Boycott Sydney Festival Campaign is 'Largest and Most Successful'
January 27 2022

Australia has a brutal history of colonization, founded on land theft and the genocide of Indigenous populations. This history is all too familiar to Palestinians.

Like Israel, Australia was developed on the basis of Apartheid and racism and has long faced resistance from progressive movements led by First Nations peoples.  Our Palestine movement in this colony has been marked by solidarity from First Nations peoples and people of color, as together we fight for anti-racism and decolonization.

The Sydney Festival is an annual major Arts festival which features dance, music, theatrical performances and cultural events. Since its establishment in 1977, it has been regularly attracting over 560,000 audience members, and is the largest arts festival in Australia. It was set to take place this month from the 6th to the 30th, but more than 100 artists have withdrawn from the Festival heeding boycott calls from Australia-based Palestine and solidarity organizers. The Festival had accepted a $20,000 sponsorship from the Israeli embassy last May while Israel was launching a bombing campaign in Gaza and assaulting and displacing Palestinians in Jerusalem.

In the context of Sydney Festival, our call was clear: the board must divest from the Festival’s Star Partner sponsorship with the Israeli embassy in Canberra. They refused, but what we saw follow was twofold.

On one side, we had some ‘progressive’ commentators reiterating Zionist talking points, claiming the boycott won’t “advance peace”. They are either unaware or deliberately misrepresenting the progressive movement’s long history of institutional boycotts, unionism and calls for divestment. In Australia, statements like ‘don’t cross the picket line’ are inextricable from progressivism.  In recent years alone, progressives have participated in a range of calls for boycotts and divestments. One of Australia’s largest grassroots climate justice campaigns, #stopadani, demands that investment companies and the government end financial ties with Adani, a multinational mining corporation, as a result of its growing complicity in the environmental crisis and its involvement in the destruction of Native Wangan and Jagalingou country. Indigenous leaders have  also  called for cultural institutions, such as London’s Science Museum, to divest from Adani. Their failure to cut ties with Adani led to resignations on the board and scientists boycotting the museum, refusing to allow their work to be featured.

Movements within Australia have not just targeted corporations, but also countries complicit in gross human rights violations. A few weeks ago, U.S. and Australian governments announced they would boycott the upcoming Beijing Olympics due to China’s complicity in acts of genocide against the Uyghur population. This was a response that echoed calls by Uyghur groups to the world to reject the use of sports as a tool of soft power and send a clear message: take a stand against the Uyghur genocide. 

Many of the artists who understand the power of the boycott and have stood in solidarity with Palestine recognize that this is an intersectional and transnational movement. Artists have recognized that the Free Palestine movement aims to build global solidarity networks, where various abused groups jointly dismantle the systems and structures of colonial and racial violence. This is why the very first artists to heed the call of boycott were Indigenous and artists of color. Amy McQuire, a Darumbal woman, was one of the first artists to withdraw from the festival. In her piece, ‘Our Shared Resistance,’ published in The Sunday Paper which is an emerging independent publication in Australia, she wrote: “Sovereignty is at the heart of both of our protests; and it is why even when there seems to be no hope, we are still able to resist.” Intersectional solidarity was also epitomised in the statement of the theatre production 7 Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, where they noted: “The board fails to acknowledge the history and effects of Apartheid, which was created on Stolen Lands before being exported as a tool of colonial violence overseas.” They describe their art to be created and performed “at the intersections of solidarity.”

The Sydney Festival Boycott proved that transnational solidarity in this colony, in the 21st century, is indeed possible. As a result of our boycott, we disrupted over 40% of festival events and production, with over 100 artists, creatives and crew withdrawing. These artists include First Nations rapper Barkaa, comedians, Nazeem Hussain and Tom Ballard, Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, Michaela Coel’s production, Chewing Gum Dreams and so many more.  Seven staff members at the Sydney Festival venue, Carriageworks, have given up shifts for the entirety of the festival and dozens of staff at Carriageworks, Sydney Opera House, and other venues, have engaged in silent protest by wearing badges of support for Palestine. Additionally, one of the Board Members, Benjamin Law resigned from the board as a result of the Sydney Festival accepting Israeli Funding, and Dr. Michael Mohammed Ahmed announced he would no longer join the board as a result of the funding.

In the history of Palestinian organizing in Australia, this is by far the largest and most successful campaign that has been run, not just receiving attention in this colony, but receiving international media coverage, in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The boycott has also been endorsed by Palestinian activists, artists, and allies internationally including Mohammed El-Kurd, Miriam Margolyes and Sliman Mansour.

The campaign has led to the board of Sydney Festival promising to conduct an extensive review on all funding received by the festival, including donations from international embassies. Whilst this was not the campaign’s stated objective and is something, that we, as the organizers perceive as a clear deflection, the boycott and mass coverage has opened up conversations in Australian households about Apartheid Israel, the extent of its human rights violations, our complicity within it and the role of the arts in building structures of resistance.

What we are doing through this Sydney Festival Boycott and all our activism related to Palestine in this colony is building a transnational movement focussed on solidarity, where we aim to not just promote anti-racism and decolonization in Palestine, but also in so-called Australia, the Turtle Islands, and beyond. In order to achieve decolonization in our beloved Palestine, and in order to advance anti-Apartheid movements, we must build transnational movements that undo and address the fundamental injustices underpinning all these connected systems.  

For freedom in Palestine will not be guaranteed, until we all are free everywhere.

About The Author: 

Amal Naser is an organizer with the Boycott Sydney Festival Campaign. She is a third-generation Palestinian refugee from Al-Lydd, currently living on Stolen Gadigal Land. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and is interested in the intersection of the law and the rights of Indigenous persons’.

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