A Jewish cultural festival that “respects diverse expression” has again banned voices critical of Israel, after initially including them in its official program.

Last week, Limmud-Oz — an “international festival of Jewish learning” — nixed a weekend panel featuring several well-known dissenters, including Vivienne Porzsolt and University of NSW academic Peter Slezak, who were planning to discuss a controversial new book, Beyond Tribal Loyalties.

Organisers have refused to explain exactly why the session, which featured prominently on the Limmud website before it was stripped from the web, was cancelled. Slezak received only a curt one-line email saying the event would not take place.

Other planned participants included the book’s editor Avigail Abarbanel and peace activists David Langsam, Nicole Erlich and Sivan Barak.

The scandal was reported internationally by respected Israel newspaper Haaretz but is yet to be picked up by the Australian media.

Now, another session host, activist Sol Salbe, has also withdrawn his support for Limmud, backing out of two sessions he was to host on Sunday and slamming the organisers for their “not acceptable” behaviour.

The decision follows a similar sequence of events last year when Slezak and Porzsolt were excluded because of their support for Marrickville Council’s planned boycott of Israel under the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

Limmud-Oz began in 1999 and alternates between Melbourne and Sydney. This year it is being held over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend at Monash University’s Caulfield campus. Around a thousand members of the Jewish community are expected to attend.

The organisers, who rely on a cost-sharing arrangement with the right-wing Shalom Institute in Sydney and the equally hawkish Friends of Israel WA to entice overseas guests, did not respond to several requests for comment.

Slezak told Crikey that organisers told him the session “wasn’t accepted”.

“It’s really a terrible scandal, they do this every time,” he told Crikey. “When we get visitors coming overseas from Israel or from America that are important we can’t get them into the Jewish community, they have this principle of keeping out people of a certain view that they regard beyond the pale.”

Slezak told Crikey that BDS was not the issue this time and it appeared to be simply a clear-cut case of censorship. One of the planned panellists is not a supporter of BDS and the Limmud-Oz committee made no mention of it when organising the protest.

“BDS is a red line and they just get hysterical and openly describe it as Nazi stuff,” he said.

The session will still proceed as a “fringe event” at Monash in the same building and will be hosted by former Liberty Victoria president June Factor.

In an email to Crikey, Salbe, who says he does not normally associate with left-wing activists like Slezak and Porzsolt, unloaded on Limmud’s organisers, saying he has withdrawn his support because “principles are more important than friendships”:

“As far as I am concerned conference organisers have the right to invite, or exclude, anyone they wish. They can do their own cost-benefit analysis and come up with their decisions.

“[If they] had excluded the Beyond Tribal Loyalties panellists I would have been saddened, but I could have lived with it. But that wasn’t what the organisers did. They accepted the panel. Panellists’ names and photos were listed as presenters for approximately a week on the LimmudOz website. Then out of the blue the panel’s contact person was told that the session wasn’t accepted. No reason was given, this is not acceptable behaviour.

“But to add salt to the wounds, the LO organisers pretended that the panel had never been accepted in the first place. They contended that anyone applied was immediately listed as presenters. Having their photos as presenters did not mean that they were actually going to present anything. As my friend Jenny Green put, it is an insult to our intelligence. Who has ever heard of anyone else following such practice?”

Salbe was to host two sessions on Sunday: “An Insider/Outsider Looks at Israel” and another on “Israel’s Summer Protest Movement”. Those sessions will apparently now need to find a new chair.

But not everyone is up in arms over the excision. The festival has received strong backing on the Jewish blogsite J-Wire, with one commenter, “Michael” claiming the discussion “would be like having a panel of Nazis and David Irving as chairman on the book launch of Mein Kampf”.

Another commenter, Rita, said that: “If I was not into false modesty, I might say that, perhaps, letters like mine to the LimmudOz committee might have contributed to their wise and decent decision I told them that I would not attend if there were Jew-haters like Porzsolt and Slezak spruiking their wares — because I could get this kind of propaganda any time I drank some lovely chocolate at Brenner Cafés and in the streets of Sydney during anti-Jewish hatefests like the recent ‘Nakba Day’ protests.”

Last year Porzsolt was detained in Israel alongside former Greens upper house MP Sylvia Hale when they arrived in Israel with the intention of boarding a Gaza flotilla.

Peter Fray

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