Why artists are suddenly withdrawing from Sydney Festival 2022

Three arts organisations have announced they will no longer be participating in Sydney Festival 2022 following a sponsorship deal between the festival and the Israeli Embassy.

The call for a boycott has been instated with protests taking place supported by a coalition of Arab and pro-Palestinian organisations as well as assorted academics and artists.

The protests are fuelled by the $20,000 sponsorship agreement by the Sydney Dance Company to have a production staged by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin called Decadance.

Sydney Festival
Image: Sydney festival

The list of artists is continuing to grow, with current withdrawals including  Blake Prize-winning artist Khaled Sabsabi, dance company Bindi Bosses, Malyangapa and Barkindji rapper Barkaa, Bankstown poetry slam, comedian Nazeem Hussain, and the Arab Theatre Studio.

A statement released on Wednesday by the Palestinian Justice Movement Sydney revealed that the deal was finalised in May. This timing aligns with the month of Israeli armed forces launched a series of attacks on Gaza, resulting in the death of Palestinian civilians.

A letter was openly published to the Meanjin website, with a collection of artists and writers stating that the partnership with the Israeli embassy was “disgraceful”.

The letter accused Sydney 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”.

Naharin has stated his support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movements plan on human rights for Palestinian people.

However, when asked to remove his musical work from an Israeli embassy-sponsored production in 2016, the choreographer responded calling such boycotts “lazy” and “essentially useless”.

On Thursday a Sydney Festival spokesperson provided a statement to The Guardian confirming they will not be terminating the agreement made with the Israeli embassy.

“The festival is unwavering in its commitment to ensuring a culturally safe space for all artists, employees and audiences”, the statement said.

“[The festival] will be reviewing all funding arrangements with embassies and cultural organisations to ensure that any continuance of these partnerships are compatible with maintaining a welcoming and culturally safe environment moving forward.”

Earlier this week, the festival board said it would be unable to support the BDS movement put forward by the coalition due to the festival being a non-for profit and non-political event.

Co-author if the Meanjin letter, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, was asked to join the Sydney Festival board later this year, but has now rejected the appointment.

The letter strikes out at the festival’s position, calling it a “hollow claim given the festival is politically aware enough to platform First Nations and ‘minority’ or ‘diverse artists.”

The Israeli embassy in Canberra sent a statement to the Guardian on Thursday saying:

“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.”