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Sydney Festival Proceeds as Planned Despite Calls for Boycott over Israel Funding

The board of the 2022 Sydney Festival affirmed on Tuesday that it would not end a sponsorship agreement with the Embassy of Israel, despite pressure from a number of pro-Palestinian artists who called for boycotting the event.

The festival, which will take place Jan. 6-30, will include more than 120 events, 30 world premieres, and 48 new commissions. Yet at least 26 pro-Palestinian artists and groups have withdrawn their participation after discovering that it signed a $20,000 sponsorship agreement with the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, Australia. The funding will support a performance by the Sydney Dance Company of a piece called “Decadance” by acclaimed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.

David Kirk, chairman of the Sydney Festival’s board, said that while the festival would not return the funding it got from the Israeli Embassy or cancel the performance of Naharin’s work, it will “review its practices in relation to funding from foreign governments or related parties.”

“We see it as the core role of the Sydney Festival to present art and to provide an inclusive platform for all artists,” he added. “We respect the right of any artist to withdraw from the Festival and hope that they will feel able to participate in future festivals.”

Kirk also said the board spoke with groups who were upset about the funding, and that it respects “the right of all groups to protest and raise concerns.”

In its general FAQ page, the festival acknowledged that it has routinely established “sponsorship arrangements with embassies and cultural agencies – such as the British Council, Alliance Francaise, the Irish Embassy, Goethe Institute and others – whenever presenting international work.”

Comedian Tom Ballard announced his boycott of the festival on Tuesday, and others who have withdrawn from the event include the indie duo Good Morning, rapper Barkaa, journalist Amy McQuire, and the Melbourne-based band Karate Boogaloo.

Yet Olivia Ansell, the director of the festival, said on Wednesday that it “employs 800 artists right across greater Sydney” and remains prepared to open.

Darren Bark, who heads the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, applauded the festival’s “principled stance to reject the call for BDS” — the Palestinian-led boycott campaign that seeks to isolate Israel internationally.

Alex Ryvchin, co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, likewise condemned the boycott efforts in an op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald last week. “The strategy of anti-Israel activism,” he argued, “is to take the stage, co-opt every movement, every forum of prestige and saturate it with stories of Israeli evil.”

“Isolating Israelis from the world, keeping their academics, artists and dancers away from others lest their basic humanity be discovered is a key plank to this strategy,” he wrote. “Like all campaigns based on bullying and threats, anti-Israel boycott calls should be met with fortitude and integrity. Submitting to such demands or treating them as legitimate only invites more.”

Walt Secord, NSW shadow minister for the arts and heritage and deputy chair of the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel, slammed the boycott efforts in a letter to the Sydney Festival board in mid-December.

“An economic boycott is abhorrent and mendacious and it is counter-productive to fostering a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian people,” he wrote. “The language used in the letter to your organizations from [the group] BDS Australia is beyond repugnant and replete with outright lies and shocking exaggerations. An examination of the organizations that purport to sign the letter reveals that they represent a minuscule (but vocal) minority. Most Australians would be outraged at this one-sided, myopic targeting of Israel.”

Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, similarly stated, “The politics of division and fear, whose sole objective is to delegitimize and denigrate the only Jewish state in the world, have no place in our nation.”