Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Playwright Samah

As I reported on my own blog on 7 April (http://daphneanson.blogspot.com.au/2016/04/in-australia-schoolkids-study.html) “the play City by the Sea, by poet, writer and activist Samah Sabawi, a Gaza-born (1967) Australian/Canadian, is now on the 2016 playlist for school students taking the Victorian Certificate of Education [the school-leaving certificate in the Australian state of Victoria].  It means that students in years 11 and 12 will be attending performances of the play at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne in May….”

I quoted at some length from an official document by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) which says, inter alia, teachers should be aware that in some instances sensitivity might be needed where particular issues or themes that are explored may be challenging for students. Teachers are advised to familiarise themselves with the treatment of these issues and themes within the context and world of the play prior to students viewing the play and/or studying the playscript. This might involve reading the playscript, talking with the theatre company, researching the playscript, the work of the playwright, director and/or company, attending a preview performance and/or discussing the matter with the school administration. Information provided in this notice about themes and/or language used in specific plays is a guide only. In some plays, suggestive and potentially offensive words and phrases are used. This language may invite adverse comment from some areas of the community”. 

I quoted a report in the Sydney Morning Herald that notes “A longtime vocal advocate for Palestinian rights, Sabawi recently made headlines when she was taken off the panel at an Israel-Palestine debate at the Wheeler Centre, only to be promptly reinstated four hours later. At the time, Sabawi said that she thought her ejection from the panel was due to pressure from those who object to her support for the BDS [Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions] movement against Israel” and continues “The City and the Sea is undeniably political …”and from a review in The Age of Melbourne that remarks “This gripping play is an act of resistance that implores its audience to take heed.” And I observed: “Tailor-made, wouldn't you say, for teachers who may be left-wing anti-Zionists, and indeed any teacher who relies for information about the Middle East on such biased sources as the Fairfax Press (The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald), the ABC and SBS, wittingly or unwittingly to poison young minds?”
I went on to cite the jubilation of those connected with the play: “Congratulations to all of us!   Palestinian play highlighting challenges of life in Gaza during the war of 2008-2009 has been selected for the 2016 Victorian Certificate of Education Drama list.   The play Tales of a City by the Sea by Palestinian Australian playwright Samah Sabawi was one of 16 of more than 50 submissions selected for the 3 VCE Playlists.   As a result, it will be seen and studied by hundreds of year 11 & 12 Theatre students in Victoria and it will be published by Currency Press and disseminated among these students.”

And when I realised that nobody in the Australian Jewish communal leadership seemed to be aware of the play, much less its inclusion on this year’s curriculum in Victoria, I (and perhaps others) alerted Dr Dvir Abramovich, an academic who chairs the Anti-Defamation League, and is one of the most effective and dedicated figures on the Australian Jewish communal leadership scene today.  Having read the transcript of the play he has roundly condemned it, declaring on the Special Broadcasting Station (SBS), an ethnic minorities’ and foreign-language public broadcaster not known for any great sympathy for Israel: “This is one of the most disturbing and cleverly conceived cases of anti-Israel propaganda and delegitimization masquerading as art that I’ve seen.  I think it's very troubling that this skewed play is now part of the VCE curriculum and it will certainly poison the minds of impressionable young people.”

To quote The Age (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/vce-play-accused-of-being-antiisrael-propaganda-20160509-gopz96.html ): ‘The play is one of six selected for year 12 students studying VCE drama. Students will watch the performance and study the text throughout the year.  Dr Dvir Abramovich, chair of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission, a body raising awareness about anti-Semitism and hate speech, said the play portrays Israel as a "blood-thirsty, evil war-machine", without any explanation for the bombings, or the violence perpetrated by the Palestinian camp.  He took aim at the authority for including the "unabashedly one-sided" play in the curriculum, claiming the content was "anti-Israel propaganda".  "Nowhere to be found is the Israeli perspective ... the suicide bombings inside Israel, the deaths of more than 160 children who were forced to dig tunnels by Hamas, the offers of peace by Israel, the thousands of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza," he said. "What this play does, amongst other things, is to create a tremendously hostile climate in which any Jewish student who will see the play with their classmates … will be ashamed and worried about expressing any support for Israel or even admit that they have a link with the Jewish state."’

The Australian (behind a pay wall) has quoted Dr Abramovich as saying “I am genuinely concerned for any Jewish-Australian pupils who will have to deal with the outrage and visceral contempt of their classmates at school.”

And the ABC reports (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-10/'anti-israel'-play-in-vce-curriculum-government-questioned/7402176) the Opposition Liberal Party ‘has used a budget hearing to attack the Government over the inclusion of a play in the VCE curriculum that has been labelled anti-Israel…. Jewish groups have said the play is a one-sided depiction of the conflict, and conservative MPs seized on the issue during a budget hearing today. Liberal Tim Smith questioned why the play had been included in the curriculum… "I want to know why you've got clearly an anti-Israel play being taught to our children. This is a real concern from the Jewish community about clearly a play that is anti-Israel, that has been authored by an anti-Israeli activist. Why is this being taught in our schools that would give rise to an anti-Israel view coming out of our schools?" …. Education Minister James Merlino said it was not up to politicians to set the curriculum.  He said the Government was not in the business of banning books.  "Decisions regarding what is included in the curriculum ... those decisions quite rightly are made by the VCAA," Mr Merlino said. "Not the minister, not the Government. It's not the place of politicians to decide what books are to be placed on the reading list, what plays are to be delivered as part of the drama program. And that's how it should be."… But Liberal Party MP David Morris questioned whether the text would be allowed to remain if it attacked a different group, such as the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex community. "This is a one-sided portrayal of what is undoubtedly a complex conflict," he said. "Surely when there's a play selected for study that's one sided, that's divisive, that will undoubtedly make students of Jewish background at the least feel extremely uncomfortable and potentially feel that they're at risk of persecution, surely then as the Minister there is a responsibility on your part to intervene?" Mr Merlino said he trusted teachers would focus on the dramatic elements of the play and explain the political context.’

Tellingly, the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network has described the play as “an important opportunity to glimpse what life is like behind the wire.   Israel’s military attacks on Gaza and the blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt has cost thousands of innocent lives. The play also reports on the internal repression of the Palestinian political factions in the Strip….”

Tellingly, too, a hard core member of the leftist frequently Israel-demonising non-mainstream Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDC) has professed on Facebook to raise “a digit finger raised to Dvir Abromwich [sic] of the pro-defamation Anti-Defamation Commission”, while another AJDS stalwart (whose repugnant views regarding BDS can be read here http://www.ajds.org.au/2013/06/jewishpalestiniansolidarity/) declares: "It is vitally important that young people, including those who are Israeli or Jewish, are able to access these stories, and hear them articulated from a Palestinian perspective. Having this play on the VCE syllabus will help to open people's minds, not close them off."

On 11 May, beneath a report of the furore over the play here (http://www.jwire.com.au/not-education-propoganda/), a commenter called James Crafti declared: “I am Jewish and worked on the play. I was one of the first people Samah had review the script when she did a first draft in 2011. I also worked as the assistant stage manager on this remount of the play. It is a fantastic play and people should really see it. People should come and see it with an open mind.

Ah, but Mr Crafti is not your common or garden member of the Aussie Jewish community.  He’s a hard leftist, a relentless critic and campaigner against Israel, about whom further information can be had here (https://redflag.org.au/author/james-crafti ) and here https://electronicintifada.net/content/victory-australias-boycott-campaign-charges-blockading-chocolate-store-dropped/11535), where with regard to a boycott of the Max Brenner franchise  he’s quoted as saying “while we were arrested for daring to stand up for Palestinian human rights, the Israeli state continues to carry out war crimes and human rights abuses against the Palestinian people and are not held to account for their occupation and apartheid practices.”

Here (https://talesofacitybythesea.com/tag/james-crafti/) we learn that “James Crafti is excited to be working on Tales of a City by the Sea as it combines two of his passions: theatre and Palestine. On the former James has directed a variety of plays such as … Seven Jewish Children…. James has also been an organiser with Campaign Against Israeli Apartheid, Australians for Justice and Peace in Palestine and Jews Against Israeli Apartheid”.

Needless to say, choosing (or not) to see the play at the theatre is one thing.  Having it thrust at impressionable young people via their school curriculum, quite another: it is unconscionable.  Unconscionable too that no consultation with Jewish leaders in Victoria seems to have taken place, so that they had no input into the matter until it was a fait accompli. The Jewish communities of the other states should be on their guard and not let this play or anything comparable pass under the radar. 

I don’t agree with all this left-leaning Australian Jew quoted below has said on social media, but he is absolutely correct in condemning the play creeping into the purview of school students and the attempted justification of such by elements in the Jewish Left: ‘The Palestinians are already winning the propaganda war against Israel by a mile in Western Leftist circles. We all know their suffering is real, and some of this suffering is no doubt caused by the excesses of the present hard-line, right-wing Israeli government. What is not true is that Israel is the only cause of their suffering. The main cause is the corrupt, duplicitous and divided Palestinian leadership, which uses aid money to enrich themselves and the materials that come into Gaza to build tunnels to attack Israel instead of building housing for their own people. They use their people as human shields and cannon fodder. They teach hate in their schools and Hamas still have a charter which calls for the complete destruction of Israel and the killing of every Jew. And let's not forget the complicity of the Arab countries, which could have re-settled the Palestinians long ago, but they chose to instead use them as pawns to show how evil Israel is.”

And again: ‘A love story it may be … but, according to an article by the education reporter of The Age, ‘Characters in the play describe Israeli rule as "tyrannical". One accuses Israel of leading a "massacre" of the Palestinian people, questioning: "What Holy Scripture gave the command 'Thou shall wipe out their villages and scorch their land?' ….The play was written by an anti-Israel Palestinian activist who supports the BDS movement. I guess you have to be someone who knows the history of the Middle East, and of the centuries of persecution of the Jews both there and in Europe to read between the lines and to appreciate the skewed emphasis here.’

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