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.

Dave Sharma
The Australian
January 9, 2022

They have chosen to jump on a bandwagon and endorse a fiction that the immensely complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a simple solution, and that one side alone is to blame for its continuation. And the damage it threatens to do to Australia is real.

The endorsement from Hamas tells you all you need to know. In a statement issued on Thursday, the terrorist group, whose charter commits it to the destruction of Israel, said it stood alongside those seeking to boycott the Sydney Festival. “We commend and appreciate this decision,” Hamas stated, adding “we declare our solidarity with the participants who have withdrawn from the festival”.

Somehow the organisers of the Sydney Festival boycott, whose ire is directed at the $20,000 in sponsorship provided by the Israeli embassy to help stage the performance of Decadance, have ended up alongside the thugs that rule Gaza with an iron fist.

This is the same Hamas that, when it took over from another Palestinian faction in 2007, executed its opponents by throwing them off high-rise buildings.

This is the same Hamas that has criminalised same-sex activity, that denies the LGBTI community basic rights and that executed someone for the “crime” of being gay in 2016.

It shows you just how thoroughly misguided are the calls for such a boycott. To start with, political boycotts of any arts festival because of disagreement over content are fundamentally at odds with the purposes of art and culture, which at its best contains a message that transcends difference and is universal in application.

By demanding that art must pass a political test for it to be shown or performed, these artists calling for a boycott are – perhaps unwittingly – compromising the very basis of art as the purest form of expression.

Claims by some artists that their “cultural safety” is endangered by the inclusion of a work by an Israeli choreographer, with modest financial support from the Israeli embassy, require proper explanation and interrogation.

Is it genuinely the case that these artists will no longer participate in festivals unless they are in ideological agreement with the entire corpus of works and performances and the policies pursued by governments in their country of origin?

Will visits by the Bolshoi Ballet to Australia be boycotted by these same artists because they disagree with President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea?

What if Donald Trump is re-elected and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra plans a tour of Australia – will it also be de-platformed?

These issues are not grappled with, because the same artists quite rightly do not allow politics to triumph art. The new concern of “cultural safety” seems to be one that only applies to Israel.

The small amount of funding being provided by the Israeli embassy to support the performance is entirely normal activity for an embassy: to support cultural exchange and interaction. It carries no political strings. Decadance is not some work of political propaganda.

Most other embassies have similar cultural funding, and if it helps more international acts reach Australia, we should welcome it.

When I was Australian ambassador to Israel, a government-sponsored program helped bring Australian broadcaster Waleed Aly to Israel. This did not make him some government shill. He was free to speak his mind.

Some of the most promising Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives I saw during my time as ambassador to Israel involved civil society from both sides of the conflict working together, to build trust between peoples.

Doctors and nurses training alongside one another. Football teams playing one another. Bereaved mothers joining hands across the divide. Veterans doing the same.

In the United Arab Emirates, Israeli cultural performers and tourists are being welcomed with open arms, as such cultural and artistic exchange is seen as a way to promote peace and coexistence between Arabs and Jews.

Those supporting the boycott of the Sydney Festival might think they are helping to bring about peace. But all they are doing is stopping another channel of dialogue, and perpetuating conflict and division.

Lastly, the boycott threatens to undermine Australia as a tolerant and multicultural society. Key to our success has been the shared social compact against importing overseas conflicts. Ethnic and religious groups that might have generations of enmity overseas are able to coexist in Australia peacefully because we observe this compact.

Greeks and Turks, Serbs and Croats, Indians and Pakistanis, Arabs and Jews; all have found a way to live alongside one another peacefully in Australia by leaving overseas conflict where it belongs – overseas.

The Sydney Festival organisers have not been intimidated. The calls for a boycott have, in fact, led to a surge in attendance for Decadance. In seeking to use politics to veto art, the boycott proponents have only discredited themselves. And done nothing to advance the cause they profess to care about: peace.

Dave Sharma is the Liberal member for Wentworth and ambassador to Israel from 2013-17.