Our debate about writers’ angry tweets obscures the real scandal


You might think the controversy over Adelaide Writers’ Week is about one word or another. Or about what sort of Palestinians should be invited to speak. Or how many of them. And whether they should be matched by Jewish or Israeli counterparts while speaking. But it’s actually about creating a smokescreen around Israel’s conduct. As the flames grow higher in the West Bank, fanned by politicians who talk without shame about ethnic cleansing, we would be arguing about the wording of the fire alert.

It has been argued in this country that use of the word apartheid to describe what Israel is doing is antisemitic. Or that use of the word occupied is pejorative. Or that you shouldn’t urge people to divest from the Israeli state because it is antisemitic. That you can’t “single out” Israel for criticism because … you guessed it.

I have always believed that using the word “Nazi” in political debates, but especially those involving Israel, is misguided and counter-productive, and I’ve told people so. It treats the Middle East and its history as a sideshow of Europe’s, with all its hatreds and crimes.

But the West’s history means that in the cacophony of competing voices, those who make the comparison believe it will cut through and eliminate grey areas. They are wrong, but they shouldn’t be disqualified from speaking on that basis. As the Israeli writer Jacobo Timerman said during the invasion of Lebanon 40 years ago, “if criticism of and accusation against Israel … are going to be dismissed as expressions of antisemitism because they contain verbal images which correspond with Nazi crimes against the Jews, we will become alienated from the world in which we live”.

Until something is done at the international level about the reality Palestinians are experiencing, the argument about comparisons and terminology is one that will continue chiefly among people who aren’t actually interested in working to change that reality.


Some people think it’s fanciful to claim that Palestinian speech in this country is policed. Others think it’s fanciful to talk about the influence of a Zionist lobby here, even though it has been anything but silent recently and its actions over decades are widely documented. You might even think that publication of this piece somehow disproves such notions. You’d be wrong. It’s not enough to hear from one Palestinian voice.

To better understand what is going on in Palestine, I suggest you buy a ticket and get yourselves over to the Adelaide Writers’ Week for the perspective of Mohammed El-Kurd and other Palestinians. Sure, you might find some of what you hear discomfiting and even painful. But you’re not the one who is fighting for your freedom.

Maher Mughrabi is The Age’s features editor.

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