More than 30 acts have distanced themselves from Sydney Festival in response to an organised boycott campaign, protesting the festival’s decision to accept $20,000 in funding from Israel’s Australian embassy to support Sydney Dance Company’s production of Decadance, by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.
The issue has sparked significant debate over the past few weeks. Below is a collection of anti-boycott voices, and you can read an article written by three organisers of the boycott here. Plus, read Jo Litson’s review of the production at the centre of the boycott, Decadance, here.
The boycott of Sydney Festival has led to a number of organisations coming out in support of the festival, and more broadly in support of Israel.
When the boycott first made the news late last year, a short statement from the Israel embassy in Canberra was sent a letter to the Guardian which said:
“Israel has always and will continue to promote cultural exchange and engage in cultural dialogue in numerous countries including Australia. Culture is a bridge to coexistence, cooperation and rapprochement and should be left out of the political arena.”
In a letter to Sydney Festival and shared with Limelight, NSW Shadow Arts Minister and Deputy Chair of the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel Walt Secord wrote, “I write to express my deep concern about calls for the Sydney Festival and the Sydney Dance Company to reject Israeli government sponsorship as part of the extremist BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.”
“An economic boycott is abhorrent and mendacious and it is counter-productive to fostering a two-State solution for Israel and the Palestinian people.”
“Economic boycotts against Jews and Israel have a long and ugly history. This is just one of the reasons why opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has bipartisan support in Australia. Both major political parties oppose the attempted boycott of Israel.”
In an interview on Sydney’s 2GB radio on 26 December, Secord categorised the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a “fringe movement”, and said that there were better ways to protest.
“Yes, you can express your view on the Middle East, but I just want to remind everyone that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” said Secord. “It’s the only full democracy where men, women, Arabs and Jews have equal rights in the society. And I just think it’s ludicrous that these groups have come out, and are calling for a boycott, and I’m glad the Sydney Festival hasn’t bowed to them.”
He also tied the campaign against Sydney Festival to ‘cancel culture’. “I saw the phrase, someone said that they felt unsafe going to the Sydney Festival because there would be an Israeli production there. I just thought, ‘That is cancel culture going to the extreme’. I just shook my head, and I showed my wife this and she was in agreement, it was like, ‘Come on’. This actually, genuinely, disrespects people who are feeling unsafe in certain situations. How can an Israeli dance performance make you feel unsafe?”
Secord also questioned why Israel was being targeted by this boycott when other human rights abuses around the world don’t receive similar attention.
“You don’t see a standard boycott being applied to China over the Uighurs, or to Myanmar over the Rohingya people, so I think there is a bit of a double standard here,” he said. “And the reason that the Jewish communities get very upset about the boycott is that the 1930s – it touches back to the boycott of Jewish businesses. And that’s what really gets in the craw of the community about this.”
This morning an open letter was published featuring the names of more than 120 celebrities and entertainment industry professionals arguing against the boycott. Released by an American organisation called Creative Community For Peace, with the signatories largely American industry figures, the letter demonstrates that the Sydney Festival boycott has been noticed around the world.
In the press release accompanying the letter, it states that:
The letter’s signatories, which include Australian producer Emile Sherman, singer Deborah Conway and director Stephan Elliott, believe strongly in the power of art to bring people together, transcend boundaries, broaden awareness, and affect positive societal change. They also call on their friends and colleagues to join in expressing support for the artists of the Sydney Festival and against this counterproductive boycott call.
We, the undersigned, believe that cultural events are vitally important vehicles to bring people together of different backgrounds under a shared love of the arts.
The annual Sydney Festival embodies this unifying power. Every year, thousands of Australians make common cause in a massive display of cultural exchange and celebration of our diverse cultures and histories.
Unfortunately, this year, the spirit of the Festival is under attack by those calling for a boycott because the Israeli Embassy is sponsoring a world renowned Israeli dance ensemble. This call for a boycott turns the festival from an opportunity for unity into a weapon of division.
We also reject the boycott activist claims that Jews are not indigenous to the land of Israel. The Jewish people have over a 3,000 year connection to the land of Israel, and many Jewish families have lived in the land for hundreds of generations. This fact does not deny any other groups claims of indigeneity.
While art can reflect politics, and artists can choose to reflect their politics in their own art, art should never become subservient to politics and artists and cultural events should never be forced to be politicised.
We believe the cultural boycott movement is an affront to both Palestinians and Israelis who are working to advance peace through compromise, exchange, and mutual recognition.
While we all may have differing opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the best path to peace, we all agree that a cultural boycott is not the answer.
As Nick Cave stated: “The cultural boycott of Israel is cowardly and shameful. Israel is a real, vibrant, functioning democracy – yes, with Arab members of parliament – and so engaging with Israelis, who vote, may be more helpful than scaring off artists or shutting down means of engagement.”
We call on all our friends and colleagues in the entertainment community to express their support for an exciting and successful Sydney Festival 2022 and to purchase a ticket and attend the festival itself to understand the power of arts to bring people together first hand.