In Australia, the political, media, and arts establishment is weaponizing accusations of antisemitism to silence critics of Israel’s war on Gaza. It’s tantamount to blackmail, and the goal is to delegitimize solidarity with Palestine.

A police officer and protester among hundreds of students gathered in front of Sydney Town Hall after leaving their classrooms to attend a pro-Palestinian rally in Sydney, Australia, on November 23, 2023. (Jen Osborne / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Since Israel commenced its assault on Gaza, institutions and state representatives across Australia have joined with their counterparts around the world in attempting to restrict and delegitimize support for Palestine. The campaign began in the days immediately following Israeli retaliation in Gaza, after the first pro-Palestine march crossed Sydney’s city center toward the Opera House.

New South Wales (NSW) Labor premier Chris Minns responded by vowing to stop future action and defaming pro-Palestinian protesters, claiming they’ve “proven they’re not peaceful.” Sensing an opportunity to turn Minns’s rhetoric against the Labor state government, NSW Liberal leader Mark Speakman followed up by demanding that NSW multiculturalism secretary, Mark Buttegieg, be sacked after his son attended a pro-Palestinian rally. Indeed, Speakman went so far as to suggest that Buttigieg disown his son. The next day, federal opposition leader Peter Dutton called for the deportation of so-called antisemitic protesters.

Despite this, weekly demonstrations across Australia have drawn tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of attendees, brushing aside these attempts to ban protests against Israel’s war.

Consequently, institutional elites — including the political class as well as the media, journalism, academic, and arts establishment — have turned their focus against expressions of solidarity with Palestine by people working under them or who are associated with institutions they fund. And they have justified these moves primarily by painting anyone who speaks out against Israel as antisemitic.

The Establishment Defends Ethnic Cleansing

In Melbourne, powerful law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler rescinded financial commitments to nonprofit arts precinct Collingwood Yards and the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA). Their offense? Indigenous artists at Collingwood Yards crafted signs critical of Israeli colonization, while NAVA supported an open letter published by left-wing literary journal Overland that criticized Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Arts Minister Tony Burke for refusing to condemn Israeli war crimes.

Similarly, hundreds of journalists working for the ABC, Guardian Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and Schwartz Media signed an open petition. It condemned Israel’s suppression of “newsgathering and press freedom,” and called on journalists to cover Israel’s bombardment of Gaza without bias.

Managers of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age responded by suspending its journalists who had signed from further reporting on the conflict, while the ABC and Guardian Australia senior editors warned staff against further public criticism of Israel. The Australian condemned the petition — which called for “holding the powerful to account” — as an “anti-Israel letter,” conflating opposition to Zionism or the state of Israel with antisemitism.

Perhaps the most high-profile instance of censorship of pro-Palestinian protest has centered around three Sydney Theatre Company (STC) actors. During the ovation for the flagship opening night performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull, Harry Greenwood, Megan Wilding, and Mabel Li donned keffiyehs in solidarity with the people of Gaza. The actors had been gifted the traditional Palestinian scarves by Violette Ayad, an STC-affiliated Palestinian artist whose family has been displaced and killed during the crisis.

Immediately following the ovation, an image of the keffiyeh-garbed actors went viral, after which STC was flooded with emails and phone calls accusing the company of institution-wide antisemitism. Many of these pro-Israel patrons requested ticket, subscription, and donation refunds. Following a campaign led by the Australian — which, in the words of journalist Laura Tingle, brought to bear “the full power of the media and arts funding establishment” — STC publicly censured the three actors.

The STC Affair Is a Microcosm of a Larger Trend

It pays to take a closer look at the STC case, which is a microcosm of the much larger effort by the Western liberal establishment to castigate solidarity with Palestine and to conflate opposition to Zionism with antisemitism.

Following Greenwood, Wilding, and Li’s protest, a viral open letter from a director of the Sydney Jewish Museum, Daniel Grynberg, circulated online. Grynberg wrote as a “patron, subscriber, supporter and fellow traveller of the Sydney Theatre Company for over 35 years” to accuse STC of ignoring “Israeli suffering” and of doing “PRECISELY NOTHING” to make Jews “feel supported.” Then, shadow arts minister Paul Fletcher fanned the flames further on Sky News, decrying Greenwood, Wilding, and Li’s gesture as “expressing support for the murderous, terrorist thugs of Hamas.”

Days later, one of STC’s key donors and board members, Judi Hausmann, resigned, writing that she was “beyond disappointed” that STC had not censured the cast members, declaring her resignation to be “necessary because I’m a Jew.” A second influential donor and board member, Alex Schuman, followed with his own resignation. In response, STC canceled the show’s midweek performance, issued a public apology, and demanded that its actors leave their politics off the stage for the remainder of the show’s run.

In its apology, STC claimed that “when our audiences attend a production, they come to experience the content in that play and that play only.” This is notable for its shallow conception of live theater. After all, a live performance is filled with missed lighting queues, flubbed lines, costume malfunctions, broken props, faulty set mechanics, and performance-by-performance variation. And these are just a few of the ways in which the real world unintentionally enters the fictional world of a show. During the ovation, this is even more the case. It’s not an epilogue or addendum to the performance — instead, the ovation is a moment in which the actors receive applause as themselves. It necessarily goes beyond the content of the play.

And anyway, it’s impossible to restrict a live theater performance to only the content of a play — and both STC and its audiences know it. STC’s version of The Seagull was updated, promoted as a “contemporary, gutsy and darkly funny new adaptation.” To imagine it’s possible to keep politics out of this — or out of Chekhov, for that matter — is asinine.

In one of the few public statements supporting the actors, longtime arts advocate and current director of Adelaide Writer’s Week, Louise Adler, defended the artists’ “right to have an opinion” during the curtain call. She listed a litany of instances at the intersection of politics and art, mentioning Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s The Disasters of War, as well as the many writers who took sides during the Spanish Civil War. And Adler’s intervention was all the more powerful given that her grandfather, Simon Adlersztejn, died at Auschwitz, after which her own father, Jacques, joined the French Resistance. Indeed, Adler’s extended family on her mother’s side was killed during the Holocaust. For Adler, this history makes it necessary to face the horrors in Gaza and “to not look away,” as the world did during the Holocaust.

Perhaps most importantly, Adler deftly exposed the way in which supporters of Israel’s ethnic cleansing campaign have weaponized concern over antisemitism. When the ABC’s Laura Tingle asked if the concerns of STC’s audiences need to be centered, Adler replied by asking why these audience members took offense. As she characterized it, a group of actors took a public stand, and in response, wealthy “captains of industry” cried outrage from the comfort of their air-conditioned seats.

Won’t Somebody Think of the Donors?

When she referred to “captains of industry,” Adler alluded to a crucial point about the STC controversy. The uproar over Greenwood, Wilding, and Li’s protest — and STC’s response — was not driven by popular opinion, but rather by wealthy establishment figures whose power over the reputation, functioning, and funding of cultural institutions has grown in recent years.

During the COVID-19 recession, STC avoided insolvency thanks to $23 million in government funding. The steady flow of public funds has continued and is now importantly supported by private donations making up almost 30 percent of revenue. At the same time, STC also faces claims for increased pay from playwrights and actors.

For STC, this functions as a powerful motivator to placate the government of the day as well as well-heeled right-wing donors, even if this means sacrificing the rights of its actors and the company’s intellectual and artistic integrity.

The end of the 2022–23 financial year saw STC post its first surplus in five years, which amounted to $44,000. But even this meager surplus relied on $10 million in government funding and $3.8 million from donors. Without these funds, STC would have reported a $13.87 million deficit.

STC knows this, and in its 2022 end of year financial statement, the Board of Directors acknowledged the company’s reliance on external support and affirmed its commitment that “this trend of support should continue.”

STC’s donors are managed by the STC Foundation. The foundation is run by a directorate of powerful corporate executives and entertainment professionals, including, among others, Hugo Weaving, Mia Wasikowska, Tim Minchin, and, until recently, Judi Hausmann and Andy Schuman, the two board members who resigned after the actors’ protest.

In short, STC wasn’t worried about alienating the theatergoing public. It was worried about alienating wealthy, conservative donors represented by the STC Foundation’s board.

Liberal “Protectors of Last Resort” Against Antisemitism

The same day of the STC apology, STC director and former chair Ian Narev wrote an op-ed praising a signed statement against hate that included over six hundred of Australia’s business, political, sporting, and community leaders. What is predictably absent in the statement — and in Narev’s commentary — is any condemnation of Israel’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Gaza or occupation of Palestine. Instead, the statement was a mealy-mouthed platitude opposing “racism in all its forms.” Unsurprisingly, it cited a claimed “482 per cent rise in antisemitic incidents [that] has swept Australia’s shores.”

Given continuing efforts to conflate opposition to Israel with antisemitism, this and similar declarations are, in effect, an attempt to give moral sanction to censorship of protests and speech in solidarity with Palestinian victims.

And with polls across Australia indicating support for a cease-fire across political parties, the point of these moves is apparent. Unable to openly justify Israel’s offensive, institutional elites can only defend Australia’s pro-Israel stance by silencing those who speak out. It’s a kind of built-in blackmail lever that can be triggered at an instant, giving institutional elites the power to designate any sign of support for Palestinian justice as antisemitic. And the fact that all of this is articulated in the lexicon of small-l liberal anti-racism is evidence of profound cynicism.

But all of this is in line with Israel’s clearly stated foreign policy. As Israel’s first permanent representative to the United Nations, Abba Eban asserted, critics of Israel are suffering from a “basic complex . . . of guilt about Jewish survival.” Consequently, he argued, one of the “chief tasks of any [Israeli] dialogue with the Gentile world” is to prove that criticism of Israeli politics is identical to antisemitism.

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