Artists stand up for human rights: boycott of Sydney Festival was the only option

Jan 20, 2022
Tom Toby photographer
Rally in Sydney against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Australia, February 2017

Performers are right to protest when their performance is compromised through association, in this case by a government that has initiated apartheid.

 Some topics have become so politically and emotionally charged that their very mention will cause the speaker to be subject to an avalanche of vitriol and assumed prejudice without any attention being given to the merits of the argument being prosecuted.  The Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is one of those subjects.

The 2022 much-loved and appropriately lauded Sydney Festival has received considerable publicity, not because of the quality of its events, but because of the disruption of more than 40 per cent of the festival’s performances, with some 100 artists, companies and arts workers withdrawing in solidarity and in protest of the Israeli embassy sponsorship for the festival. Judith Lucy, Tom Ballard and Nazeem Hussain, among many others are boycotting the festival to protest polices enacted by the Israeli government which cause loss of human rights by the Palestinian people.  By their action these performers have become active members of the BDS movement.

Some years ago, I was a speaker at a symposium sponsored by Manning Clark House and hosted by Phillip Adams, on the topic: ‘Does humanity have a future’. Most speakers contributed from the perspective of science, but I was especially taken by one who spoke from the arts who observed: “Civilisation is heading for disintegration when artists and artisans cease holding a mirror to the face of power and more particularly to the political elite”.  Performers – artists, cartoonists poets, do not simply entertain, they command a stage as truth tellers, as veil removers.  Blessed are those who take this responsibility seriously, and we should be grateful.

Performers have every right to protest when their performance is compromised through association, in this case by the embassy whose government has initiated a system of apartheid. Through colonisation, confiscation, discrimination, and intimidation, Palestinians are forced to live under occupation in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank in a world vastly different to that enjoyed by the illegal settlers who have appropriated their land, property, and rights.

Through the recent passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate, and human rights champion, we have been reminded that the term apartheid can and should be applied to any situation in which gross inequality has become institutionalised as a direct result of governmental policy.  This is the case in Israel/Palestine, and as such confirmed in the past year by Human Rights Watch and by the highly respected and US State Department-endorsed Israeli NGO B’Tselem. Both independently concluded that Israel is practising apartheid. To say otherwise is to deny the truth. Tutu is famous for many sayings, but one is pertinent here: “to remain silent in the face of oppression is take the side of the oppressor”.

The Zionist lobby and its supporters fiercely attack the BDS movement, variously describing it as ‘vile’, ‘anti-Semitic’, ‘opposed to Arab and Jewish coexistence’, ‘desiring the elimination of the state of Israel’.  None of this pejorative nomenclature is remotely true.  What is vile is Israeli security forces standing by while settlers beat a Palestinian. What is vile is an Israeli family living in the home confiscated from a Palestinian family. What is vile is 2+million Palestinians living in squalor in the Gaza strip.  What is anti-Semitic is apportioning the blame of Israeli governmental actions to a person simply because they are Jewish. The BDS movement opposes true anti-Semitism for the same reason it opposes abuse of Palestinian rights, and it is why many Jewish people support the BDS movement against the Israeli government.

The BDS movement would not need to exist if Arab and Jewish coexistence prevailed.  Unfortunately, it does not exist and will not exist because of the stated policies of the Bennett and Netanyahu governments, both leaders having stated that not one inch of land will ever be ‘ceded’ to create a Palestinian state. The passing of the Israeli Nation State Law on July 23, 2018, stated that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” This confirmed the impossibility of equal and reciprocal coexistence.  Since the signing of the Oslo agreements of the 1990s, Palestinians have not only accepted the right of Israel to exist but have agreed to do so based on Israel’s occupation of 78 per cent of the historical land. BDS exists because for the past 54 years Israel has continued to take as much of the remaining 22 per cent as it can, rendering a two-state solution impossible.

Those who rail against BDS, which includes a significant number of Australian politicians of all colours, need to face this question: “When people are oppressed and their human rights denied, what are their options and which if any of these options is acceptable?” It seems to me there are four possibilities.

The first option is armed and violent resistance. This option was strongly eschewed by Tutu and is eschewed by the BDS movement. The second is negotiation. We all remember the White House lawn handshake that concluded the Oslo agreements. A Palestinian state was supposed to be formed within five years of that handshake in 1993. That was 29 years ago. The third option is simply to lie down and accept that subjection is one’s lot in life. This is of course morally wrong and dignifies oppression, but it appears to be the option the Israeli government wills the Palestinian people to adopt. The final option is non-violent resistance. BDS is one form of non-violent resistance.  To deny or condemn the BDS movement is to condemn non-violent resistance and force subject peoples into one of the other two undesirable positions..

It is no secret that the Zionist lobby puts pressure on politicians to make support of the BDS movement an offence. The reason for this pressure is clear. The movement is effective.  While the economic effect is probably quite minimal at this stage, the potential for economic damage is considerable. More significantly, reputational damage is much more costly.

The answer for Israel and its supporters is not to muzzle the messenger, to silence the blast of the trumpet horn. The answer is to address the reasons why the Boycott movement has emerged.

Back to the Sydney Festival.  Long may artists and performers, including sports people, be a moral voice within the community. What has happened at the Sydney Festival may well be a watershed moment. Let me finish with a shout-out to the many Jewish voices who are saying to the Israeli government ‘you will not, you cannot conduct oppression in the name of Judaism. You most certainly will not do it in our name’.


George Browning was Anglican bishop of Canberra Goulburn 1993 – 2008 and is president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network



Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!