Why Palestinians and allies are calling for a boycott of the Sydney Festival

Why Palestinians and allies are calling for a boycott of the Sydney Festival
6 min read
31 Dec, 2021
By accepting Israeli state funding, the Sydney Festival is complicit in 'artwashing' Israel's daily violence and dispossession of Palestinians. This is why boycotting the Sydney Festival is necessary, writes Jeanine Hourani.    
Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration against Israel at the Town Hall in Sydney on 15 May 2021. [Getty]

After what has been a monumental year for Palestinian organising and resistance, none of us expected to be spending the last couple of weeks of 2021 frantically reaching outs to artists, creatives, and performers asking them to withdraw from a major, international arts and culture festival. However, after being made aware that the Sydney Festival brought the Israeli embassy on board as a 'Star Sponsor', accepting $US 20,000 in sponsorship, we felt that we had no choice.

The call for a boycott came after a statement was signed by a cross-section of Palestinian, First Nations and other artists, organisations and supporters, demanding that the Festival drop their partnership with the Israeli embassy as a matter of conscience. The statement was signed by high-profile international artists, including actors Saleh Bakri and Miriam Margolyes, artist Sleiman Mansour, comedian Nazeem Hussein, poet Remi Kanazi, and hip-hop artists Lowkey and Barkaa.

Despite the growing calls to sever ties with the Israeli embassy, the Festival refused to drop the sponsorship. Our call subsequently expanded: requesting artists to pull out, staff to withdraw their labour, Festival-goers to cancel their tickets, and the general public to contact the Board of Directors.

We are heeding the call from Palestinian civil society to boycott, divest and sanction the state of Israel. This includes a cultural boycott, which is rooted in the understanding that the apartheid state uses cultural events, such as the Sydney Festival, to whitewash its daily violence against Palestinians. By accepting Israeli state funding, the Sydney Festival is complicit.    

"These acts of solidarity display the genuine, long-standing Bla(c)k-Palestinian solidarity movement that is uncompromising in its resistance against white supremacy and settler nationalism everywhere"

Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the boycott call aims to further the struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice, and equality. Artists, authors, creators, and performers from across the globe have answered the call: playing a critical role through collective acts of solidarity and resistance; speaking out and speaking back against Israel's atrocities. 

As always, it has been minoritised artists who have been the first to respond, making the greatest sacrifices for the pursuit of justice.

Legendary Black-American civil rights activist Angela Davis has been a long-time supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and has taken multiple hits for her stance, including civil rights awards rescinded and lectures cancelled. In the context of the Australian settler colony, First Nations (Blak) writers like Amy McQuire and Tony Birch have a long history of supporting the BDS movement and the Palestinian cause more broadly. So, it was no surprise that McQuire and First Nations hip-hop artist Barkaa were among the first to lead the way and withdraw from the Sydney Festival. 

These acts of solidarity display the genuine, long-standing Bla(c)k-Palestinian solidarity movement that is uncompromising in its resistance against white supremacy and settler nationalism everywhere: from Palestine to Turtle Island to the Australian colony. 

Although, or perhaps because, the call for a cultural and artistic boycott has gained international recognition over the last decade, Israel continues to 'artwash' – using arts and culture as tools to erase Palestinian histories.

Since the 1948 Nakba, the state of Israel has erased and co-opted Palestinian stories and histories in their attempts to displace and ethnically cleanse Indigenous Palestinians from our land. My Great-Grandfather was a poet hailing from the village Tarshiha in the northwest of historic Palestine, now part of the colonial state of 'Israel' proper. When he was forced out of his home, all records and archives of his poetry were destroyed by the colonial forces. What little records we were able to salvage were framed by my Grandmother and hung proudly in her living room as a reminder of what we’re fighting to preserve. 

We continue to see ongoing erasure of Palestinian stories and histories today. For Palestinians everywhere, the freedom to speak, perform, critique, and express are suppressed daily by the Israeli regime and its machinery.

The state of Israel continues to dispossess, persecute and punish artists including poets Dareen Tatour and Mohammed El-Kurd, and cartoonist Hafez Omar. The state of Israel also perpetrates cultural theft, co-opting Palestinian stories and art forms as their own. Only a few weeks ago, we saw images of Miss Universe contestants posing in Yaffa (Tel Aviv) wearing traditional Palestinian Tatreez (embroidery), claiming that it was Israeli attire. It came as a small but significant win when, a week later, Palestinian Tatreez was declared 'intangible cultural heritage of humanity' by UNESCO.

Voices

Insidiously, the state of Israel also uses culture as a form of propaganda under the guise of 'coexistence' and 'cultural exchange' to paper over its apartheid regime and settler-colonial project. We see this in the narrative being spun by self-proclaimed liberal Zionists and Zionist lobbyists who argue that a boycott of the Sydney Festival will hinder 'peace' between Palestinians and Israelis and, instead, request that we use the arts as a way to catalyse 'reconciliation'. 

This is a shallow and disingenuous response that deliberately disregards the underpinning principle of Palestinian liberation: there is no peace without justice, and there is no justice without land back and the right of return. This cannot be achieved without the weight of the international community, which has long authorised the Israeli occupation to act with impunity.

The platforming of Zionist voices in response to our campaign also reinforces colonial logic: that colonised people do not know what is best for us and cannot determine our modes of resistance, giving license to our oppressors to speak mendaciously on our behalf regarding the violence that they themselves inflict and endorse.

"When artistic institutions, organisations, and festivals that claim to serve us no longer represent our values or principles, we must create our own alter-spaces of resistance"

The late Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El-Saadawy once said: 'If you are creative, you must be dissident'. Artistic and creative spaces must be committed to the pursuit of justice; they must amplify Indigenous voices and subvert colonial narratives, not reproduce settler-colonial violence. 

When artistic institutions, organisations, and festivals that claim to serve us no longer represent our values or principles, we must create our own alter-spaces of resistance. In the Australian colony, we have seen such spaces emerge over the last few months.

One example of this is The Sunday Paper; an independent publication that was created in the boycott of an anti-Palestinian media outlet, Schwartz Media. The Sunday Paper centres the voices of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Palestinian people and their allies, working together in solidarity and uncompromising love to resist settler-colonial occupation. The Queer Solidarity Film Festival was also borne out of resistance to the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, which programmed an Israeli title financed by the Israeli Film Fund, despite calls from queer Palestinians and our allies to drop the film. 

These alter-spaces of resistance aim to create and recreate, imagine and reimagine in the pursuit of justice for all. Their creation is proof that the power that arts and cultural institutions once had in deciding which voices are platformed is dwindling. May we continue to see these people-powered spaces emerge and strengthen in 2022 and beyond, until freedom and liberation for all.

Jeanine Hourani is a Palestinian activist, organiser, and storyteller.

Follow her on Twitter: @jeaninehourani

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.