Samah Sawabi
Samah Sawabi: 'They don't want a Palestinian who's articulate.' Photo by Courtesy
Text size

SYDNEY − A prominent Palestinian-Australian supporter of the boycott Israel campaign has been reinstated onto a panel less than 24 hours after she was effectively dumped amid claims two Jewish panelists threatened to withdraw.

Samah Sabawi, a playwright, poet and advocate for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign in Australia, was told on Tuesday she’d have to quit next month’s panel debating the two-state solution or it would be canceled.

“I am afraid we have been put in a position where we must either cancel our debate, or replace you as speaker,” the letter from organizers stated. “We have decided for a number of reasons to continue with the debate, albeit one with external constraints.”

She was slated to debate at Melbourne’s Town Hall alongside Haaretz columnist Peter Beinart; Israeli poll analyst Dahlia Scheindlin; Izzat Abdulhadi, head of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia; Dvir Abramovich, chair of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission; and Geoff Bloch, a Melbourne-based barrister who has argued in favor of annexing the West Bank.

Sabawi, who was born in Gaza in 1967 and now lives in Melbourne, claimed some panelists who oppose BDS pressured organizers. “Those who have insisted on silencing me … remind me – not that I have forgotten – what it really means to be Palestinian,” she posted on Facebook on Tuesday. “Their oppression reaches me even here in the far corners of the earth in Melbourne [where] they try to dominate the discourse, they try to shut me up, they try to bully their way into having a conversation with themselves about me and my people.”

But on Wednesday she was re-invited to join a revamped panel “discussion.” Neither Abramovich nor Bloch appear on the updated list of panelists.

“There was no demand by me or, to the best of my knowledge, by any other panelist, that she be disinvited,” Bloch told Haaretz. “Samah Sabawi has every right to participate and I have the right not to,” he said.

“The same people who object to my supporting of BDS are the same people who have supported a blanket boycott on all Palestinians,” Sabawi told Haaretz. “They don’t want a Palestinian who’s articulate. I think they know they can’t debate me. Their ideas are so passé.”

She added: “I’m not representing an organization that’s blacklisted. I don’t advance hate speech. I don’t support violence. There was no reason for the exclusion. I’ve never advocated for a one-state solution. I’m a realist; I don’t think we can continue the status quo.”

Michael Williams, director of the Wheeler Center, the government-funded organization behind the event, said: “Nobody involved in the panel at any time requested (or demanded) the dumping of any other panelist.

“Ultimately we decided that we would be best served by abandoning the debate format for a wider panel discussion and reissued invitations to all guests [including Samah].”

Beinart and Scheindlin – who are scheduled to speak at Limmud-Oz – will still appear alongside Sabawi, but Abdulhadi has also withdrawn. “[The new format is] just a damage control process and intellectual exercise without any concrete outcomes,” he said. “I will not waste my time in … a blaming and counter-blaming session of the peace process.”

Dr Mark Baker, the director of the Jewish center at Monash University, is joining the panel. “I think these ideas should be tested in the public arena,” he said. “BDS people hold themselves up as martyrs for free speech when the flipside of BDS is limiting free speech. “I think BDS needs to be answered.”