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First performance of 'Decadence' goes ahead as scheduled

120 artists, industry officials slam boycott of Sydney festival over Israeli funding

Quoting Aussie rocker Nick Cave, open letter states that ‘cultural boycott of Israel is cowardly and shameful’; 30 acts withdraw over Israel sponsoring one of the shows

Illustrative: fireworks fill the sky over the Opera House in Sydney on New Year's Eve on December 31, 2021. (David Gray / AFP)
Illustrative: fireworks fill the sky over the Opera House in Sydney on New Year's Eve on December 31, 2021. (David Gray / AFP)

Over 120 entertainment industry figures signed an open letter against the boycott of a major cultural festival in Sydney, Australia, that began Thursday, after 30 acts and individuals withdrew over a sponsorship deal with the Israeli embassy.

In the letter published Thursday by the Creative Community for Peace, the signatories said they “believe the cultural boycott movement of the Sydney Festival is an affront to both Palestinians and Israelis who are working to advance peace through compromise, exchange, and mutual recognition.

“While we all may have differing opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the best path to peace, we all agree that a cultural boycott is not the answer,” the letter continued.

It quoted comments made by Aussie rocker Nick Cave in 2018, in which he said: “The cultural boycott of Israel is cowardly and shameful.”

“Israel is a real, vibrant, functioning democracy — yes, with Arab members of parliament — and so engaging with Israelis, who vote, may be more helpful than scaring off artists or shutting down means of engagement.”

Cave was not listed as a signatory in the new letter.

Nick Cave captivated his Tel Aviv audience on November 19, 2017 (Courtesy Orit Pnini)

Earlier this week, 30 bands, individual artists, companies, and panel members canceled their gigs or went ahead without sponsorships at the Sydney Festival 2022, in response to the Israeli funding for a show tied to an Israeli choreographer.

The embassy provided $20,000 for “Decadance,” a show based on a work by Ohad Naharin and Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company, as part of the Sydney Festival 2022.

It was performed by the Sydney Dance Company on January 6 at the Sydney Opera House as scheduled, and is scheduled to run through January 9.

On the festival website, the embassy is listed as a “star partner” due to the sponsorship.

Artists pulled out in response to calls for a boycott by Arab, pro-Palestinian, and other activist groups, The Guardian reported on Tuesday. Some of those who withdrew accused Israel of apartheid practices toward the Palestinians.

However, festival organizers remained determined to allow the performance to go ahead.

Local comedian Tom Ballard announced his withdrawal in a Twitter post on Tuesday, saying, “I love the Festival and I love telling jokes, but standing up for human rights and standing against a system of apartheid is more important.”

He called on the festival to return the funding it received from the embassy and urged other artists to follow his lead.

Singer Marcus Whale, in announcing his exit on Monday, tweeted that the Israeli embassy “collaborates with Western cultural institutions to paint Israel as a liberal democracy on one hand while enforcing brutal occupation and apartheid with the other. No more.”

Performers at the Sydney Festival in Sydney, Australia, Jan. 14, 2021. (Rick Rycroft/AP)

Some festival acts said they will participate but in an independent capacity and have withdrawn from the auspices of the Sydney Festival, according to the report.

The cast of the acclaimed play “Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner” said in a statement they are pulling out “in solidarity with the Palestinian cause” and the rights of all indigenous people to “sovereignty and liberation,” referring to Israel as “another oppressive settler-colony.”

They further accused festival organizers of failing to provide a “culturally safe space for all artists, employees, and audiences.”

The Belvoir St Theatre said it will put on its scheduled show but will not accept any direct funding from the festival because Palestinian artists are not able to participate in “cultural safety.”

In a statement Tuesday, the Sydney Festival board said it would keep the Israel-sponsored show and that it “wishes collectively to affirm its respect for the right of all groups to protest and raise concerns.”

“All funding agreements for the current Festival – including for Decadance – will be honored, and the performances will proceed,” it said. “At the same time, the Board has also determined it will review its practices in relation to funding from foreign governments or related parties.”

The Palestinian Justice Movement Sydney claimed in December that the Israeli embassy funding was agreed on in May and called for a boycott, accusing the festival of contributing “to the normalization of an apartheid state.”

Illustrative: A man holds a sign during a rally in support of the BDS movement in Albany New York, on June 15, 2016. (AP/Mike Groll)

The embassy responded in a statement to The Guardian at the time that Israel was “proud to support and participate in this important Festival that showcases leading artists and performances from around the world.

“Culture is a bridge to coexistence, cooperation, and rapprochement and should be left out of the political arena,” the embassy said.

PJMS called for a protest demonstration to be held opposite Sydney’s opera house when the festival kicked off Thursday.

The pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement says it seeks to end Israel’s control of lands captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and what it describes as discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority. It also calls for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to ancestral lands that they fled or were expelled from in the 1948 war during Israel’s creation.

Israeli officials vehemently reject the apartheid accusations, and Israel and other BDS opponents say that the BDS campaign encourages antisemitism and aims to delegitimize or even destroy Israel as a Jewish state.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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