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 an article written by three of the organisers of the boycott, and you can read a collection of anti-boycott voices here. Plus, read Jo Litson’s review of the production at the centre of the boycott, Decadance, here.
As we write this, over 30 programmed artists have formally withdrawn from Sydney Festival in boycott, and more withdrawals will be announced in coming days. If you’re following this news, you will understand that Sydney Festival maintains a ‘Star Partnership’ with the Israeli embassy, who have contributed a meagre $20,000 to the Festival. This alone warrants a boycott, for reasons we will explain. But perhaps the most pernicious thing about the establishment of this partnership was its timing.
In May 2021, as Sydney Festival actively sought funding from Israel, the occupation state was carrying out the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. You may remember Yacoub, a coloniser from Brooklyn. In a viral video he told a young Palestinian woman who was being forced out of her home that, “if I don’t steal it someone else will”, encapsulating the ethos of Israeli setter-colonialism and the normalisation of violent dispossession that shapes every aspect of Israel’s existence on stolen land.
That same month, as Sydney Festival formalised this partnership, Israel was raining bombs on besieged Gaza. The state of Israel maintains a civil registry that includes details of every person and building in Gaza. It also boasts about the pinpoint accuracy of its sophisticated weapons. In fact, it is known that Israel tests these weapons on Palestinians in Gaza to gain a more competitive edge in the international sale of its arms (see film The Lab by Yotman Feldman). So when entire families are wiped out, we know that it is targeted murder. When the largest COVID response unit, Shifa hospital, medical staff along with their families, vital infrastructure and buildings housing media staff are obliterated, we know that it is deliberate destruction, aimed at breaking the people of Gaza. Sydney Festival’s ‘Star Partnership’ serves to normalise the massacre of Palestinians; an Indigenous people under relentless attack from a mighty military aggressor.
The brutality visited upon the Palestinian people in May also gave rise to the Unity Intifada, another iteration in the history of Palestinian organising and resistance, that brings the Palestinian people together in struggle. The deliberate fragmentation of Palestinians from their land – and from each other – makes it impossible to join forces. Of course this extends to the arts. Israeli aggression touches the life of every single Palestinian, whether inside Historic Palestine or in exile. The Unity Intifada has injected a renewed hope into the Palestinian struggle for liberation, inspiring an international solidarity that has become bigger and brighter than ever before.
Our campaign calling for the boycott of Sydney Festival heeds the call from Palestinian civil society for cultural boycott of the state of Israel. Our call came after several Palestinian and First Nations artists implored the Sydney Festival to drop their ‘Star Partnership’ with the Israeli embassy. Upon their refusal, our call expanded. We asked programmed artists and Festival staff to withdraw their labour. We asked patrons to cancel their tickets and email the Board. The response was heartening. As the withdrawing production seven methods of killing kylie jenner wrote in their statement of withdrawal:
We refuse to be cornered into implicating ourselves, along with our communities and audiences, by cooperating in the artwashing of [Sydney Festival’s] star sponsor’s apartheid state … We cannot allow the people who control which stories are told on This Land to regress and normalise colonial narratives.
The call for cultural boycott is rooted in the understanding that the state of Israel inserts itself into arts and cultural spaces (such as the Sydney Festival) in an attempt to fabricate legitimacy on the global stage. At the same time, the apartheid state not only prevents Palestinians from pursuing their own right to artistic expression, but actively dispossesses, persecutes, punishes and murders artists who dare to speak of the settler colonial violence perpetrated against them. Insidiously, the Israeli government often uses the arts to launder their apatheid regime, using the false claim of ‘coexistence’ – a notion that disregards Palestinians’ right of return and the right of all Indigenous people to self-determination.
Boycotts have proven to be effective throughout history in opposing systemic discrimination. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement draws upon other grassroots resistance movements such as the Irish Land League, the Indian Salt March, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the International Boycott of South African Apartheid. In fact, one of the strengths of the BDS movement is the praxis of transnational solidarity within which it operates. This campaign is not only about the settler colonial projects of Israel and Australia. Rather, it is a global call that builds upon the momentum of a global movement.
One of the greatest strengths of the BDS movement is that it is people powered – anyone and everyone can practice BDS. We know that international super-powers, both governments and corporate entities, have long endorsed, enabled, and funded Israel’s war crimes. However, we find strength in the fact that many artists had decided, of their own volition, to withdraw from Sydney Festival upon hearing of their partnership with the Israeli embassy – before we even approached them.
For over 73 years, the Israeli propaganda machine has blamed Palestinians for their own oppression, but the tide is turning. We are seeing solidarity with the Palestinian people like never before – the success of the campaign to boycott Sydney Festival is proof of that. Our cries for justice have overwhelmed all attempts from the state of Israel and the Zionist lobby to silence us. People are waking up – to Israel’s genocidal crimes, and also to the power of the Palestinian people in their uncompromising demand for liberation.
Building on this momentum, we have no doubt that the state of Israel will become increasingly isolated internationally, as more people choose to stand on the right side of history. We know that the day will come when the checkpoints will be abolished, the apartheid wall will fall, and all Palestinians will be able to return to their ancestral homelands. Until then, we expand our resistance, and we invite you to join us.