Over the past few months, English-language media has witnessed a heated debate about freedom of speech and “cancel culture”. It has made me think of my own experience with the limits of freedom of speech in Australia and the tendency of the local media to “cancel” Palestine.
In the days leading up to Israel’s proposed annexation of the West Bank, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, wondering why those who profess to care about racism, oppression and injustice in Australia rarely dare to tether their politics to Palestine.
I can name countless public figures, public intellectuals, academics, artists and activists who have been rightly vocal about a long list of global human rights violations and social and racial justice struggles but have never once spoken up in defence of the rights of Palestinians. Yes, we see you.
This silence was also reflected in the fact that in mid-June, Australia was one of only two countries to vote against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning Israel’s intention to illegally annex significant parts of the occupied West Bank.
What does anti-racism as practice – not a timeline of online platitudes and curated bursts of outrage – actually mean to the many academics, artists and public figures who are vocal about fighting settler-colonial and racist violence, but scatter in the dust when anyone mentions Palestine?
It was this question that prompted me and my fellow Palestinian sisters and activists, Sara Saleh (human rights advocate and poet) and Micaela Sahhar (poet and researcher) to write an open statement demanding the Australian government publicly oppose the Israeli government’s annexation plans and cease greenlighting Israeli violations of human rights and fundamental principles of international law.
The statement called on academics, artists and activists to support the Palestinian people in their struggle for self-determination and their aspirations for freedom, justice, dignity and equality for all.
On July 1, we sent the statement far and wide. The response took us completely by surprise.
Within two days, more than 800 people had signed the statement. The honour list of signatories includes prominent Indigenous leaders, elders, artists and writers, most of whom signed on within the first few hours of the statement’s life. Signing on alongside First Nations peoples were some of the most prominent academics and artists in the country, the diversity reflecting a truer picture of the nation. This coming together to express collective solidarity for Palestine was unprecedented.
We believed this statement of solidarity was significant not only because of the impressive list of signatories, but because it reckoned with settler colonialism, Western imperialism and state-sanctioned racism as a global project that foregrounds First Nations peoples in solidarity with Palestinians. In doing so, it crystallised what it means to truly practise anti-racism in a world where the ongoing impacts of settler colonialism are lethal.
We approached media outlets, armed with countless precedents of open letters and statements being published. The Overland journal, with its established track record for platforming marginalised voices, instantly agreed to publish the statement. The statement was also picked up and reported on in the London-based The New Arab.
We refused to stop there. We wanted to publish in Australia’s establishment media. As Palestinian Australians, we are accustomed to fighting for a public platform. We are used to being warned to “tone it down”, “not get emotional”, “be civil”, edit our words, amend our arguments, adjust our language, rely on “human stories” over legal arguments, “find the local angle”. We are used to our emails being ignored, our calls going to voice mail, switch-desks refusing to give us the names of editors. We are used to our articles being held up, only to be rejected as no longer “newsworthy”.
To reckon with apathy, double standards or pushback is one thing. But to confront deliberate erasure is another. We were – and are – still being met with a concerted strategy of disappearing and silencing Palestine in public discourse. The rhetorical shields and strategies deployed to deflect, block and censor Palestine and its supporters constitute a form of violence against colonised peoples who are fighting both physical erasure in Palestine and erasure from public discourse here.
Predictably, our requests to publish the statement were met with an actively enforced silence – the kind of silence that is rendered visible because of the number of attempts we made to elicit a response.
The responses we did get included irritated defensiveness; we were made to feel like we were hustling, that we were unreasonable in our polite requests for updates and explanations.
As we continued our efforts to get the statement published, some outlets chose to run open letters on other topics, including the Saturday Paper which published an open letter addressed to the City of Sydney requesting the relocation of the Captain Cook statue at Hyde Park to a public museum; and the Sydney Morning Herald which ran a statement signed by 27 artists and film industry professionals criticising anti-racist activists for “tearing down”, “public shaming” and “burning down” the film industry.
And amid all this, Harper’s Magazine in the United States published an open letter by some of the English-language world’s most powerful writers, journalists and public intellectuals claiming that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted”.
Curiously, the list of signatories bemoaning “the restriction of debate” included individuals who have actively worked to “cancel” freedom of speech on Palestine, such as Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, who supported the firing of Palestinian academic Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois for his tweets condemning Israeli war crimes, and columnist Bari Weiss who has a long history of involvement in numerous campaigns to vilify and ruin the careers of several Arab and Muslim professors due to their criticisms of Israel.
Censoring Palestine is an effective way to elide the deeper political and historical causes of global injustice, the interconnections and global intersections of state violence. When Palestine is suppressed, so-called progressives can comfortably posture as progressive without having to complicate their politics by interrogating their complicity in whitewashing crimes against Palestinians. We have a name for this. PEP – Progressive Except Palestine.
If solidarity is a moral imperative, and not performative selective posturing, it must be uncompromising, reflexive and honest. In a time of social media, where Israeli war crimes and human rights violations are exposed online, there can no longer be blind spots, pleas of ignorance or declarations that “it is complex”.
While our statement was deliberately stonewalled by mainstream Australian media, it remains a powerful affirmation that colonised people will stand together despite attempts by powerful institutions to stifle and undermine this kind of collective solidarity.
This is why we decided to start a fundraising campaign to buy advertising space in the print edition of a newspaper to publish the full text of the statement as an ad. This was our only avenue for elevating the voices of Palestinians, and those who stand in solidarity with them. Our campaign was successful and the ad ran in the printed edition of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on July 18. It was a bitter-sweet victory. It seems the only way Palestinians can be heard in Australian mainstream media is to pay for space.