Sydney Festival shares statement addressing boycotts over Israeli funding

The festival’s board confirmed that “all funding agreements will be honoured”

Following boycotts from over a dozen artists once slated to perform at this year’s Sydney Festival, its organisers have shared a statement addressing their recent controversy.

It was reported last month that Sydney Festival had mounted a sponsorship deal with the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, the latter funnelling $20,000 into the Sydney Dance Company’s production of Decadance (helmed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin).

In response, the Artists Against Apartheid organisation called for punters and performers alike to support the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and demand that Sydney Festival divest from the funding partnership. Notable is that Naharin himself supports the BDS movement.

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Hip-hop artist Barkaa was among the first to join the boycott in late December, noting in a statement that she “stand[s] with Palestine, always”. She was joined by the likes of experimental artist Marcus Whale, indie duo Good Morning, rapper Nooky and funk/soul band Karate Boogaloo. “Boycotts and divestments have a strong track record of holding governments and corporations accountable for their actions,” the latter said.

As noted by an Instagram page chronicling the boycotts, at least 26 performers have withdrawn from the 2022 Sydney Festival over the past few weeks.

Responding to the rising controversy yesterday (January 4), the Board of Sydney Festival noted that it was “conscious” of the boycotts, saying it “wish[ed] collectively to affirm its respect for the right of all groups to protest and raise concerns”. 

Though the Board claims it “spent time with a number of groups who have concerns about this funding and welcomed the opportunity to engage with them”, it went on to confirm that “all funding agreements for the current Festival – including for Decadance – will be honoured, and the performances will proceed”. 

“At the same time,” the statement continued, “the Board has also determined 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. We aim to profile a diverse representation of work by artists and companies locally, nationally and internationally. We respect the right of any artist to withdraw from the Festival and hope that they will feel able to participate in future festivals.

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“We likewise respect the many artists who continue to look forward to their participation in this year’s Sydney Festival and welcome them, and audiences to view the art they will present and its myriad of perspectives. As a Board we ask for respectful dialogue by all individuals and organisations when engaging with artists, especially for the personal decisions that artists make.”

After the statement was released, boycott leader Jennine Khalik hit out at the Board for its “absolute audacity”. 

“This is not about some dance,” Khalik Tweeted, “we couldn’t care less, it’s about the money. Get the money elsewhere. Don’t accept Israeli apartheid regime money. Don’t make apartheid your ‘star’.

In a follow-up Tweet, she continued: “This is really, truly disingenuous, and the Board is aware of this, but they’re now centring a dance none of us could give a [fuck] about. Your funding is the issue. Your partnership is.”

Inspired by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the BDS movement began in 2005 as a means of urging “nonviolent pressure” on Israel to comply with what it argues are its international law obligations, including “ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and committing to full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel.

One of the methods the BDS movement encourages is a cultural boycott. “Refraining from participating in cultural events in Israel or in Israel-funded activities around the world is the most important expression of support the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel,” reads its website.

As the organisers confirmed in their statement, the 2022 Sydney Festival is still on track to go ahead, with its first shows taking place tomorrow (January 6). 

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