‘Australia was up in arms’: Palestinian writer addresses festival furore

A Palestinian writer whose inclusion at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week sparked a sponsorship boycott has directly addressed the controversy, accusing “simple-minded” critics of smearing him.

Poet Mohammed El-Kurd appeared at his first Writers’ Week event on Sunday, following weeks of debate over his inclusion and demands that he, along with another Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa, be dropped from the line-up over accusations of antisemitism.

Mohammed El-Kurd on screen at the Adelaide Writers’ Week.Credit:Andrew Beveridge

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”.

While the event’s organisers continued to back the authors, a number of key sponsors including law firm MinterEllison and consultants PwC withdrew their support.

El-Kurd spoke via video link from New York City, on a panel titled Authors Take Sides, chaired by former ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill. The panel also featured Palestinian Egyptian author Randa Abdel-Fattah, journalist and author Ramzy Baroud and high-profile ethicist Peter Singer.

The panel’s broad theme revolved around the extent to which authors should take a public position on contemporary political issues, including topics like climate change, but the majority of the conversation focused on El-Kurd, Baroud and Abdel-Fattah’s experiences of Israeli occupation, and its relationship to their work.

Baroud told the audience he was born in a refugee camp. He said that as a Palestinian, “the question of taking sides is not even a question. I would contend that the question itself reeks of privilege. There is no alternative but to take sides.”

Sophie McNeill and Dr Ramzy Baroud at the Adelaide Writers’ Week.Credit:Andrew Beveridge

El-Kurd directly addressed the controversy around his involvement, saying “Australia was up in arms about me participating in this literary festival … It’s not enough that I lost my home to Israeli settlers, I need to be polite, I need to be respectful.”

Referencing one of his poems, which drew strong criticism for a reference to organ harvesting, El-Kurd said: “I have been asked to apologise by simple-minded individuals for my poems. I have mutilated my poems by putting footnotes in them.”

El-Kurd went on to say that the criticisms of him and his work were an attempt to shut him down, but that they had had the opposite effect.

“I think they [his critics] did quite a good job of spreading a conversation about Palestine. I think it has spread into the dining rooms of Australians who normally would not be discussing Palestine.”

Mohammed El-Kurd and Susan Abulhawa are on the program at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week.Credit:Instagram/T Sauppe

Earlier on Sunday, former Attorney-General George Brandis appeared to back the festival’s decision to include El-Kurd and Abulhawa in a panel titled The Public Square, alongside former NSW Premier Bob Carr, ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson and English playwright David Hare.

“This is the test of whether you believe in a civil and free society; that is whether you’re prepared to respect the right of others to have views you find profoundly objectionable,” Brandis said.

Defending his controversial 2014 comment in parliament that “people have the right to be bigots”, Brandis said that the “definition of civility in a free society is the amount of tolerance we are prepared to extend to people whose views are profoundly different from our own, and whose views shock us or offend us”.

A late addition to the panel, Brandis replaced News Corp columnist David Penberthy, who last month described Adelaide Writer’s Week’s programming as “an open invitation to people who act like pigs on Twitter”. The editor of Adelaide’s The Advertiser also called for director Louise Adler to resign.

David Hare, Sarah Ferguson and George Brandis at Adelaide Writers’ Week.Credit:Andrew Beveridge

Hare said that organisers of a boycott against the event had also pressured the University of New South Wales to cancel an event he was due to speak at, claiming he had been “contaminated” by his connection to the festival.

“There seems to be a chain of madness now that has only to do with the touchiness, which means you’re very, very, far away from the real problems,” Hare told the crowd.

“I’ve travelled in Israel and in Gaza and the West Bank, and in that part of the world people aren’t really that upset about what people say; they’re upset by what people do,” he said. “People in Israel are extremely upset by suicide bombers who go into markets and kill; and similarly, the Palestinians are very upset about the level of oppression by the Israeli military and the occupation of what they believe to be their land.

”In Palestine, things that we regard as unacceptable antisemitic tropes are said every day. In other words, the Israelis are referred to as Nazis, you’ll hear that 10 times a day … on the other hand if you go to dinner, as I have done in the settlements on a Friday night, you will hear people refer to the Palestinians as dogs, you will hear them called rats, you will hear them called animals who deserve to be herded up.”

7.30 presenter Sarah Ferguson expressed a desire to interview Abulhawa and interrogate her views, rather than silence them.

“I would like to talk to her about the things she says — I think deplorable things she says — about the invasion of Ukraine … but I definitely don’t want her banned from this festival, I want to be on a stage with her, I want to be able to interview her, because that’s my life’s work.”

Responding to criticism of her 2018 Four Corners interview with former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, Ferguson said that the ABC faces a generational divide over questions of neutrality and the platforming of offensive views.

“We have obviously a lot of young journalists in the ABC who take a different approach to activism, to the expression of ideas through their journalism, and it is a very uncomfortable moment for the ABC, because there is a generational difference,” she said.

“The people that are largely making the complaints, or who are the energy behind some of the angriest outbreaks, not in relation to the dispute this week, but that we see as part of what is very loosely called ‘cancel culture’ – a lot of that energy comes from the generations below ours, and they were the people who complained about us giving a platform, so-called, to Steve Bannon.”

Abulhawa’s first event at Writer’s Week is scheduled for Tuesday morning, while El-Kurd will appear at another panel on Tuesday titled The Poetry of Dispossession.

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