Overwhelming support for artists’ boycott of Sydney Festival

January 12, 2022
Sydney Festival artists support BDS campaign
Some of the artists who have withdrawn from the Sydney Festival over its partnership with apartheid Israel. Photo: bdsmovement.net

There has been an overwhelming response by artists to the call to boycott the Sydney Festival.

The call was made by the Palestine solidarity movement because the Sydney Festival sought and accepted $20,000 from the Israeli Embassy for the performance by the Sydney Dance Company of a dance work Decadance by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. The sponsorship won the Israeli Embassy “Star Partner” status on the festival’s publicity.

The call was made by a strong coalition of artists, including the Arab Theatre Studio, the Sweatshop Literacy Movement, the Bankstown Poetry Slam, and leading individual writers and performers. They are supported by a broad coalition of solidarity groups, including the Arab Australian Federation, BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) Australia, Greens for Palestine, Sydney University Staff for BDS, Independent Australian Jewish Voices, Jews against the Occupation, and the United Australian Palestinian Workers.

To date, more than 37 performers have withdrawn and the list grows by the day. This is really impressive as artists and performers have had a very hard two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Sydney Festival is a major opportunity for them to showcase their work to a wide spectrum of the community.

We all salute the sacrifice of these artists to support Palestinian rights. Some are still performing independently of financial support from the festival. People are encouraged to attend their performances both to show solidarity and replace the funds they have lost through their brave action. Keep abreast of the boycott on Instagram/ Boycott Sydney Festival.

Major artists have swung behind the boycott. Well-known Arab-Australian writer Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmed had been invited to join the Board of the Sydney Festival, but withdrew his acceptance in protest at the Israeli embassy’s sponsorship.

Comedian Tom Ballard tweeted: “I love the Festival and I love telling jokes, but standing up for human rights and standing against a system of apartheid is more important.”

First Nations writer Amy McQuire was one of the first to announce her decision to boycott the festival. The support from First Nations activists has been key in building the campaign.

There has been unprecedented media coverage in Australia and internationally, in Israel and very widely in the Arabic press. Palestinian voices have been heard rather more than previously in the media here.

Palestinian journalist Jennine Khalik was interviewed on Ten’s The Project and had a forthright opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Palestinian community activist Fahad Ali was interviewed on ABC News.

It was front page news in the Australian Jewish News, and for the first time the liberal Zionist online publication +61J published critical Jewish voices, including my own.

This is a significant shift.

This does not mean everything is rosy in the media coverage. Khalik’s SMH article was flanked by three pieces opposing the boycott and the SMH refused articles by pro-boycott Jewish activist Peter Slezak and myself.

With the official endorsement of the boycott by Hamas, the Zionist lobby has been going ape-shit. Liberal Party MP Dave Sharma immediately had a piece published in The Australian: “Siding with Hamas No Way to Bring about Peace” with all the usual half-truths and misrepresentations of the campaign.

J-Wire, the right-wing Jewish online publication, declared “Hamas a Bedfellow of Australian BDS Supporters

Why not declare Hamas a bedfellow of our non-violent action?!

In a letter to The Guardian, the Israeli embassy said: “Culture is a bridge to coexistence, cooperation and rapprochement and should be left out of the political arena.”

What a joke! Is the Israeli occupation, destruction and dispossession “coexistence, cooperation and rapprochement”?

In a letter to the festival, Walt Secord, NSW Shadow Arts Minister and Deputy Chair of the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel, raised the canard of a parallel with the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. He declared BDS to be a “fringe movement” and an example of “cancel culture” and called on NSW Minister for the Arts Ben Franklin to introduce US-style anti-BDS legislation for NSW arts organisations.

Yet through all this furore, the Sydney Festival has fled into hiding. They have refused requests for interviews from the media to explain their position. There is not even a statement on their website. In its formal letter replying to the organisations that met with festival representatives to present their call for withdrawal from the funding arrangement with the Israeli embassy, it says: “Our mission is to present an inclusive program that welcomes artists and audiences from across our entire community. Our goal is to provide a welcoming and culturally safe space for all artists, employees and audiences...

“On a political level — being a non-political, non-profit organisation — cannot join the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement as per your request.”

How can a Sydney Festival that partners with Israel be a safe space for Palestinian artists, who may have been expelled from their land or lived under the brutal Israeli occupation? If not they themselves, then in all likelihood, their families or relatives?

The argument about being non-political is a joke. Israel injects politics into the festival with its occupation and ongoing Nakba (castastrophe). By partnering with Israel, the festival is taking a political stand with this state against the Palestinians.

US organisation Creative Community For Peace published an open letter against the boycott, whose signatories are largely US industry figures. However, there are some Australian signatories, including producer Emile Sherman, singer Deborah Conway and director Stephan Elliott. This small number, compared with the number of artists coming out to boycott, shows how very successful the boycott campaign is.

Sponsoring “cultural exchange” is a key way Israel seeks to distract attention from its flagrant human rights violations. “Art-washing” stands alongside “green-washing” and “pink-washing” as a key strategy to polish Israel’s image and standing in the world as a “democracy”. Spruiking Israel’s technical know-how and “poster-child” status in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in this image-washing strategy.

All of this completely erases the Palestinian experience. Restrictions on Palestinian artists, sportspeople and scientists are deleted from this blatant PR. The discrimination in health care under COVID-19 is just the latest example.

Just as Athens was no democracy for slaves, and apartheid South Africa was no democracy for Blacks, Israel is no democracy for Palestinians. And it is becoming increasingly anti-democratic, even for its Jewish citizens.

The strong response from artists and the wide media coverage signal a strong sea change in public awareness of and support for the Palestinian struggle for justice. Even the boycott strategy, so vilified till now, did not attract the same opposition except from the usual suspects. For example, The Project’s Peter Helliar commented that festivals need to look into their potential sponsors. He said he would be surprised if they took such sponsorship again. Boycott and human rights as a consideration are being normalised.

The campaign to boycott the Sydney Festival has seen impressive support for Palestine. We must use this momentum to build the Palestine solidarity movement so that we roundly defeat initiatives such as Secord’s proposal to outlaw BDS in NSW. This is a real turning point.

[Vivienne Porzsolt is a member of Jews against the Occupation.]

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