Beyond BDS 'victories': The lessons of the Sydney Festival boycott for grassroot activism 

Beyond BDS 'victories': The lessons of the Sydney Festival boycott for grassroot activism 
7 min read
07 Mar, 2022
The recent success of the boycott of the 2022 Sydney Festival not only reveals the power of BDS, but also how solidarity and community building is always necessary for victory, writes Randa Abdel-Fattah.  
People hold banners and Palestine flags at a Pro-Palestine protest against the Israeli Film Festival in Sydney in 2014. [Getty]

The cultural boycott of one of Australia’s major annual cultural events, the 2022 Sydney Festival is being described in international circles as the most effective, impactful and creative since the inception of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2005.

The boycott was launched in December 2022 because Sydney Festival refused artist and community calls to divest from its sponsorship sought from the state of Israel for the Sydney Dance Company’s production of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s Decadence.  

The response to the boycott call was unprecedented. Over a thousand people signed our Artist Statement calling on artists, workers, organisations and affiliates to withdraw their participation in Sydney Festival for its partnership with an apartheid regime.  

In just three weeks, more than 100 artists, creatives and companies withdrew in solidarity, many patrons cancelled tickets. Publicly, there was an outpouring of support across social media platforms, and extensive national media coverage.

"From the outset, the campaign was based on grassroots organising and transnational movement-building, all underpinned by a praxis of anti-colonial, anti-racist resistance among allies"

Palestinians in Gaza who were literally being bombed by Israel when Sydney Festival’s board made the sponsorship deal in May 2021, were following the campaign on social media and sent photographs holding up messages of solidarity.

An anonymous artist painted a mural depicting the festival’s logo on a wall in Gaza, the word ‘complex’ painted above as an ironic gesture to the rhetorical avoidances deployed by so many. First Nations’ artists, arts organisations and communities in solidarity with Palestinians in a genuinely intersectional, intergenerational coalition were some of the first to boycott and produced the most compelling arguments for accountability of cultural institutions.  

Literally two days after the Festival closed, on 1 February, Amnesty International published its landmark report: ‘Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians, Cruel System of Domination and Crime against Humanity’. Sydney Festival’s board had tried ‘both-sides’ and ‘it’s complex’, and doubled-down on partnering with an apartheid state.

Whilst there are many, particularly in the "progressive except Palestine" camp, who confidently dismiss Palestinian voices, not so many would dare dismiss Amnesty International, a recognised human rights agency that enjoys the support in the liberal mainstream.  

From the outset, the campaign was based on grassroots organising and transnational movement-building, all underpinned by a praxis of anti-colonial, anti-racist resistance among allies who did not need an Amnesty report to remind them of what Palestinians had been experiencing and documenting for decades.

The boycott was a striking example of how activists negotiating multiple and inseparable identities on sovereign Indigenous land work together to formulate political demands and build transnational alliances in the service of justice.  

Praxis is key here. Transnational social movements share an intellectual and political language, but language is about more than fluency in vocabulary.   

Many academics, artists and self-labelled progressives parrot the vocabulary of social justice activism: ‘decolonial’, ‘intersectionality’, ‘anti-racist,’ ‘solidarity’. But if ‘solidarity is a verb’, the language of justice is practice. It is intellectual labour forged in concrete struggle. There is a difference between those who appropriate knowledge and theory, and those who produce it through action and experience, not mere academic citations or blue ticks.     

Language as praxis, even as it draws on the rich lexicons of global transnational struggles, will only make sense if it operates through local grammars. This was critical for us. Arab, Palestinian and non-Indigenous artists, organisers and academics understood that we campaign as racialized settler minorities on stolen land.

This is not to romanticise solidarity work. It is impossible to square the circle of fighting settler colonialism there as we live in an ongoing settler colony here.

Supporting a decolonisation project in Palestine means confronting settler colonialism and the task of decolonisation on this continent and holding ourselves accountable to a foundational principle: dismantling oppressive local and global power structures by pursuing transformative justice that centres Indigenous sovereignty.   

In our communications and meetings with Sydney Festival’s board, we were unequivocal in calling out the Festival’s performative co-option of the contemporary language of ‘acknowledgment of country’ and ‘Indigenous sovereignty’.

"Withdrawing from Sydney Festival— after two years of a global pandemic and funding cuts to the arts— came at a significant, painful cost for artists and arts companies"

The Festival insisted on doing business with an apartheid regime even as it applauded itself for programming Indigenous artists and performed a solemn acknowledgment of country on its website. In rejecting calls to divest from the partnership, the board claimed it was a ‘non-political’ organisation.   

In the Artist Statement calling for a boycott call consequently issued, such a claim was promptly exposed: ‘Existing on stolen land is political. Making art is political. Accepting funding from a settler-colonial apartheid regime is political’. Calling out the board’s obvious cynical performativity was not the point.

The point was to reclaim the political, decolonial and intersectional approach from progressives who treat these words as platitudes, rather than embodied practice. ‘Solidarity’, the boycott call proclaimed, ‘is a practice and an ongoing commitment’.   

Key to this commitment is ethics and practice of care. Withdrawing from Sydney Festival— after two years of a global pandemic and funding cuts to the arts— came at a significant, painful cost for artists and arts companies whose withdrawal meant losing the publicity, reviews and exposure that comes with participation in a major festival.

Voices

Solidarity as practice meant supporting artists who had withdrawn their shows from the festival but were performing in other venues: using social media platforms and word of mouth to publicise the alternative shows, organising donations of tickets to encourage people to attend, organising tickets for reviewers to attend the shows, write and publish reviews.   

Arab Theatre Studio (ATS), a Sydney-based theatre company and the first arts organisation to withdraw from the Festival, put in practice an ethics of care in both visible ways and behind-the-scenes labour. One example of this embodied care was organising a group of First Nations Elders, First Nations artists and people seeking asylum to see the renowned Indigenous-intercultural dance company Marrugeku’s world premiere of Jurrungu Ngan-ga.

Extending on this sense of care and solidarity, a group of poets of colour publicly offered to support companies and artists boycotting shows by buying tickets, so through interconnected networks of artist activists, ATS was able to invite Indigenous Elders, artists, friends and allies to Marrugeku’s stunning performance that was now being independently performed outside the Festival.

"Whilst the boycott campaign is officially over, solidarity and community building is always ongoing for, in the words of Toni Morrison, 'If we serve, we last'"

ATS organised transport to travel across Sydney and, in true Arab style, organised a pre-and post-performance charcoal chicken banquet lunch from one of Sydney’s renowned Lebanese restaurants for invited guests, allies, and Marrugeku artists and crew.   

Social movements based on relationships and commitments will always share a language that is real, embodied and impactful. Recently, Arab Theatre Studio, joined by organisers and allies, hosted a picnic to celebrate bonds forged and relationships renewed. Whilst the boycott campaign is officially over, solidarity and community building is always ongoing for, in the words of Toni Morrison, ‘If we serve, we last’.

Community is the alter-space, the place we go to imagine and dream; renew our intentions, reflect on our practices. It offers us the why for what we do, and will keep on doing, until we achieve justice and liberation from Gaza to Gadigal.  

Randa Abdel-Fattah is a DECRA Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University researching the generational impact of the war on terror on post 9/11 youth and the award winning author of over 11 novels. 

Follow her on Twitter: @RandaAFattah 

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.