Over 100 artists sign letter against anti-Israel boycott of Sydney Festival

At least 32 artists withdrew from the Sydney Festival over Israeli embassy partnership, a move that has been praised by BDS groups and Hamas.

Fireworks explode near the Sydney Opera House as part of new year celebrations on Sydney Harbour, Australia, December 31, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID GRAY/FILE PHOTO)
Fireworks explode near the Sydney Opera House as part of new year celebrations on Sydney Harbour, Australia, December 31, 2017

More than 120 artists and celebrities have signed an open letter against the boycott of Israel at the Sydney Festival, following the withdrawal of 20 participants from the arts festival over the Israeli Embassy in Australia’s funding of the event.

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“Cultural events are vitally important vehicles to bring people together of different backgrounds under a shared love of the arts. The annual Sydney Festival embodies this unifying power,” reads the letter, organized by the NGO Creative Community for Peace (CCFP). “Unfortunately, this year, the spirit of the Festival is under attack by those calling for a boycott because the Israeli Embassy is sponsoring a world-renowned Israeli dance ensemble. This call for a boycott turns the festival from an opportunity for unity into a weapon of division.”

David Draiman, the frontman of Disturbed and one of the open letter signatories, argued on Twitter, “Not performing at a music festival halfway around the world because you want to #FreePalestine doesn’t achieve anything other than keeping fans from being able to see the artists they love perform live.”

“It doesn’t affect, nor will it change the policies of the Israeli government, all it does is provide an easy opportunity to meaninglessly virtue signal, and gain some short-lived presence in the world press who are only too eager to spread this hate-fueled nonsense, with little to no negative repercussions to the artists involved in the boycott,” said Draiman. “Music is meant to bring people together, it might be the one truly powerful uniting force left in this world.”

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, also known as BDS. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, also known as BDS. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In an interview with the Australian Sunrise, Simmons said that while he “fully supports” people’s differing political views, he doesn’t want those views taken “out on young people in the arts that have nothing to do with politics,” the music paper NME reported.

“When the Chinese send a dance troupe to Australia, you’re not going to boycott them because you may have a point of view about how China treats certain people... leave that to the political pundits and let young, talented people in the arts do what they do.”

Simmons described the boycott as “censorship,” urging those boycotting to “leave young, talented people alone, no matter where they come from.”

"I am all about using the power of the arts to realize our commonality rather than our difference, to question and better ourselves as humans, to tell our stories and to spread love," said Australian Singer Katie Noonan, who shared a copy of the letter on Facebook. 

ARTISTS SUCH as Tom Ballard, Marcus Whale, and Yumi Stynes withdrew from the festival over Israeli sponsorship of the dance performance of Decadence, which was choreographed by Israeli Ohad Naharin. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott (PACBI), which praised the move, said “roughly one-fifth of the program” had withdrawn. The withdrawal was also met with praise by Hamas.

“We commend and appreciate this decision that came in solidarity with the Palestinians' legitimate rights, and in opposition to the Israeli crimes against our Palestinian people,” reads a Hamas statement, according to the Palestinian Information Center. “We declare our solidarity with the participants who have withdrawn from the festival, and we call on all participants to raise their voices in face of oppression and injustice.” 

“We salute the many artists and arts organizations, particularly indigenous artists who have withdrawn in meaningful solidarity with the indigenous Palestinian people living under Israel’s decades-old regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid,” PACBI said in a statement.

PACBI called on others to take up the boycott against what they called the “art-washing Israel’s war crimes and system of colonial oppression,” and dismissed CCFP efforts.

“We also reject the boycott activist claims that Jews are not indigenous to the Land of Israel,” said the CCFP letter. “The Jewish people have over a 3,000-year connection to the Land of Israel, and many Jewish families have lived in the land for hundreds of generations. This fact does not deny any other groups’ claims of indigeneity.”

PACBI called on others to take up the boycott against what they called the "art-washing Israel’s war crimes and system of colonial oppression," and dismissed CCFP efforts. 

CCFP director Ari Ingel said, “The organizers of the Sydney Festival boycott intentionally misrepresent the truth about Israel and make provocative statements, to try and bully artists into backing out of the festival. Their messages deceptively involve an element of dishonesty and deny the truth of Jewish indigeneity to the Land of Israel. Their actions only further hostility and dampen hope for peace, which all of us so urgently desire.”

Australian activists and politicians also weighed in on the boycott.

Former Australian ambassador to Israel and current MP Dave Sharma wrote on Twitter that he agreed with CCFP’s letter, adding, “The idea that a boycott of the Sydney Festival is going to have any influence whatsoever on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fanciful. But the discredit it does to its proponents is substantial. And the damage done to Australia is real.”

“Dance, art and culture, should be a bridge for peace, dialogue and inclusiveness – not hatred, bullying and bigotry, such as displayed by those calling to boycott the Israeli performance at the Sydney Festival,” said Arsen Ostrovsky, Israel Affairs Director of the Zionist Council of New South Wales and CEO of The International Legal Forum.  

Naharin’s Decadence dance performance was without incident and met by critical acclaim by The Australian, in which Deborah Jones wrote, “The standing ovation on Thursday said it all.” In an Instagram post, the Festival said that Limelight gave the performance a four-and-a-half star rating, and called it “a stunning festival opener.”

The Sydney Festival is a several-week-long arts, music and dance event that occurs in Australia every January, since 1977.

Both PACBI and the CCFP made open calls for artists and activists to join their respective petitions.

"The Sydney Festival should simply respect Palestinian human rights and drop its toxic partnership with apartheid Israel. Until it does, we join partners in present-day Australia in respectfully urging all participants to boycott it," stated PACBI.

"We call on all our friends and colleagues in the entertainment community to express their support for an exciting and successful Sydney Festival 2022 and to purchase a ticket and attend the festival itself to understand the power of arts to bring people together first hand," the CCFP letter finished.