Boycott of Sydney Festival is not about artistic censorship

Jan 28, 2022
Palestine protest
(Image: Unsplash)

 It was not the performance of the Israeli choreographer’s Decadance which was the concern but rather the funding from the Israeli government sought by the festival.

The boycott of the Sydney Festival and surrounding furore represent a turning point in the public relations battle over Israel and Palestine. Critics’ resort to falsehoods and character assassination reflects desperation and absence of defensible arguments.

Among such lame responses to the boycott federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher, writing in The Australian on January 20, makes unfounded allegations and sidesteps the central issue.

Fletcher suggests that the activists and 40 artists who have withdrawn from the festival sought “political censorship” of the festival’s “programming and curatorial choices”. This is either a deliberate falsehood or an obtuse misreading of the explicit source of concern. It was not the performance of the Israeli choreographer’s Decadance which was the concern but rather the funding from the Israeli government sought by the festival.

Fletcher suggests “The [boycott] collective’s views about Israel are, to put it politely, difficult to reconcile with reality.” In particular, he says Israel is not an “apartheid state.” These assertions about “reality” may be contrasted with the judgment of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 2014 he wrote an article for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz calling for a global boycott of Israel in view of the “profoundly unjust status quo.” And Tutu reminded us “Nelson Mandela famously said that South Africans would not feel free until Palestinians were free.”

Indeed, last year the Israeli government was charged with the crime of apartheid by Israel’s own distinguished human rights organisation B’Tselem and also by the pre-eminent Human Rights Watch (HRW) which describes Israel as “a regime of Jewish supremacy.” The charge of apartheid is not based on comparisons with South Africa since it has been independently defined as a crime against humanity punishable under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Further realities are set out by the Australian Centre for International Justice which asserts “Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinian people has increased and become even more entrenched.” The centre explains, “Inherent in its settler-colonial and apartheid regime, Israel continues to implement and conduct systematic and widespread human rights violations, which amount to the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Around 700,000 settlers in the West Bank are all illegal according to international law while agencies such as Defence of Children International (DCI) report around 2,000 Palestinian children have been shot dead in the West Bank since 1967. Over 50,000 Palestinian houses have been demolished and Palestinians are regularly evicted from their homes as most recently in Sheikh Jarrah. A million olive trees have been destroyed and Amnesty International reports that water is stolen for Israeli settlements. Palestinians endure daily humiliation at hundreds of checkpoints as part of the oppressive “matrix of control” condemned by Israeli human rights organisations ICAHD and B’Tselem.

The crushing blockade of the Gaza Strip is a war crime described by UN and the international Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as collective punishment under “belligerent occupation” making Gaza unliveable for its 2 million inhabitants since the water is toxic and electricity, access to medical treatment and other necessities are severely restricted. The UN’s humanitarian body reports devastating, disproportionate military assaults on Gaza have caused over 5,000 civilian deaths since 2008, followed recently with over 200 unarmed protesters shot dead by Israeli snipers. OCHA reported more than 6000 people suffered wounds from live ammunition and Amnesty International notes a UN report which “paints a damning picture of Israeli forces who deliberately shot at children, health workers, journalists and people with disabilities, demonstrating a cruel and ruthless disregard for international humanitarian law.”

In this context, the claim of Sydney Festival to being “non-political” is morally indefensible because it is just as political to seek and accept a criminal government’s sponsorship as to cancel it. Indeed, the former deputy director-general at the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry said in 2005: “We regard culture as a hasbara [propaganda] tool of the highest order, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.” By deciding not to cancel the Israeli sponsorship the Sydney Festival is making a political choice to look away from the realities.

The boycott of Sydney Festival suggests it may be the kind of turning point famously seen in the 1984 boycott of Dunnes Store in Dublin by Irish workers. One young woman at the supermarket checkout refused to handle a South African grapefruit. She was suspended and the other union members walked out in protest. The strikers were condemned by the Dublin Archbishop and they were labelled communists. However, the strike was maintained for three years and eventually the Irish government introduced sanctions against South African produce.

When Nelson Mandela visited Ireland he honoured the workers for their part in the struggle against apartheid. When he died, they were invited to his funeral in South Africa. Such grassroots political protest is relevant and inspiring today. In view of their sacrifice, rather than absurd abuse as “useful idiots” of Hamas, the artists and workers who have withdrawn from the Sydney Festival deserve respect and praise for their principled moral stance.

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