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More than 20 acts withdraw from Sydney Festival to protest Israeli embassy funding

Pro-Palestinian groups accuse Sydney Festival of 'artwashing' Israeli occupation
Protesters wave Palestinian flags in Sydney
Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration march against Israel in Sydney on 15 May, 2021, during Israel's latest offensive on the besieged Gaza Strip. AFP

More than 20 acts are confirmed to have withdrawn from the 2022 Sydney Festival in protest over the Israeli embassy in Canberra's financial support of a performance at the event.

Israel is listed as a "Star Partner" of the festival thanks to its $20,000 grant in support of "Decadance", a show based on work by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and Tel Aviv's Batsheva Dance Company.

At least 23 acts were confirmed to have withdrawn from the festival on Thursday after the board of the event said it had spoken with entertainers concerned over the sponsorship, but that "all funding agreements for the current Festival - including for Decadance - will be honoured, and the performances will proceed".

The announcement had elicited condemnation from several high-profile entertainers who were set to take part in one of Australia's most anticipated cultural events.

The acclaimed play Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner pulled their show on Tuesday, saying in a statement that they "stand in solidarity with the Palestinian cause".

The creative company behind the play referred to Israel as "another oppressive settler-colony" and also slammed the festival board for "ignoring" the concerns of Palestinian artists: 

"The festival's board ignored artists when concerns first arose, once again forcing people of colour to put their voices, careers and fiscal well-being on the line. Palestinian artists should have been listened to from the very start, instead of being patronised by articles and emails dismissing their pleas for divestment, they should never have had to wait in anticipation for meetings and statements to see if their colleagues were going to validate their existence."

Australian comedian Tom Ballard, who also pulled out of the event, 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."

Another artist to withdraw, Marcus Whale, tweeted: "To clarify, yes, I am boycotting Sydney Festival 2022. The Israeli Embassy, a star sponsor of Sydfest 2022, collaborates with Western cultural institutions to paint Israel as a liberal democracy on one hand while enforcing brutal occupation and apartheid with the other. No more."

The Palestinian Justice Movement Sydney first brought attention to the Israeli government's financial involvement in December, noting that the funding deal was reached in May when Israel launched its latest offensive on Gaza. 

"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." 

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A letter from the group Do Better On Palestine asking the festival to cancel its partnership with the Israeli embassy was signed by high-profile artists, including actors Saleh Bakri and Miriam Margolyes, artist Sleiman Mansour, comedian Nazeem Hussein, poet Remi Kanazi, and hip-hop artists Lowkey and Barkaa.

"Israel has long used culture and the arts to cloak its atrocities against the Palestinian people," the letter said.

"The Sydney Festival Star Partnership with the Israeli Embassy serves to artwash the Israeli regime’s violent control over the lives of Palestinians and enables the apartheid state to continue to breach the human rights of Palestinians with impunity," it added.

The pushback against the festival is in line with the wider Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories, ensure equal rights for Palestinian citizens of the state, and allow the return of Palestinian refugees.

Proponents of the movement have rejected allegations of antisemitism, saying the non-violent tactic has been modelled on the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.