Sydney Festival Apologizes to Artists Over Israeli Funding Boycott Debacle

While the Sydney Festival has rebuffed BDS' demands to refuse Israeli funding, its board will consider whether the festival should accept government funding of festival acts in the future

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Artist Victoria Hunt performs "Thaw" suspended above Sydney Harbour, part of the 2022 Sydney Festival in on January 14, 2022.
Artist Victoria Hunt performs "Thaw" suspended above Sydney Harbour, part of the 2022 Sydney Festival in on January 14, 2022.Credit: DAVID GRAY - AFP

The chair of the Sydney Festival offered a public apology Thursday to the artists participating in the event upended by calls for a boycott due to Israeli government funding.

“We are very sorry for the fact that we put artists in a situation where they felt compromised," said festival chair David Kirk, adding that many artists found themselves either "in a position where they’ve felt the need to withdraw their work or continue with their work [and] have been subjected to pretty serious social media pressure to withdraw.

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"The review that we intend to undertake is focused on ensuring this ever happens again.”

He reiterated a previous declaration by the festival board that they would launch an independent review of what had happened and consider whether the festival would permit government sponsorship of festival acts in the future. 

The Sydney Festival boycott was launched in protest of the Israeli government funding of the Sydney Dance Company’s performance of “Decadance” – a work created by famed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, who leads the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv. The dance production is being underwritten by a 20,000-Australian-dollar grant (about $15,000) by Israel’s embassy in Canberra.

The board has stood firm in refusing to cave to the demands of the boycott movement by either cancelling the dance performance or demanding that it return the $15,000 to the Israeli government. 

In response to the boycott call and the board’s response, more than 30 individual and groups affiliated with the festival either cancelled their participation or decided to perform without the festival’s official backing. 

On Friday, a member of the festival’s board, writer Benjamin Law announced that he was resigning in protest of that decision. 

“Today’s decision to leave the board is mine alone,” Law said in a statement.  I am only comfortable departing now because I have every confidence in the remaining board directors for the process ahead.”

Kirk told The Guardian that the festival’s board did not anticipate the controversy and claimed that he had no knowledge of the fact that the Israeli government was subsidizing the dance performance  until he saw the Israeli government’s logo on the festival program. 

The Israeli embassy in Australia has disputed that narrative – with deputy ambassador Ron Gerstenfeld telling ABC radio that the festival’s management approached the embassy ahead of the event and requested that they sponsor “Decadence.”

“They told us about it … and we were happy and honored to support it,” Gerstenfeld said. “We didn’t think about it twice … and there were no strings attached. We didn’t ask any promises from [the festival] or the dance company to do something, we didn’t intervene in anything, so it’s a bit of hypocrisy to say we are doing some sort of art-wash in order to hide some kind of Israeli activities in any other sphere.”

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