When it comes to teaching students about controversial foreign political disputes with complex historical roots, one group has found a simple yet powerful way to help schools go about it – by teaching it through the context of love.
The play – centred on two people who meet and fall in love in the besieged Gaza strip – called Tales of a City by the Sea – will be studied as part of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE).
Palestinian playwright, Samah Sabawi, told The Educator that people rarely stop to think how people in troubled and war-torn parts of the world live their daily lives under such extreme conditions.
“We live in a beautiful peaceful country, and we only get bits and pieces on the news about people affected by war in war torn areas be it Syria, Yemen, Gaza or elsewhere,” she said.
“The play opens a window into the world of young people in war torn Gaza and the difficult choices they have to make.”
Sabawi said the play – woven together from the actual experiences of people living under Israeli occupation in Gaza – forces its audience “to think of the impact of war and violence on ordinary human lives”.
However, the play has been slammed by B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission –a human rights organisation countering anti-Semitism, racism – as “anti-Israeli propaganda”.
In a statement, the Commission's chairman, Dvir Abramovich, said the play depicted Israel as a “bloodthirsty, evil war machine”.
“This is one of the most disturbing and cleverly conceived cases of unvarnished anti-Israel propaganda and delegitimisation masquerading as art I have seen,” he said.
“It is even more troubling that this text is now part of the VCE curriculum and will poison the minds of impressionable young people, inciting them to hate Israel.
“According to this lopsided play, Israelis are the cruel, villainous occupiers, guilty of terrible crimes, while the Palestinians are the saintly, virtuous victims. Nowhere to be found is the Israeli perspective.”
Abramovich said the impression VCE students would be left with after walking out would be of “faceless Israelis crushing and killing innocent civilians”.
“Such incitement should not find a home in schools in Australia,” he said.
“I am genuinely concerned for any Jewish students who will have to deal with the outrage and visceral contempt felt by their classmates.”
He added that the play was “sure to become another potent weapon for Israel’s bashers in their relentless assault against Israel”.
“This is something schools and teachers need to be aware of before sending their students to watch the play. We hope that this the last time that we see texts that stoke the fires of anti-Israel sentiments as part of the VCE syllabus.”
Despite this, Sabawi said those involved with the play have received “so much love” since “the manufactured controversy” began.
“We are overwhelmed with supportive messages, many from Jewish friends who have expressed disgust at the allegations made against the play,” she said.
“We are positive and energised. We have an important story to tell and many more bridges to build.”
A review by The Australian Jewish Democratic Society described the play as a “stunningly theatrical experience" that portrayed a "lovingly wrought, gentle tale”.
On Monday, Merlino said he was “confident that drama teachers will ensure students understand the full context surrounding this issue”.
A Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) spokesman said the body had a rigorous selection process involving an expert panel of drama educators from schools, industry and universities assessing plays against set criteria.