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Protesters for Palestine outside the State Library. Source: Openverse, Matt Hrkac.

The uneasy relationship between the Israeli government, Zionist politics and Australia’s arts sector has been a hot topic in progressive circles for some time. However, following the 7 October Hamas attacks and Israel’s subsequent disproportionate response—‘plausible’ acts of genocide according to the International Court of Justice—these discussions have intensified to the point where the sector is beginning to bifurcate along sectarian lines.

The tail end of 2023 saw gestures of solidarity with Palestine result in institutional apologies, resignations, professional fallings out and acts of censorship. Tensions have continued into 2024, and more recently public discourse has shifted to the programming of literary events, highlighting the influence of political interests on the arts world.

One of the bigger controversies involves the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF). The end of February saw conflict erupt between MWF programmers and board members. MWF chief executive Fiona Menzies and deputy chair Dr Leslie Reti resigned. Age staff journalist Chip Le Grand reported that these departures were due to the then embargoed program, which he said ‘casts Israel as an illegitimate, settler colonialist state, accuses it of atrocities and seeks to align Indigenous Australia with the Palestinian cause’. The session that caused the division within MWF is titled ‘Let it Bring Hope’, an event of poetry readings by First Nations and Palestinian poets curated by Koori/Goori and Lebanese writer Mykaela Saunders. The line in the event description that reportedly ignited the resignations reads:

Aboriginal and Palestinian solidarity has a long history, a relationship that is more vital than ever in the movement to resist colonialism and speak out against atrocities.

According to the Age, Reti said he believed the blurb to be ‘historically untrue and deeply offensive’.

Festival artistic director Michaela McGuire stood by the programming and wording. ‘This entire event is about Aboriginal and Palestinian solidarity,’ she told ABC Radio. ‘It is not for or about anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that.’

Discussions have intensified to the point where the sector is beginning to bifurcate along sectarian lines.

Upon joining the festival in 2021, McGuire instituted what she described as ‘self-determined programming’ by First Nations artists who are invited to curate events. Saunders’ event follows curations by Bridget Caldwell-Bright, Marcia Langton, Tony Birch and Ellen van Neerven in previous years. In the face of objections from the board members and ensuing public backlash, Saunders’ autonomy was protected by McGuire’s commitment to curatorial independence. The board’s reported attempts to convince McGuire to ‘tone it down’ reveal the way that money, politics and power increasingly intervene in our national culture.

Debate around the role of the contemporary literary festival—both within and beyond the literary field—is one that is integral to the survival of these events. Historically, with each year comes a fresh furore that serves to reinforce the notion that these are sites of lively public discourse. Sometimes these controversies are relatively inconsequential, sometimes they reverberate across the world (see, for example, Lionel Shriver’s 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival Keynote or the disastrous Paul Beatty interview at the 2017 Sydney Writers Festival). Whether big or small, these polemical moments have given festivals the opportunity to demonstrate their contribution to wider conversations of national and international interest. The recent rupture between the MWF Board and the festival’s artistic director signals a worrying suppressive trend in programming across this country’s arts festivals.

Manufactured controversy only serves to threaten the integrity of these events. Writing in the Australian, literary editor Caroline Overington criticised the 2024 Adelaide Writers’ Week (AWW) program, describing it as ‘filled to the gills with anti-Israel speakers’. Overington goes on to engage in some nostalgia for the good ol’ days: ‘It used to be so much fun: you could go along, sit in the sunshine, and have a glass of wine, and you’d be guaranteed a stimulating conversation.’ AWW director Louise Adler, who had faced similar backlash in 2023 for platforming Palestinian writers Susan Abulhawa and Mohammed El-Kurd, had stood by her programming ethos that festivals need to be ‘brave spaces, not safe ones’.

The assertion that the program would be bereft of stimulating conversation because of the programming of Palestinian writers reveals Overington’s commitment to a particular kind of writers’ festival, and particular kinds of writers. What her comments also reveal is a tension between a yearning for and a rejection of the status quo, a tension that has disrupted long-standing structures of power in the arts sector. The programming of Palestinian or Jewish writers critical of Israel is deemed offensive—an absurd characterisation in light of the 30,000 plus Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli forces over the past five months.

The programming of Palestinian or Jewish writers critical of Israel is deemed offensive—an absurd characterisation.

The pressure to censor writers from speaking out against, and making art about, Israel’s horrific assault on Gaza is not just coming from media commentators, wealthy board members or philanthropic donors affiliated with organisations that have financially supported Israel’s expansionist policies. A leaked transcript from a 600-member group chat—a group made up of Australian Jewish authors, academics and artists—revealed a coordinated campaign to target Overland’s editors Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, with a cohort of the group chat members working to lobby Deakin University and Creative Victoria who help fund the magazine. Araluen and Dunk have been vocal in their support for Palestine and their criticism of Israel, and this stance has been met with derision and backlash. Overland’s board released a statement in support of the editors, illuminating what’s at risk when artists are censored by threats to funding: ‘We support our editorial team to continue fostering the discourse that we ought to expect and uphold in any democratic society.’

The tone of Le Grand’s reporting on the MWF Board resignations—read in conjunction with his writing on pro-Palestinian activism in Melbourne and the leaked WhatsApp group—is of a piece with much of the reporting on the war in Gaza from the Nine Media outlets, and most other mainstream media in Australia. Palestinian territory is described as ‘besieged’, and the ‘conflict’ is described as ‘deadly’, obfuscating the responsibility that Israel—and Australia—have in the ongoing death and misery. The Age is a major sponsor of MWF (and for full disclosure, so is my own employer, the University of Melbourne, which also has a multimillion-dollar partnership with Lockheed Martin, which supplies weapons to Israel). Even a generous reading of the newspaper coverage in Australia reveals a lack of respect for the traditions of artistic freedom and political commentary in the literary sphere.

Headlines covering writers’ festival controversies. Source: Canva.

This places literary festivals, and indeed the nature of our public debate, in a very precarious position. While program directors like McGuire and Adler have had to stand their ground over their programming decisions, it seems unwise to rely on the conviction of individual actors to protect the integrity of these events. Literary events that are interesting and inclusive and inspiring are at odds with a program that offers the kind of ‘balance’ that people like Overington are calling for. As Jacqueline Rose has observed, ‘the demand for “balance” is made only when you clash with the official position’.

The MWF resignations remind us of the importance of literary festivals and the contribution that both artists and administrators make to public debate. Le Grand’s reporting seems to find it scandalous that the festival programmers would allow the suggestion that Israeli forces may be committing atrocities in Gaza. From the perspective of upholding robust public discourse, I would encourage MWF to continue to allow their artists to do so. As the State Library of Victoria comes under scrutiny for allegations of politically motivated cancellations, there’s a growing feeling of ‘very real fear’, as Patrick Marlborough argues in Crikey, that ‘marginal, radical and bold voices will be shoved out for good’.

The MWF resignations remind us of the importance of literary festivals.

This trend towards censorship is not just occurring in Australia. Arts Council England, the UK’s primary public arts and culture funding body, recently updated their guidelines to state that artists who make ‘overtly political or activist statements’ either within their work or in a personal capacity place their funding at risk. This policy makes a clear and direct statement about the conditions under which supposedly arms-length arts funding is granted and could ultimately stifle creative independence and the exploration of complex ideas in the public domain. Artistic freedom and creative independence cannot thrive in a culture of fear.

In a context where calling attention to Israel’s continued disregard for the Genocide Convention places arts funding and personal livelihoods at risk—a context where the mainstream media is failing in their primary duty to the public—the value of events like Melbourne Writers Festival and Adelaide Writers’ Week comes into focus. This is a time for taking any platform available—professional, artistic, personal—to talk about Gaza. As Palestinians face mass starvation, disease and the continued violent dispossession of their land, aided by the Australian government, it’s one of the most important conversations we can have.