publishing. (Minters regularly advises and defends high-profile media organisations, and has previously represented The Age and Sydney Morning Herald).
“I’ve had the benefit of their legal counsel in the past, and they have been tremendous advocates for press freedom and freedom of speech,” Adler says.
“I’m focused on creating a context for civil discussion about ideas that matter. I don’t think we gather together because we agree with one another. If we can’t tolerate ideas that are disturbing, confronting or upsetting even, then we should probably give up on the idea we have of a public square being important to civil debate.”
She also says that both Abulhawa and El-Kurd have been asked to participate in the program because of their published work – which continues pertinent discussions about “land, homelands, dispossession and exile” – not what they write on social media.
“I don’t seek out writers via their Twitter feeds,” Adler says. “I do not think the social media space is a place for nuanced or reasoned analysis and discussion.”
Speaking generally of the controversy – and specifically flagging ongoing coverage in sections of the media – Adler says she finds the “antagonism towards individual writers [to be] disturbing and immoderate”.
“The agendas are perfectly transparent … Some parts of the Jewish community leadership are entirely opposed to individual writers or discussions – views that they don’t share on the nature of the conflict in the Middle East”.
Nasser Mashni, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, shares similar concerns about a “campaign to cancel” these writers, driven by what he calls “a few tweets reported out of context”.
“Palestinians are angry at their treatment by the State of Israel, not because their oppressors are Jewish, but because they live under a cruel and barbaric siege, their anger comes from people being killed, maimed and oppressed … We cannot censor the political views of Palestinians because they are unpopular.
“While [MinterEllison] might find the comments disturbing, we can assure them the circumstances that led to the comments are far more horrific.”
Jeremy Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, however, has welcomed MinterEllison’s “principled decision to reject antisemitism”.
“As a major partner to the festival, its actions have meaning. But the festival has other corporate partners. We call on them to make clear that they reject hate speech and want nothing to do with the hate and normalisation of antisemitism promoted by Adelaide Writers Week.”
Abulhawa and El-Kurd will appear at a variety of events during the festival, speaking alongside a number of other authors about their work.
“It’s a wonderful thing that we live in a democracy,” Adler says. “People can choose to come or not to come.”