Since Israel-Hamas War, Events About Palestinian Culture Have Been Canceled

Nathan Thrall had planned to visit several cities this fall promoting his new book, “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” a reported look at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But after Hamas launched its deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, days after the book’s release this month, readings in London, New York, Los Angeles and Washington were postponed or canceled.

They are among a growing number of events highlighting Palestinian culture, society and politics that have been called off or put on hold since the war began. A concert of young Palestinian musicians was indefinitely postponed in London. The Boston Palestine Film Festival decided not to hold live screenings and went online. And in one of the most high-profile cancellations, a German literary organization called off an awards ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair to honor the Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli.

Some organizers said they were calling off the Palestinian-themed events because of security concerns. Others cited sensitivity, calling the cancellations and postponements understandable, if unfortunate, responses at a moment when emotions are raw: The Hamas attack killed at least 1,400 Israelis in what President Biden called “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” and since then Israeli strikes have killed more than 4,100 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

But some fear that the net effect will be to muzzle events, and voices, that might have promoted greater understanding at a key moment in the history of the region.

“It’s obviously a very sensitive issue,” said Aaron Terr, the director of public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free-speech watchdog. “That’s exactly when free speech is so valuable. We should want to maximize expression on such a fraught and controversial issue. We should try to work out our differences through dialogue and criticism.”

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London’s Southwark Cathedral cited security concerns when it canceled an Oct. 11 concert celebrating the 10th anniversary of PalMusic UK, a charity based in London that supports young Palestinian musicians. The event was to have featured three young Palestinians on piano, oud, and ney, a wind instrument.

“We were clearly disappointed that there wasn’t an opportunity to have a concert that celebrated peace and was a ray of light for musicians in Palestine,” Sal Sherratt, PalMusic’s director, said in an interview. “However, we completely respect that safety is foremost, and frankly it was just days after the outbreak of war, with considerable tensions in London.”

A Hilton hotel in Houston canceled the annual conference of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights planned for later this month, citing “escalating security concerns in the current environment.” Ahmad Abuznaid, the group’s executive director, said that the group had also noticed a concerted effort online to block the event: “We saw on social media, folks posting racist rhetoric in their calls to the Hilton to cancel.”

Mr. Terr, of the free expression group, warned that the postponements and cancellations could have a chilling effect — even when done out of concern for safety.

“It enables the heckler’s veto,” he said, “where people are able to shut down speakers just by threatening to create a disturbance.”

When the Boston Palestine Film Festival canceled its live screenings this month, it said in a statement that it “strives to create space for our community to gather and that space is needed today more than ever.”

“However,” it continued, “we are committed to centering the safety of our audiences and to being sensitive to all members of our community who have been impacted.”

In Germany, the decision to cancel the awards ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair for Shibli set off controversy. She won the award for her novel “Minor Detail,” which begins in 1949 and includes an account of the gang rape and murder of a Bedouin girl by an Israeli Army unit. The cancellation of the ceremony was denounced in an open letter signed by hundreds of writers and editors — including the Nobel laureates Annie Ernaux, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Olga Tokarczuk — that said the book fair had a responsibility “to be creating spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings, reflections on literature through these terrible, cruel times, not shutting them down.”

Thrall, the writer whose readings were postponed, is traveling from Jerusalem, where he is based, to several other cities to discuss his new book. He planned several events with his book’s primary subject, Abed Salama, a Palestinian man who went in search of his 5-year-old son, who was in a bus accident, all while navigating the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as a Palestinian.

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