A threatening development

At the Adelaide Writers’ Week last week something happened which should terrify those people who are apologists for Israel whatever the Israeli government does or says.

The Writers’ Week had arranged a session, My Palestine, with two speakers. The first was an elegant and intelligent (she casually used an analogy from quantum physics to make a point) woman, Leila Yusaf Chung, whose family were Palestinian refugees who went to Lebanon where she was born. The second was Antony Lowenstein who appears to be a young version of an old-fashioned leftie but who replaces the windy rhetoric of the old and now old new left with a compelling speaking style focussed on facts and is a bit of a bete noir to some in the Australian Jewish community (see his book My Israel Question which is now in its third edition).

Before the session a local Adelaide Jewish group approached the Writers’ Week organisers to complain about the session and demand that the panel be balanced with a speaker to give the Israeli viewpoint. The organisers politely declined. A spokeswoman for the group then asked a question at the subsequent session asking why in a discussion about Palestine there was no balance provided by having a speaker putting the Israeli position. A small claque applauded her position but then something surprising happened …..most of the audience started to laugh.

One might have expected jeers but the audience, largely solidly middle class middle aged South Australians, laughed. No jeers, no cat-calling – just laughs. Antony Lowenstein politely pointed out that he hoped balance would be achieved in media coverage and debate in the Australian Parliament about Palestine but then got on with his comments excoriating – among others – Tony Blair, the Palestinian leadership (corrupt and complicit), the Israeli government and the settlers, the Liberal and Labor Parties, the US, Egyptian and Jordanian governments and various others. What he said about Tony Blair by the way was hardly controversial – he called him a war criminal – and provoked little reaction.

But the blog was struck by the laughter. It is a profoundly peaceful weapon like the scenario Lowenstein raised when he asked what the Israeli Government would do if the Palestinians, instead of sending rockets, had a million people inspired by Gandhian tactics peacefully marching.  While we may have to wait a while for such Gandhian peaceful resistance in modern settings we apparently don’t have to wait for the laughter.

Meanwhile, in another session, Adelaide media personality Peter Goers told the same jokes he tells at all Writers’ Week events while chairing a session on Max Harris with the speakers being Harris’ daughter Samela and his biographer, Dr Betty Snowden. Max Harris was an enormously important figure in Australian cultural history and his influence was felt across art, publishing, bookselling, poetry, journalism and other areas. Like many important figures of the past he has probably been superseded in historical memory by other people of significance. Sadly many people, when thinking about Harris, also automatically think about the Ern Malley affair without being aware of A.D.Hope’s poisonous inspiration of the hoax and the fact that the ‘nonsense’ poetry produced isn’t actually too bad at all in many spots -despite the intent to produce something ridiculous.

But much of the session was devoted to a rather sad South Australian parochialism. Now Australia is a parochial place just as the blog’s home town, Melbourne, is pretty parochial at times as well. The Bracks’ government’s constant reiteration of things Victorian as being world class was a sad example of that. But Harris, according to the session, was allegedly written out of the modernist contemporary  Heide art scene by the Melbourne push even though the blog’s old (and sadly late) friend Philip Jones gives glowing accounts of Max and Von Harris in his memoir (Art & Life) of the Heide and subsequent years. There are many significant figures in Australian cultural history – memories of their significance drift in and out according to fashion, publisher’s whims and other factors. If Harris is less well known at present it is probably more due to this than any Melbourne/Heide conspiracy.

What is certain though is that the Snowden biography of Harris will go down in publishing history. The first copies delivered to the Writers’ Week book tent were poorly bound and lacked an index. The publisher kindly agreed to give them away and Samela Harris and Betty Snowden agreed to sign them. Like flawed stamps the few copies might turn out to be valuable one day. Indeed, later in the day the blog was at Treloar’s antiquarian bookstore in North Terrace and mentioned what had happened with the copies to one of the staff members. The staff member immediately went online to check whether any of those middle class middle aged South Australians who had got a copy had put them up for sale yet.