When the State Library of Victoria fired four pro-Palestinian writers earlier this year, they refused to go quietly. Now they’re at the forefront of a fight against censorship designed to silence criticism of Israeli atrocities in Gaza.

Protestors demonstrate during the “Save Rafah Now” and “Free Julian Assange” rally outside the Victoria State Library in Melbourne, February 18, 2024. (Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images)

As the list of Israeli atrocities in Gaza has grown, so too has the international movement for a cease-fire and Palestinian liberation. In response, the pro-Israel establishment has attempted to silence dissent by targeting the professional lives of many who work in the public eye and have spoken out for Palestine.

In Australia, this organized backlash has so far focused on workers in journalism and the arts. In November, for example, Sydney Theatre Company donors threatened to withdraw funding over actors wearing keffiyehs during a curtain call. The company apologized, and implied that the actors’ free speech was a threat to “safe workplaces and theatres.”

In December, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) fired journalist Antoinette Lattouf for sharing a Human Rights Watch post about Gaza on her personal Instagram account. Management evasively blamed “orders from above.”

Then, in early 2024, the directors of the Melbourne and Adelaide writers festivals came under intense public scrutiny for simply including pro-Palestinian voices and topics. Both festivals ultimately stood their ground against Zionist demands that the programs be altered.

Most recently, in February, the State Library of Victoria (SLV) abruptly canceled the contracts of four writers who run workshops for the library on the basis of “child and cultural safety.” All four — Jinghua Qian, Omar Sakr, Ariel Slamet Ries, and Alison Evans — had publicly opposed Israel’s war on Gaza.

Their firing, however, sparked a staff revolt at the SLV. Authors around the country soon rallied to publicly express their support for the four sacked writers. Gabrielle de Vietri, Greens MP for the Melbourne seat of Richmond, used her platform in Parliament to call on the library’s corporate management to account for what looks like political censorship.

To better understand the pro-Israel backlash, as well as the growing pushback against censorship and the campaign in solidarity with Palestine, Jacobin spoke with Jinghua Qian and Omar Sakr.

Chris Dite

Like many people around the world, you have been targeted professionally for your support of the Palestinian cause. Could you explain what happened?

Jinghua Qian

The State Library of Victoria is a major publicly funded institution that runs an annual program called Teen Writing Bootcamp. This year there were supposed to be six writers presenting workshops in different genres, with a total of twenty-eight events running from February to June — all online except for one in-person workshop day at the end of the series.

In November, the SLV invited me to present the journalism and nonfiction part of the program. I accepted immediately and signed my contract in early February. On February 8, young-adult fiction writer Alison Evans and I presented a joint info session to around eighty teens, and it went well. The participants were thoughtful, enthusiastic, and engaged.

Omar Sakr

The day before my first public engagement in late February — an online Q&A for prospective students — I received notice of the entire program’s indefinite postponement due to a sudden need to conduct a “child and cultural safety review” in this “time of heightened sensitivities.”

I objected, asking why the review was required. How was this review relevant to teaching poetry? And more broadly, how was it relevant to a program that’s been delivered before in exactly the same way?

It’s crucial that we are documenting and publicizing all these instances of censorship so they aren’t forgotten.

Jinghua Qian

I received a similar startling email citing identical reasons to justify the postponement. It struck me as very odd, given that the library has been running this program since 2021 and there were already robust child safety protocols in place.

Throughout February I had been in regular communication with library staff, and no one had raised any issues or floated changes. I also wrote back asking for clarification, but I didn’t get a reply. Instead, on March 1, the library sent me an agreement to terminate my contract.

Omar Sakr

After querying the implication that we are dangerous to children, I also received a termination agreement. It demanded that we give up the right to make any legal claims against the library and offered to pay us the value of our contract in return. Journalist Kerrie O’Brien has subsequently revealed that all of this was instigated by my social media advocacy against the genocide in Gaza.

Jinghua Qian

My understanding now is that the library canceled the program as an act of self-censorship, to preempt the backlash they expected for giving a platform to pro-Palestine writers. I only know this because of whistleblowers; the library continues to deny it. To this day management hasn’t said what prompted its decision, despite repeated questions from us, from its staff, from journalists, union representatives, parliamentarians, and members of the public. SLV has just repeated the unconvincing and insulting line about reviewing “child and cultural safety.”

Chris Dite

It’s particularly chilling to cite “child and cultural safety” as the reason for terminating your contracts. However these words were intended, do you think it’s a kind of dog whistle?

Jinghua Qian

I think it’s more explicit than that. I think there has been a deliberate campaign to frame all criticism of Israel as antisemitic, to justify all Israeli aggression as self-defense, and to paint all scrutiny of Israel’s actions as aggression. It inverts and exploits the language of anti-racism to censor, silence, intimidate, and punish.

This frame also allows Israel to retain a position of victimhood no matter what. No matter how many Palestinian children are killed, injured, starved, or orphaned by Israel’s measurable and escalating campaign of terror, it’s the scrutiny of Israel that is labeled threatening, aggressive, violent, unsafe, or even traitorous when it comes, as it often does, from within the sizable groundswell of Jewish intellectuals standing up for Palestine. Genocide is impolite to talk about but not to enact. Safety means Zionists’ feelings and not Palestinians’ lives.

Omar Sakr

I think that the safety of children and young people is paramount, which is why I find the flippant way they levied this implicit accusation particularly obscene. I want to be clear that it’s incredibly important and valid for institutions that engage with disenfranchised communities in a system that’s otherwise hostile to them to have cultural safety frameworks. This is why I remain adamant that this government institution cannot invoke this framework without specifying a cause, particularly when safety concerns are cited against authors from marginalized and disadvantaged communities.

It’s absolutely clear that they have been disingenuous and that care for either students or us has been absent at the highest level. At any given time, this would be appalling. But to invoke safety while suppressing the work of artists against war, against the wholesale murder of fourteen thousand Palestinian children — it’s staggeringly cruel, to say the very least.

Jinghua Qian

As queer and trans writers, it’s particularly painful to see the rhetoric of child safety weaponized against the four of us, because these are stock-standard anti-trans talking points.

Right-wing lobbies have spent decades trying to insinuate that LGBTQ communities are a threat to children. What’s worse is that SLV management is well aware of the homophobic context and history of this rhetoric. For the last few years, transphobes have targeted public library events such as drag storytime. So in September last year, SLV CEO Paul Duldig made a public statement defending LGBTQ expression in the face of these transphobic threats. To see the library stand up for intellectual freedom in September, then silence us in February, makes this feel more pointed and personal.

Chris Dite

State Library staff have been told by the CEO they must remain apolitical. But in response to the termination of your contracts, union representatives have led a staff uprising of sorts. What do you think this says about the disconnect between ordinary workers and corporate management on this issue?

Jinghua Qian

It’s extraordinary seeing SLV management openly lie to staff. I don’t know how they thought they would get away with it. They told staff that they offered the writers full payment, even though payment was contingent on us signing a termination agreement — which I’ve refused to sign. They continue to claim that the program has been postponed, not canceled, despite sending this termination agreement.

I am so grateful for the support and solidarity from library workers. They have shown real courage in the face of intimidating messages from management — especially the whistleblowers who revealed to the Age that Omar’s social media posts on Palestine were brought up in a meeting. Library workers have become the only source of transparency for the public through this.

What we need now is what we needed at the start: coordinated strikes and civil disobedience on a massive scale, accompanied by consistent material consequences for everyone involved in these war crimes.

And management has also impugned their professionalism and expertise with this decision. It’s disrespectful, not only toward the work they put into developing the Teen Writing Bootcamp program but beyond that. SLV workers have a wealth of expertise in delivering programs and services for young people, and they are thinking about child and cultural safety all the time. And now they’ve got many other writers and artists withdrawing from events, programs, and fellowships in solidarity. So this decision has also been disastrous for public trust in the library. Despite this, SLV management has shown that they’re only concerned with protecting themselves from litigation and have no respect or care for their staff, the writers, or the public.

Omar Sakr

What we’re seeing across the arts and cultural sphere — in numerous countries, not just Australia — is a sick, defensive contraction led by executives in an insecure field, who are trying to preserve their jobs and programs by not pissing off their private and public funders.

Less generously, I’d say what we’re seeing is rank cowardice and extreme racism, which is the product of decades of Orientalism and Islamophobia, decades of desensitization to Western-led invasions and mass murder of Arab populations.

It’s clear there is a disconnect between workers and executives in every industry, and particularly in ours, where many workers don’t know who is on their organization’s board or why they are there. Board directors often have nothing to do with the arts and little to no association with the core values their institutions articulate. It’s often little more than musical chairs for the rich and bored. It’s why our public institutions remain so inept and change so little.

Chris Dite

The Netanyahu government, despite its well-demonstrated hatred of queer people, is trying to pinkwash this conflict. We all remember that grotesque photo of a smiling Israeli soldier holding a rainbow flag in the ruins of Gaza. As a prominent queer Arab Muslim voice in Australia, Omar, what do you think is the best way to build solidarity in the face of such hypocrisy?

Omar Sakr

It is hypocritical in the extreme, yes, but I would also say that even if it weren’t — even if the West and its colonial outpost in occupied Palestine had a spotless record when it comes to queer rights and freedom — there is no excuse or justification for apartheid or genocide.

And let’s be clear that the hypocrisy itself is not the point. This is something I insist on in my work. The majority of my Arab Muslim family is deeply homophobic, and I still love them. I would never accept that violence be done to them, and I would be particularly revolted if it were done in my name. But it’s also a moot point — because the racist logics guiding the missiles that are murdering Arabs would kill me just the same. Believe me when I tell you I would rather be in a bombed house dying alongside them than standing safe next to a racist warmonger.

As for solidarity, honestly, I don’t know how to make people care about human rights and the injustices being done to other people. I despise the “this could happen to you” strategy. Although I recognize its utility, it seems resigned to the idea of people’s racist indifference.

Chris Dite

Jinghua, you’ve been involved with the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Members for Palestine group. We’ve seen retaliation against actors, writers, festival workers, musicians, and others over their support for Palestine. How are workers in the arts fighting back?

Jinghua Qian

The attacks have become constant. Workers are fighting back however we can, including by making phone calls and sending emails, organizing petitions, open letters, protests, sit-ins, strike funds, and boycotts, or with creative responses, by making artwork or by leading social media campaigns.

It’s also crucial that we are documenting and publicizing all these instances of censorship so they aren’t forgotten. It’s particularly hard in arts and media, as most of us are freelancers and gig workers. Our precarity makes us easy targets because we don’t have the same protections as ongoing employees.

What we do have, however, are really strong communities and direct access to audiences. It’s encouraging to see how workers across different industries are finding and supporting each other. There has been steady movement-building for the last six months, so now when someone is attacked for their support for Palestine there are networks that can leap into action.

But do I think unions could be playing a bigger role in protecting workers and coordinating a collective response. Rank-and-file members are spread very thin putting out so many little fires.

Chris Dite

Just a few months ago, weapons manufacturers freely hawked their wares on university campuses while arms sailed off easily from Australian ports to support the occupation. Workers sympathetic to the Palestinian cause were also likely to keep their heads down. But so much has changed since then. Where do you think the movement is headed, and what is needed?

Omar Sakr

You say “so much has changed” — but I say not enough and too little. Frankly, I’m terrified at how little has changed relative to the scale of what’s happening. There are forty thousand murdered, over a hundred thousand severely wounded, and two million trapped and subject to systemic starvation.

In response, millions have marched every week. But weapons manufacturers are still making weapons. Meanwhile, their CEOs sit on the boards of media companies like the SBS and arts festival directors like Amanda Vanstone sit on the boards of weapons manufacturers. Yes, there is some resistance now — and I’m glad about it — but one thing that has been made glaringly clear is society’s extreme, deeply entrenched tolerance toward violent injustice committed against brown and black peoples.

What we need now is what we needed at the start: coordinated strikes and civil disobedience on a massive scale, accompanied by consistent material consequences for everyone involved in these war crimes. We need everybody to speak out and stand up. The majority are against this, but the majority is cowed. This has to change.

The story of this century is one of catastrophic disruption, and too few seem to have grasped that this will be the case, whether they are compliant with the state or not. Our only choice is between allowing catastrophe to happen as directed by the callous rich or doing our best to mitigate the damage and build a better, more sustainable, and equitable society for everyone.

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