At the end of yet another year in which the State of Israel has continued to entrench its settler-colonial, apartheid regime over the Palestinian people, Palestinian activists and artists are confronting yet another egregious example of the violent and dehumanising politics of ‘progressive except for Palestine.’
Sydney Festival, one of Australia’s most established and iconic annual cultural celebrations, has refused calls by Palestinian artists, activists and their supporters to divest from the Festival’s ‘Star Partner’ sponsorship with the Israeli Embassy in Canberra. This sponsorship is being used to support a Sydney Dance Company production of Decadence in the Festival program for 2022. The call for Sydney Festival to divest comes on the immediate back of a boycott campaign against Melbourne Queer Film Festival for its insistence on screening an Israeli state-funded film, ignoring demands from queer Palestinians and their allies.
Decadence was crafted by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin of Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company. Ironically, Naharin himself supports the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, and is on the record stating ‘BDS has an agenda that I identify with. They are against the occupation.’ Even the choreographer calling for his own work to be boycotted has not persuaded Sydney Festival to disassociate Decadence from Israeli sponsorship through divestment.
While Palestinians are intimately familiar with the rhetorical shields and strategies deployed by so-called progressives to ignore, deflect, block and even censor Palestine and its supporters, Sydney Festival’s insistence on crossing the picket line despite hearing directly from Palestinian artists and activists—including artists whose works were programmed in the Festival—is particularly disgraceful.
Artists and activists wrote to and met with the Board of Sydney Festival in December. Signatories and the delegations represented a diversity of creative, activist and academic practice, embodying many years of deep engagement in community and cultural work. They asked the directors to have the ethical leadership and moral courage to genuinely establish Sydney Festival as anti-racist Apartheid Free Zone by divesting from the Star Partnership, ending all relations with the State of Israel and any diplomatic mission of the State of Israel, and removing any logo or government emblem of the State of Israel from Sydney Festival’s promotional material.
Our calls have been rejected. The directors did so on the grounds that Sydney Festival is a ‘non-political’ organisation—a hollow claim given the Festival is politically aware enough to platform First Nations and ‘minority’ or ‘diverse’ artists. The Festival comfortably co-opts the contemporary language of ‘artistic and cultural safety’ and ‘inclusion’ yet has no problem in creating a culturally unsafe environment for Arab artists and audiences who want to be a part of the festival but who now cannot, in good conscience, participate as they bear witness to the slaughter, occupation and oppression of Palestinians.
The claim that Sydney Festival is ‘non-political’ is even more egregious when one considers that as soon as Olivia Ansell, the new Artistic Director of Sydney Festival, was appointed, she did not mince words when she reassured Australians that she would maintain the legacy of her predecessor, Wesley Enoch, by continuing his strong political commitment to First Nations’ work and the popular Vigil held on the eve of ‘Australia Day’ as an expression of solidarity with First Nations communities. How is it that the festival can reconcile its commitment to First Nations solidarity here while legitimizing and normalizing relations with a settler colonial apartheid state that maintains a system of racism, subjugation and land theft against Palestinians?
Our calls were guided by the global BDS movement, which was launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005. Since its inception it has challenged the complicit international support for Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid over the Palestinian people, notably in the realm of culture and the arts. The Israeli occupation forces often direct their attacks at Palestinian cultural institutions and events. These extreme violations of international law, many of which are said to amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, are obscured by Israel’s attempts to market itself to the world as a free and fair liberal democracy. Israel has long pursued a well-documented calculated strategy to pursue artistic and cultural collaborations and relationships which provide it with opportunities to whitewash, artwash, greenwash and pinkwash its crimes.
In making our case to the Sydney Festival, we argued that the Festival’s partnership with the State of Israel has a number of significant harmful consequences.
First is the dehumanisation of Palestinians. It is truly staggering that a major publicly funded arts festival actively pursued a partnership with Israel around the same time earlier this year when Israel was yet again engaged in a horrific bombing campaign against the besieged people of Gaza. No number of pleas to ignorance or oversight can justify this, and there is only one conclusion to be drawn by this fact: Sydney Festival was and remains indifferent to the murder and suffering of Palestinians, and defiantly dismissive of their liberation struggle.
Second, such a partnership denies artists, and Arab Australian communities and allies who support Palestinians, their right to an environment of artistic and cultural safety. This cannot be overstated. For critically conscious artists, it is simply not possible to reconcile participating in a festival which trades their safety, dignity and calls for justice with a partnership with the 21st century’s settler-colonial apartheid state. Over the past month, our coalition has contacted hundreds of artists, arts workers, arts directors and arts administrators concerning the partnership with the Israeli Embassy. Everyone we have contacted has expressed distress, fear and hurt regarding the Festival’s Star Partnership. Even if the Festival postures as ‘non-political’, it is well-aware that the thousands of artists across Australia it works with are informed of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people, and are against apartheid, state-sanctioned violence, and ethnic cleansing. Our coalition has witnessed first-hand the emotional distress and turmoil the Sydney Festival’s partnership has inflicted on artists. Artists have expressed to us in tears that they cannot afford to lose employment and the shows they have worked so hard to create after such a challenging year, even though they are grief-stricken to have their names and projects tarnished by Israel’s pink-washing rainbow logo on the Sydney Festival website. Whether artists choose to withdraw from the Festival or not, they have all now been impacted professionally, politically and socio-economically by the Sydney Festival’s reckless and morally bankrupt decision to align itself with the Israeli Embassy.
Third, after two years of pandemic lockdowns and the significant loss of work, the artists who are publicly withdrawing will lose more work and opportunities because Sydney Festival chooses to privilege its partnership with the embassy of a violent apartheid regime over its relationships with the tax-paying communities it should be serving and platforming. Such artists include Ensemble Dandana, part of Arab Theatre Studio, which has officially withdrawn from Sonic Collisions scheduled for 15 January. The MCA has immediately cancelled this whole event as Ensemble Dandana is one of the key artists.
Among those who have responded to the boycott calls are Amy McQuire, a Darumbal and South Sea Islander writer and academic, who withdrew from the ‘Goodbye Misogyny’ panel, Bankstown Poetry Slam, the largest slam in the southern hemisphere, and BINDI BOSSESS, a South Asian dance company who said in their online statement: ‘We are committed to maintaining the independence and integrity of our platform and using it in the service of freedom and justice for those who have suffered at the hands of colonial violence.’
Award-winning comedian Nazeem Hussain was also scheduled to perform in the Festival’s opening comedy gala night, but as a long-time supporter of Palestinians and social justice, Hussain has also withdrawn from the festival.
The Festival’s disregard for Arab artists’ safety, along with the indifference to Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israeli state, has also meant that award-winning author and director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, has withdrawn from accepting the invitation to join the Sydney Festival Board. Ironically, the reason the Festival approached Dr Ahmad to join the board was to build stronger and safer connections with Arab, Muslim and Western Sydney communities, only to immediately reject his first attempts at doing so when he called on Sydney Festival to divest from its Israeli partnership.
Fourth, Sydney Festival has effectively offered an apartheid regime the veneer of respectability it so doggedly pursues as a means to obscure its crimes against humanity. So long as artistic and cultural institutions normalise relations with an apartheid state, the Israeli State’s brutality and oppression of the Palestinian people is by logical extension also normalised.
In 2021, there is no ambiguity about the State of Israel’s continued occupation, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Palestine is one of the most compelling and urgent liberation struggles of our time. And yet for Sydney Festival, the value of Israeli partnership is worth more than Palestinian life.