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Sydney Festival acts boycott over Israel

When it comes to making a crowd crack up comedian Tom Ballard is a master joke-teller but his decision to withdraw from the Sydney Festival over its Israeli funding has been no laughing matter.

The festival, which wraps up on Sunday, has endured weeks of negative publicity and withdrawals by dozens of acts including comedians Judith Lucy and Nazeem Hussain as well as TV personality Yumi Stynes and Indigenous theatre troupe Marrugeku.

The acts cited the festival’s receipt of $20,000 from the Israeli embassy in Canberra to support the Sydney Dance Company production of Decadance.

The work was created by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company.

“Withdrawing my labour is one small but important thing I can do to stand in solidarity with Palestinians,” Ballard told AAP.

“Pulling out was a major bummer. I love Sydney Festival and was really looking forward to the gig.”

The partnership also saw the state of Israel’s logo featured on all of the festival’s marketing materials.

In a statement issued in early January, festival organisers said the board had “respect for the right of all groups to protest and raise concerns” about the funding.

“The board has also determined it will review its practices in relation to funding from foreign governments or related parties,” chairman David Kirk said.

Ballard said an increasing number of Australians are more aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Younger people today are more willing to question the bulls*** served up by foreign affairs ‘experts’ and assess what’s really going on for themselves,” he said.

Israel has been accused of war crimes and illegal occupation by human rights groups and the United Nations for decades against Palestinians in a conflict dating back to 1948.

In May, Israel bombarded blockaded enclave Gaza with air strikes for 11 days, demolishing several key buildings including one housing American news organisation Associated Press.

It was in response to Islamist militant group Hamas launching rockets following protests in Jerusalem over Palestinians being evicted from their homes by Israeli authorities.

The Sydney Festival sponsorship deal was sealed in May during the assault on Gaza, according to local community groups who met with the board last year.

In a statement to AAP, the Israeli embassy maintained that it “is proud to support and participate in this important festival”.

“Culture is a bridge to coexistence, co-operation and rapprochement and should be left out of the political arena,” the statement said.

Palestinian-Australian activist and writer Jennine Khalik, one of the organisers of the boycott, described the festival’s stance as out-of-touch with the artists who see social justice as inextricably linked to their art.

She paid tribute to Indigenous artists who were among the first to withdraw, including rapper Barkaa, writer Amy McQuire and visual artist Karla Dickens, because they could draw parallels from their own experience.

“I’m used to people being progressive on refugees, on Indigenous rights issues, on climate justice, but drawing the line on Palestine, so the dam broke and it’s been … beautiful to see the unapologetic solidarity which I hope continues,” she said.

Staff at some of the festival’s live venues have expressed solidarity with the boycott.

Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union representing industry workers, said it had been contacted by members who declined shifts or wore badges emphasising their right to freely express themselves.

For Ballard, his decision to cancel his performance was buoyed by the outpouring of support.

“I’ve been blown away by the love and solidarity I’ve received from fellow artists and members of the public both here in Australia and across the world,” he said.

“There’s been some backlash and bad-faith criticism from Israel apologists and boring conservatives but that’s to be expected.”

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