More Than 20 Artists Withdraw From Sydney Festival Over Israeli Funding

BDS movement’s campaign is protesting a $15,000 donation by the Israeli embassy for an Australian dance company show choreographed by Ohad Naharin at the Sydney Festival

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Sydney's famous Opera House on New Year's Eve
Sydney's famous Opera House on New Year's Eve Credit: JAIMI JOY/ REUTERS

A showdown over an Israeli embassy’s sponsorship of a dance performance has led more than 20 artists to boycott this month’s Sydney Festival, arguably the most prestigious cultural event in Australia. 

A campaign backed by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement began last month over the arts festival’s inclusion 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 production is being underwritten by a 20,000-Australian-dollar grant (about $15,000) by Israel’s embassy in Canberra. Despite the protest, the festival – which runs from January 6-30 – has stood firm in refusing to pull this week’s performance, leading to the withdrawal of over 20 of the some 120 artists slated to participate. There are plans for a public protest on Thursday to “disrupt” the festival and opening performance of “Decadance.”

In a statement released Tuesday, the festival’s board said it had “spent time with a number of groups who have concerns about this funding and welcomed the opportunity to engage with them. All funding agreements for the current festival – including for ‘Decadance’ – will be honored, and the performances will proceed.”

The board noted, however, that it has also determined to “review its practices in relation to funding from foreign governments or related parties.”

The statement also said that the board “wishes collectively to affirm its respect for the right of all groups to protest and raise concerns,” and called for “respectful dialogue by all individuals and organizations when engaging with artists – especially for the personal decisions that artists make.” 

The list of artists withdrawing event includes comedians, dance performances, and theater and musical acts. 

Israeli choreographer and Batsheva Dance Company founder Ohad Naharin.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

The Melbourne-based band Karate Boogaloo announced its withdrawal on Monday, telling fans that it “is standing in solidarity with Palestinian people and boycotting the Sydney Festival as a result of it accepting money from the human rights-abusing regime that is the Israeli government.”

Local comedian Tom Ballard tweeted his decision to withdraw on Tuesday, writing that “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.” 

The Israeli Embassy has remained in the background of the controversy, reiterating the statement it issued to The Guardian newspaper last month that it is “proud to support and participate in this important festival that showcases leading artists and performances from around the world.”

It added: “Culture is a bridge to coexistence, cooperation and rapprochement, and should be left out of the political arena.”

Jewish activists respond

Local pro-Israel activists have spoken out more fiercely, with Alexander Ryvchin of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry writing in the Sydney Morning Herald that by “promoting a boycott of the festival, anti-Israel activists in this country will have again gotten their column inches and online chatter devoted to the bloodlust and greed of Israelis and the quiet dignity of the Palestinian resistance. The stabbing of an Israeli mother walking with her kids in Jerusalem [last] month generated no such verbiage. The image of a Hamas operative toting a submachine gun after slaying a young Israeli tour guide on the cobblestones of the Old City, a mere triviality compared with the question of who sponsors an interpretative dance routine.”

Also writing in the Herald was New Israel Fund Executive Director Liam Getreu, who noted that “there is nothing out-of-hand illegitimate – and certainly not inherently antisemitic – about a boycott of Israel,” but that “stories of injustice, as well as the voices of those speaking up against that injustice, are extremely important to amplify on our stages here in Australia.”

Pointing out that Naharin “is one of the most articulate, persuasive and prominent critics of 54 years of Israeli government policies in the occupied territories,” Getreu added that boycotting the festival was “a blunt instrument” and “a counterproductive tool.”

The BDS movement has grown in prominence in Australia recently, according to Ittay Flescher, a correspondent for Plus61JMedia. He said that while its campaigns in past years failed to gain traction, it has gained momentum since Israel’s 11-day conflict with Hamas and other Islamist groups in Gaza last year, especially on the left. 

“Since the war in May, Israel has been far more unpopular in leftist circles in Australia,” Flescher said. “In November, there was a similar campaign against a film in the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. In both cases, you are talking about left-wing cultural events. The success they have had in these campaigns reflects the fact that it is becoming a standard practice that people with leftist credentials don’t want to be associated with the Israeli government in any way.” 

However, Peter Wertheim, co-executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said the BDS movement had yet to penetrate the Australian mainstream – despite “generating a lot of noise on social media, and now with some reporting and op-eds in the mainstream media.”

COVID was dominating the news, he said, and he predicted that the “noisy and disruptive demonstration planned” for when the Sydney Festival begins Thursday “will not go down well with the vast majority of Australians, who resent any attempt to import overseas conflicts into our peaceful country.”

Wertheim added that the “dance routine that will be the focus of the protest is being performed by the Sydney Dance Company. There is much public sympathy for the Australian dancers who will perform the routine, and who are desperate to get back to work after two years of COVID.”

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