Arts organisations pull out of Sydney festival in protest at Israeli embassy sponsorship

Festival says it will be reviewing all funding arrangements with embassies amid calls for boycott over $20,000 sponsorship of dance production

At least three arts organisations have pulled out of Sydney festival over a sponsorship deal with the Israeli embassy, amid calls for a boycott.

The protests, backed by a coalition of Arab and pro-Palestinian organisations and assorted artists and academics, are over a $20,000 sponsorship deal to stage a production of the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s Decadance by the Sydney Dance Company.

So far, Blake Prize-winning artist Khaled Sabsabi, Malyangapa and Barkindji rapper Barkaa, South Asian dance company Bindi Bosses, the Arab Theatre Studio, the Bankstown poetry slam and comedian Nazeem Hussain have pulled out of the 2022 festival.

According to a statement released on Wednesday by the Palestinian Justice Movement Sydney, the sponsorship deal was sealed in May, the same month Israeli armed forces launched a series of air attacks on Gaza, killing a number of Palestinian civilians.

“Palestine advocates call on all opponents of apartheid to boycott the 2022 Sydney Festival,” the statement said. “By partnering with Israel, Sydney festival will … contribute to the normalisation of an apartheid state.”

In an open letter published on the Meanjin website on Thursday, a coalition of artists and writers said that they considered the Sydney festival’s continued partnership with the Israeli embassy was “disgraceful” and accused the festival of “creating a culturally unsafe environment for Arab artists and audiences who want to be part of the festival but who now cannot, in good conscience, participate as they bear witness to the slaughter, occupation and oppression of Palestinians”.

Naharin has stated on a number of occasions his support in principle for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movements’s agenda on human rights for the Palestinian people.

But, responding to request from Brian Eno to cease using his musical works in an Israeli embassy-sponsored Batsheva Dance Company production in Tel Aviv in 2016, the choreographer described such boycotts as “lazy” and “essentially useless”, adding he believed there were more effective ways of helping the Palestinian cause.

In a statement provided to Guardian Australia on Thursday, a festival spokesperson said it would not be terminating its agreement with the Israeli embassy.

“The festival is unwavering in its commitment to ensuring a culturally safe space for all artists, employees and audiences,” the statement said.

“[The festival] will be reviewing all funding arrangements with embassies and cultural organisations to ensure that any continuance of these partnerships are compatible with maintaining a welcoming and culturally safe environment moving forward.”

In an earlier statement this week, the Sydney festival board said it was unable to support the BDS movement as requested by the coalition (which includes the Arab Australian Federation, Greens for Palestine, Independent Australian Jewish Voices, Jews against the Occupation Sydney, the Sydney representative for BDS and United Australian Palestinian Workers) because the festival was a nonprofit, non-political organisation.

One of the co-authors of the Meanjin letter is writer Michael Mohammed Ahmad, who was due to join the festival board later this year and has now rejected the appointment.

The open letter described the festival’s position as “a hollow claim given the Festival is politically aware enough to platform First Nations and ‘minority’ or ‘diverse artists’.

“How is it that the festival can reconcile its commitment to Indigenous solidarity here while legitimising and normalising relations with a settler colonial apartheid state that maintains a system of racism, subjugation and land theft against Palestinians?” the letter asked.

Writer and academic Anita Heiss tweeted: “For an arts festival to claim they are apolitical is embarrassing to say the very least.”

A statement from the Israel embassy in Canberra sent to the Guardian on Thursday said:

“Israel has always and will continue to promote cultural exchange and engage in cultural dialogue in numerous countries including Australia.

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

Earlier this year the Melbourne Queer film festival faced a similar backlash for screening an Israeli state-funded film.