A Sheffield political event has denied that it lied to a local Jewish resident after pledging to ensure discussions on the Israel-Palestine conflict were more “balanced” — only to renege on the promise.
Ellie Phillips, from Sheffield, contacted the Festival of Debate to complain that six events on the Middle East — including the My Name is Rachel Corrie play, about the death of am American pro-Palestinian activist in Gaza — exclusively featured panellists supportive of the Palestinian cause.
They included pro-Palestinian journalist Ben White and Abdi-Aziz Suleiman, who has appeared on Iranian state-backed Press TV.
Ms Phillips, 50, told organisers: “You are hosting events on sustainability, the environment, health, faith, adoption, climate change, menstruation, sexuality, mental health, money etc.
“All of these topics have great relevance for people living in Sheffield. Yet, there are six events featuring Palestine/Israel.
“I would suggest that these events simply whip up hatred towards Israel — and ultimately towards Jewish people. More obviously; as this is a festival of debate, will any debate be actually taking place between people who essentially all think the same thing?”
After an exchange of emails, organisers of the Festival of Debate conceded that two of the events — panel discussions scheduled to follow My Name is Rachel Corrie — “do not give a balanced perspective of the key issues surrounding the Israeli/Palestine conflict”.
They said: “[They] have taken the decision to cancel that after-play discussion. Ben White had been moved to the Friday night panel, so he will also not be appearing.”
However, a Facebook post by the play’s production team revealed that the panel discussion did indeed take place, featuring the same panellists but with a “different focus”.
It wrote: “We have quite the panel this evening as we reflect on the show and Rachel’s life with author and journalist Ben White, Shahd Abusalama from Sheffield Hallam Palestine society, musician and performer Avital Raz and Musheir El-Farra of Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign!”
The Festival of Debate denied reneging on its promise, saying the decision to do so was made by the production team, “unbeknownst to us”.
The festival organisers also told Ms Phillips in an email that they “encouraged [the Corrie organisers] to think of ways they can also include Jewish voices in their panel discussions” and confirmed that an Israeli would now be appearing on one of the panels.
Ms Phillips said, however, that the Israeli guest turned out to be Ronnie Barkan, a well-known activist against the Jewish state.
The Festival said: “Festival of Debate is unique in that external partners can get in touch and run their own events as part of our programme. While the festival had no involvement in the programming of the play and Q&As — nor did we provide any funding of any kind to the production — we will be examining our policies and procedures regarding external events… in future.
“It saddens us that some people felt that their views would not be welcome … because above all else the Festival of Debate was founded to open up discussion, not to close it down.”
Ms Phillips, a member of the Bradford Tree of Life Synagogue, said: “If any proof was needed that there is an obsession with hatred towards Israel… then this is an appalling example.
“At a publicly funded local event in my home town there was no attempt at achieving a balanced discussion on Israel/Palestine.”