Pro-Palestinian artists withdraw from Sydney Festival over Israeli sponsorship deal

Palestinian artists and writers accuse festival organizers of “creating a culturally unsafe environment for Arab artists and audiences.”

By Shiryn Ghermezian, The Algemeiner

A coalition of pro-Palestinian artists and others have withdrawn their participation from the 2022 Sydney Festival, and are calling for a boycott of the event over its ties to Israel.

The 2022 Sydney Festival — set to run on Jan. 6-30 — signed a $20,000 “Star Partner” sponsorship agreement with the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, which supports the festival’s scheduled performance by the Sydney Dance Company of a work called “Decadence” by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.

Naharin said in 2019 that he supports the efforts of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which aims to isolate Israel internationally. Yet he maintained in 2016 that such boycotts are “essentially useless” and there are better ways to advance the Palestinian cause.

The Palestine Justice Movement Sydney stated on Wednesday that the South Asian dance company Bindi Bosses, the Arab Theatre Studio, the Arabic music ensemble Dandana, and journalist Amy McQuire have pulled out of the festival due to its partnership with the Israeli embassy. Writer Michael Mohammed Ahmad rejected an opportunity to join the festival’s board, the group further claimed, while artist Khaled Sabsabi, rapper Barkaa, and comedian Nazeem Hussain have also withdrawn from the event.

“By partnering with Israel, Sydney Festival will be complicit in Israel’s strategy to art-wash its crimes, and will contribute to the normalization of an apartheid state,” said the Palestine Justice Movement Sydney, which urged other participants and members of the public to boycott the event.

In an open letter co-written by Ahmad and published on Thursday, seven artists and writers accused the festival of “creating a culturally unsafe environment for Arab artists and audiences who want to be part of the festival but who now cannot, in good conscience, participate as they bear witness to the slaughter, occupation and oppression of Palestinians.”

In a statement provided to The Guardian on Thursday, a festival spokesperson said it will not terminate its agreement with the Israeli embassy. The statement said, “The festival is unwavering in its commitment to ensuring a culturally safe space for all artists, employees and audiences. [The festival] will be reviewing all funding arrangements with embassies and cultural organizations to ensure that any continuance of these partnerships are compatible with maintaining a welcoming and culturally safe environment moving forward.”

The Israeli Embassy in Canberra told The Guardian on Thursday, “Israel has always and will continue to promote cultural exchange and engage in cultural dialogue in numerous countries, including Australia. Culture is a bridge to coexistence, cooperation and rapprochement and should be left out of the political arena.”