This month, several editorials have been published and countless toxic comments made on social media calling on artists to boycott the Sydney Festival.
The reason? The Israeli Embassy in Sydney wanted financially to support the artists, musicians and community of Sydney, a gesture of goodwill and friendship that has been offered in past festivals by numerous other embassies and internationally affiliated companies and organisations.
As an Australian who has worked with some of the most well-known cultural, film and music acts in the world, I feel compelled to respond to this disturbing, divisive and hugely counterproductive call. A call that harms local artists, unfairly demonises and dehumanises Israelis and ultimately damages the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
My work as an entertainment lawyer has included representation of film directors, writers and actors from all over the Middle East including Egyptians, Iranians, Saudis, Palestinians as well as Israelis. At the request of the Film Festival in Beirut, I was invited to teach a masterclass to young Middle Eastern filmmakers and share my 38 years of experience in an effort to help the next generation learn about the industry. The week that I spent there was one of the most fulfilling chapters of my career. It included leading a discussion with representatives from around the Middle East on how bringing together people in the arts is a way of finding commonality – building bridges together, not pulling them down.
During my career I’ve witnessed the power of cultural experiences, like music, to unite people of different backgrounds and from diverse communities. And I’ve used my platform to stand in solidarity with others.
The calls to boycott Israel, Israeli artists and festivals like this one merely dampen the constructive forms of engagement needed to bring Israelis, Palestinians and the international community together. They make it more difficult to establish trust, mutual understanding and compromise. Artists and entertainers have the ability to effect positive change and the selective targeting of Israel for a cultural boycott not only does not bring the region any closer to peace, but also fails and silences artists in the process.
In the worst instances, these boycotts have led to death threats against cultural icons including Argentine footballer Lionel Messi and songwriter Paul McCartney for merely wishing to visit Israel to play a friendly soccer match and perform at a concert there.
Hamas, which is a member of the boycott movement’s central committee, just publicly declared its support for the entertainers who have pulled out. Hamas is an internationally designated terrorist organisation whose aim is the destruction of Israel.
There’s a curious talking point used by those in favour of boycotting Israel and it can be found on the website of the activists spearheading the boycott of the Sydney Festival. It states: “Israel has long used culture and the arts to cloak its atrocities against the Palestinian people.” There is an insidious logic to such a statement. Are Israelis allowed to support the arts without being accused of doing so for shadowy reasons? Is every Israeli action, regardless of how benign, philanthropic or altruistic, an attempt to “cloak” Israeli domestic policies? Would we levy the same accusations against Australia? If so, is the Sydney Festival itself some sort of PR stunt to cover up our own nation’s shortcomings? This is a fallacious argument at its core.
There is such a thing as objective truth. And the assertion that Israel is an inherently racist, colonialist, apartheid state is simply not true. The calls to boycott Israeli-affiliated events like the Sydney Festival, push concepts of “us versus them” and “good versus evil”, paint the current conflict as undeniably simple. And if you question its supposed simplicity, you only prove your guilt of “oppression”. Those calling for this boycott refuse to acknowledge the considerable complexity, nuance and legitimate obstacles to peace that exist. They refuse to acknowledge that Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel and that more than half of Israelis are Mizrahi or Sephardic Jews who never left the Middle East when Jews were dispersed around the world by invaders centuries ago.
Recognising this truth doesn’t prevent peace, but allows for a mature, robust dialogue of how to achieve it. And it does so without misleading slogans, incendiary accusations and heated boycotts.
Unfortunately, the calls to boycott the Sydney Festival misrepresent basic truths about the Israeli state and weaponise indigeneity, while unfairly pressuring local artists from performing.
Let’s elevate the conversation, commit to being partners in peace, honour the lived history of Jews in their indigenous homeland and support local artists who want to perform in theirs.
While art can reflect politics, and artists can choose to reflect their politics in their own art, art should never become subservient to politics and artists and cultural events should never be forced to be politicised. Ultimately, the boycott movement is an affront to Palestinian and Israeli moderates alike who are seeking to reach peace through compromise, exchange and mutual recognition.
Craig Emanuel is the chair of the Entertainment and Media Practice of global legal firm Paul Hastings.
Craig Emanual is also an Advisory Board member of Creative Community for Peace.
Cover Photo: Decadance, produced by the Sydney Dance Company, at the Sydney Opera House by Daniel Boud.