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Sydney Festival: Nazeem Hussain, Tom Ballard among acts to pull out after Israel funding row

One of Australia’s fanciest festivals has seen 20 acts pull out and customers ask for refunds after it accepted a controversial pot of cash.

One of Australia’s largest and most prestigious festivals, which starts on Thursday, faces being derailed after more than 20 acts dropped out including big name comedians Tom Ballard and Nazeem Hussain.

The drama is not down to surging Covid-19 cases – although that is also causing issues for organisers. But rather a controversial $20,000 donation. A contribution that amounts to less than one per cent of the festival’s sponsorship income.

The revelation that the Sydney Festival accepted thousands of dollars in sponsorship from the Israeli embassy in Canberra has led some artists to turn their back on the event.

Pro Palestine campaigners have accused the Sydney Festival of enabling Israel to “art wash” by using cultural events to mask its “human right violations” against Palestinians.

But those calling on the festival to drop the Israeli cash have in turn been accused of “thinly veiled anti-Semitism”. It’s a claim boycott campaigners have said is a “smear”.

The Sydney Festival told the boycott by artists has led to the cancellation of 10 events, but given 118 events were proceeding as planned, “the festival is entirely viable”. It said only a “very small” number of people had been given refunds due to the boycott.

The festival has insisted the performances made possible with Israeli funding will continue as planned.

Row over Israel’s ‘star partner’ status

The row erupted last month when the Israeli government’s participation in the Sydney Festival, Australia’s largest arts festival, emerged.

The country’s logo is prominent on the Sydney Festival website and it has been named as one of six “star partners” of the festival.

The donation of $20,000 is tiny compared to the festival’s total corporate sponsorship income in 2020 of $2.2 million. But it’s enabled acclaimed contemporary dance performance Decadance, by Israeli chorographer Ohad Naharin, to be staged at the Sydney Opera House.

It’s been claimed that Sydney Festival organisers actively approached the Israeli embassy for the contribution.

Stars exit stage left

Initially a handful of acts pulled out. But over the ensuing weeks that list has now swelled to more than 20 acts that were booked to perform.

According to boycott organisers, those now not attending include broadcaster Yumi Stynes – who was to appear on a panel looking at misogyny – and comedians Tom Ballard and Nazeem Hussain.

Ballard said on Twitter: “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”.

Melbourne band Good Morning has also pulled out and urged other acts to do the same.

“We stand with the Palestinian people and with the BDS movement,” the duo wrote.

Israel accused of ‘art washing’

BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a campaign which aims to put pressure on Israel through economic means.

In a letter last month to Sydney Festival director Olivia Ansell, BDS Australia said the action was due to Israel “progressively taking large tracts of land which are internationally recognised as Palestinian land” and what it claims is “apartheid” done by the Israeli government.

“Israel funds cultural events and ambassadors to ‘art-wash’ the human rights violations it perpetrates against the Palestinians by presenting itself as a normal ‘democracy’ and one which can be accepted internationally, despite its ongoing grave violations of human rights and international law.”

BDS has said the festival should “reconsider” its partnership with Israel and refuse any sponsorship or funding “until Palestine is free”.

Deputy convener of BDS Australia and a member of campaign group Independent Australian Jewish Voices Dr Peter Slezak told he expected the Sydney Festival simply “hadn’t thought it through” when it approached the embassy for funding.

“It’s not appropriate to take money from a government when the issues are as clear cut as this”.

The campaign group has since met with senior management of the Sydney Festival.

In the past BDS has called for Israeli films not to be shown at Australian film festivals and for SBS to not broadcast the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest which was held in Israel.

Boycott call ‘thinly-veiled anti-Semitic slow-acting poison’

However, critics of the BDS movement have said many of its members don’t want to see Israel and Palestine coexist but rather want Israel to vanish off the map completely.

“The rejectionist, anti-Semitic BDS campaign is a modern continuation of the obsessive historical hatred of the Jewish people that led to the Holocaust,” chairman of Jewish community organisation the Anti-Defamation Commission Dr Dvir Abramovich told

“Camouflaged as a human rights fight for the Palestinians, it is manipulative and dangerous since it cultivates a toxic atmosphere that justifies physical attacks on Jews.”

BDS’ Dr Slezak said accusations of anti-Semitism were nothing more than a “smear” and the campaign was not anti-Jewish but against abuses by the Israeli government.

He said claims the group wanted to see the end of Israel altogether were “such rubbish”.

“Palestine long ago accepted the two-state solution so that claim is really offensive. But Israel has already taken all of Palestine from the river to the sea.”

The global BDS website states it neither advocates for two states nor one state in the Holy Land but instead for “basic rights” and the “implementation of international law”.

Mr Abramovich said the Sydney Festival should resist pressure to refuse funding that originates in Israel, a key demand of BDS.

“The Sydney Festival is an event that celebrates the principles of open conversation, equality of participation and freedom of expression, and must never succumb to the aggressive pressure tactics of intimidation.

“I call on the Sydney Festival to push back against this act which is a thinly-veiled anti-Semitic slow-acting poison and to declare that they will stand strong against the BDS.”

Liberal MP Dave Sharma, who represents the electorate of Wentworth in Sydney’s east, said the boycott amounted to intimidation.

“The BDS movement has no place in a tolerant multicultural society such as Australia and should not be humoured in the slightest,” Mr Sharma said in The Australian last month.

Mr Sharma said it was ironic that the boycott was coming as once hostile nations to Israel, such as the United Arab Emirates, were now “welcoming Israeli artists, performers and tourists with open arms”.

Sydney Festival says show must go on

The Sydney Festival told “a very small number of refunds have been issued in relation to the boycott”.

On Tuesday, the Sydney Festival chair David Kirk issued a statement saying the organisation was “conscious” of the calls for artists and audiences to boycott the event.

He said it “welcomed the opportunity” to engage with a “number of groups” around the issue.

“We see it as the core role of the Sydney Festival to present art and to provide an inclusive platform for all artists.

“We respect the right of any artist to withdraw from the Festival and hope that they will feel able to participate in future festivals,” Mr Kirk said.

“All funding agreements for the current Festival – including for Decadance – will be honoured, and the performances will proceed.

“At the same time, the board has also determined it will review its practices in relation to funding from foreign governments or related parties.”

Originally published as Sydney Festival: Furious backlash after event accepts controversial $20,000 contribution

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