Censorship over Gaza and Palestine Roils the Arts Community

12 April, 2024
Six months into a horrific war, Palestinian voices are still being silenced. The author of this opinion asserts that, “Palestine is the true test of our time in terms of the limits to freedom of speech.”

 

Hassan Abdulrazzak

 

“The history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself. And the efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place. Cultural and political forces can sweep clean all but the ‘safe,’ all but state-approved art.” Toni Morrison wrote these words in Burn This Book, a collection of essays on censorship she contributed to and edited. Her essay feels more pertinent than ever today, in view of the censorship surrounding the genocide in Gaza.

Human Rights Watch released a report in December 2023 in which it identified six key patterns of censorship about Palestine by Meta (formally Facebook), each recurring in at least 100 instances: content removals, suspension or deletion of accounts, inability to engage with content, inability to follow or tag accounts, restrictions on the use of features such as Instagram/Facebook Live, and “shadow banning,” a term denoting a significant decrease in the visibility of an individual’s posts, stories, or account without notification. In over 300 cases, users were unable to appeal content or account removal because the appeal mechanism malfunctioned, leaving them with no effective access to a remedy.

An independent investigation conducted by Business for Social Responsibility and commissioned by Meta found that the company’s content moderation in 2021 (i.e. two years before the current slaughter started) “appear[s] to have had an adverse human rights impact on the rights of Palestinian users,” directly affecting “the ability of Palestinians to share information and insights about their experiences as they occurred.”

This censorship has also extended to the arts.  I was privileged to have been commissioned to write a play called And Here I Am, about the life of Palestinian actor and director Ahmed Tobasi, also performed by him. The play is a coming-of-age story of Ahmed, who was born in Jenin in the West Bank. He gets caught up in the second intifada as a young man, is imprisoned in an Israeli jail and then upon release finds his true calling as an actor and performer through meeting Juliano Mer-Khamis, the founder of the Freedom Theatre who teaches Ahmed the value of resisting through art and who was later murdered outside the theatre.

The play has been performed now in many countries but not without encountering censorship. It was recently canceled by the mayor of Choisy-le-Roi, a southeastern suburb of Paris. Prior to that it was cancelled in Singapore. And when it premiered in Cairo, a censor from the government arrived on a motorbike, demanding, very politely, that we cut certain lines just as Ahmed was about to go on stage. Ahmed Tobasi is also not allowed to enter the United States, so the play has not been performed there yet.

It sounds almost trite to say but stories can save lives. Think of what stories have achieved in making societies accept many marginalized and previously vilified communities.


Ahmed Tobasi performing in And_Here_I_Am courtesy Freedom_Theatre
Ahmed Tobasi performing in And Here I Am in Jenin (courtesy Freedom Theatre).

Ahmed Tobasi is now the artistic director of the Freedom Theatre and despite the numerous attacks on the theatre by Israeli forces who have destroyed property and arrested staff, the theatre keeps going and it was even recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

More recently HOME, an arts venue in Manchester, canceled an event called “Voices of Resilience: Celebration of Gazan Writing,” citing “safety concerns.” They declared that they are a “politically neutral space.” But it quickly emerged that the real reason for the cancellation resulted from a letter they received from the Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester and Region (JRC). The letter, which the JRC circulated on X, denied that a genocide is taking place in Gaza and that only the events of October 7th must be referred to as a genocide. The letter went on to target one of the speakers at the event: Atef Abu Saif, the Palestinian Authority Minister of Culture, who according to the letter “has engaged in shocking and antisemitic Holocaust denial.” They write: “In Al Ayyam, the second largest Palestinian daily newspaper, on August 22, 2022, Atef Abu Saif wrote a column defending the Holocaust denial Palestinian President Abbas had engaged in on August 16, 2022 in Germany as truth.”

This piqued my interest and I decided to look up the offending article and translate it (with the help of actress, playwright and activist Yasmeen Audisho Ghrawi). It is true that the article opens and concludes by mention of Mahmoud Abbas. However, the article also contains this crucial paragraph:

Hitler’s crimes against humanity cannot be forgiven or tolerated. They may be unprecedented in history in terms of their ugliness, although history has witnessed many painful incidents. What was done against the Jews, burning them on the basis of religion is one of history’s heinous atrocities, like the genocides committed in the various stages of Western history. As Palestinians, this is a fact we have not denied and will never deny. We are a people who suffer injustice, massacres, killing and displacement. We cannot accept something similar that happened to others and say it is right.

You get no sense from the JRC letter that Abu Saif’s article contained such a paragraph. As a result of sharing the translation of Abu Saif’s article, I was asked by a journalist for Middle East Eye to write an article about the incident. However, when that journalist pitched the story to his editor, the editor responded, “The issue with the [Abu Saif] article is that it comes across as a defense of Mahmoud Abbas’ statements … Am happy for Hassan to write something but not on this issue in particular.”

What was not mentioned by the Middle East Eye editor or by JRC is that following the uproar surrounding Abbas’ comments, including by Palestinian intellectuals, he apologized for his antisemitic remarks. In an Al Arabiya channel report about his apology, ordinary Palestinians wonder when they will get their apology from Israel regarding what it has done and continues to do, to them.

Comma Press, which was one of the organizers of the cancelled HOME event and the publisher of a new book by Abu Saif, Don’t Look Left: A Diary of Genocide, wrote a statement posted on their website:

Both Comma Press and the author absolutely refute the allegations of antisemitism. In a recent interview, Abu Saif repeated the same acknowledgment: “The Holocaust was one of the darkest moments in human history.” Neither Comma Press nor the author were approached or given any opportunity to defend themselves by either the MEN or JRC. [MEN is Manchester Evening News which reported the story.]

It’s shocking that HOME appears to have made the decision to cancel the event unilaterally without consulting Comma Press. But what happened next is a testimony to the power of resistance.

An open letter drafted by playwright James Harker with support from Artists for Palestine UK was circulated on April 1, 2024  condemning the cancellation. It was signed by many theatre practitioners including myself. The letter stated: “HOME claims to be ‘a politically neutral space.’ But to remain neutral on the subject of a textbook case of genocide, as legal experts including Holocaust scholars have called it, is to enable the violence of occupation, oppression and murder. To cancel an event based on the ethnicity and nationality of its participants is discrimination, which directly contradicts HOME’s stated commitment to ‘anti-racism, equality and diversity.’” Some of the high-profile names who signed the letter, including actress Maxine Peake who was due to perform at the cancelled event, meant that it drew press attention.

This was then followed by visual artists exhibiting at HOME’s Open Exhibition 2024 removing their work from the venue on April 3. Pictures and videos posted on X showed artists rolling up paintings and speaking in front of a large banner reading “HOME Manchester — stop censoring Palestinians.” The exhibiting artists wrote an open letter which they read out: “If political neutrality is the stance that HOME wishes to move forward with, then we envision that your gallery walls will be bare, your cinema screens blank and your stages empty. Artistic expression is inherently political — you only need to look at the work in the HOME Open to evidence this.”

Additionally, the Arab British Centre, whose SAFAR film festival is due to screen at HOME, contacted the organization and expressed deep disappointment with the cancelation of the Gaza event and informed HOME that their partnership could be severed if the decision were not reversed.

Tara Theatre, whose production Silence, on the devastating impact of India’s partition, is due to go to HOME at the end of April, issued this statement: “We had reached out to HOME to gain clarity on their decision making and offered to collaborate on hosting the event, as we have hosted both the Freedom Theatre Solidarity Event and staged Gaza Monologues with Ashtar Theatre in 2023.”

Tara Theatre’s statement came after HOME finally relented and reversed its decision on April 4, 2024. They issued an apology on their website, stating, “We regret that this has had such wide-reaching impacts.” This is a significant victory in the battle against Palestinian censorship in the UK.

Sadly, the list of artistic work around Palestine that has been censored is long and it is beyond the remit of this article to catalogue them all. Censorship has been particularly egregious in Germany, where guilt over the Holocaust has resulted in a terrible conflation between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. Examples of events canceled there include the Frankfurt Book Fair indefinitely postponing a prize ceremony for Adania Shibli, an acclaimed Palestinian writer who lives in Berlin, as well as the Maxim Gorki Theater, one of the city’s most prestigious playhouses, canceling a prizewinning play about Israelis and Palestinians in Berlin — leading several intellectuals and artists to cancel appearances there in turn. In their published statement, the theatre stated, “the attack by the terrorist organization Hamas on Israel puts us on Israel’s side.”

There is always the possibility that the victory with HOME might begin to reverse the tide in the UK. Arcola Theatre has been brave enough to program work that critiques censorship, such as the upcoming show Cutting the Tightrope: the divorce of politics from art, to which I will be contributing a short play. A UK-based cultural worker will be setting up a living archive to document all the instances of censorship over Palestine. Perhaps having all these collected in one place will make institutions think twice about censoring work. Palestine is the true test of our time in terms of the limits to freedom of speech.


J.M. Coetzee, the South African-Australian novelist and essayist, was right when he wrote in Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship that “in practice … the same censors patrol the boundaries of both politics and aesthetics.”

He went on: “In the early 1990s, an instructive shift took place in public discourse in South Africa. Whites, who for centuries had been genially impervious to what blacks thought about them or called them, began to react touchily and even with outrage to the appellation settler. One of the war-chants of the Pan-Africanist Congress struck a particularly sensitive nerve: ‘ONE SETTLER ONE BULLET.’ Whites pointed to the threat to their lives contained in the word ‘bullet;’ but it was ‘settler,’ I believe, that evoked a deeper perturbation.” 

This reminds me of the outrage that has surrounded the phrase “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free,” which had been uttered in previous demonstrations without comment or censorship, but this time has aroused such deep passion. It is perhaps too optimistic to think that the Zionist regime is on its last legs, like the apartheid regime in South Africa. But to requote Toni Morrison, “The efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place.” And that means we have a duty not to give up.

 

Hassan Abdulrazzak is an award-winning writer of Iraqi origin, born in Prague and living in London. His plays include The Special Relationship; And Here I Am; Love, Bombs and Apples; The Prophet; and Baghdad Wedding (all published by Bloomsbury). Abdulrazzak has translated numerous Arabic plays and contributed to several anthologies including Iraq +100 (Comma Press). The script of his short film A Night of Gharam won the Unsolicited Scripts Short Film Grant 2022.

CanceledComma PressFreedom TheatreLondonPalestinePalestinian literature

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