Ukrainians quit event with Palestinian speaker who called Zelensky 'Nazi-promoting Zionist'

Festival organiser urged people to 'tolerate ideas we disagree with'


A trio of Ukrainian authors has withdrawn from an Australian book festival over its platforming of a Palestinian writer who referred to Ukraine's Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky as a "Nazi-promoting Zionist”.

Adelaide Writers' Week director, Louise Adler, said Kateryna Babkina and Olesya Khromeychuk, who had been set to address an event on the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on civilians, would no longer be on the panel.

She explained that the pair’s decision had been caused by the remarks of another speaker, Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa, who referred to President Volodymyr Zelensky as a "Nazi-promoting Zionist" on Twitter.

She also claimed the Ukrainian leader had dragged "the whole world into the inferno of WWIII".

South Australian politician John Gardner of the centre-right Liberal Party urged the removal of Ms Abulhawa from the event.

Ms Adler, who is Jewish, refused such action, stating that she was disappointed by Ms Babkina's and Ms Khromeychuk's decision to step down from the conference, but stressed that she “respected” them.

"I'm disappointed those two Ukrainian writers have decided to withdraw because they object to the Twitter feed of one other writer," Ms Adler explained to ABC Radio Adelaide on Wednesday.

"We talk a lot about safe spaces and I think we'd be better off talking about brave spaces and courageous spaces in which we are respectful in our dialogue with one another but that we can actually tolerate ideas that we disagree with.

"Writers festivals are places for us to gather together to share ideas and discuss ideas that might be upsetting, might be provocative, might be disturbing, but in the context of civil and respectful debate, so I'm really sorry they're not going to be here because I think their voices would have been a valuable contribution,” she went on.

Ms Adler added that Ukrainian-born historian Maria Tumarkin, who had been billed as the event’s chair, had also withdrawn from the session. 

The withdrawals mean the 5 March discussion will not include any Ukrainian panelists. On Tuesday, Law firm MinterEllison said their partnership with the festival was under review due to the planned appearance of Ms Abulhawa and a Palestinian poet, Mohammed El-Kurd, who has publicly said Israel is a "terrorist, genocidal nation".

In a statement, the firm expressed concerns over possible "racist or antisemitic commentary,” and said they had made their “reservations [known] to the festival.

"We sought the festival's assurances that no racist or antisemitic commentary should be tolerated as part of Mr El-Kurd's or Ms Abulhawa's or any other festival session."

Ms Adler said that while MinterEllison had not been the only business to reconsider its relationship with the festival she suggested that it had received, "offers from a number of other major law firms saying they would like to come in as sponsors".

"We have a policy of zero tolerance of racism. I'm certainly not someone who would support, both personally and professionally — have never supported — propaganda propagating antisemitic or racist ideology or politics.

"Criticism of Israel is not the same as antisemitism, it is not a form of racism. The elision suits particular interest groups to collapse those two distinctions."

Ms Abulhawa tweeted in response to the news: “How the donor class works to control what people are allowed to hear and read. Thankfully, organisers of @adelaidefest and @adelwritersweek place more value on the integrity of intellectual and cultural public discourse than they do on sponsorship money" 

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