If I was a young gay man, I would be disturbed to know that the Islamists who control Hamas in Gaza regard me as a “bestie”. But this is the fate that has befallen Australian comedian Tom Ballard, who identifies with the LGBTQI+ movement in Australia.
On January 4, Nine journalist Garry Maddox reported that Ballard had joined the boycott of the Sydney Festival over funding it received from the Israeli embassy in Australia. The Israeli government provided a relatively small amount of money, $20,000, as sponsorship of the Sydney Dance Company’s performance of Decadance, which is choreographed by Israeli Ohad Naharin, at the Sydney Opera House.
Now Sydney is a long way from Gaza City and Naharin is a critic of the Israeli government. But none of this mattered to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. It wishes to impose sanctions on all of Israel – including that part of Israel created with the endorsement of the UN in 1948 along with the occupied territories taken, and so far not returned, by Israel following its victory in the defensive conflict of 1967 commonly known as the Six-Day War.
The ultimate aim of the BDS is to drive Jews from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. That is, to remove Israel from the map.
Late last year, some BDS supporters in Australia decided to make a stand against the Sydney Festival’s decision to accept finance from the Israeli embassy in support of the Decadance performance.
The Sydney Festival is essentially financed by taxpayers and ratepayers (the NSW government and the City of Sydney). Moreover, it is common for such festivals to accept funding from other governments – reflecting the fact that taxpayers’ money supports arts on a substantial scale in most nations.
Organisations like the Sydney Festival have a board which has an overseeing role with respect to management, finance and the like.
However, artistic decisions are essentially made by staff – led, in this instance, by Sydney Festival artistic director Olivia Ansell. And properly so.
It would seem that Ansell and her staff did not expect the controversy that followed the decision to accept $20,000 from the Israeli embassy. Writing on December 21 last year, Sydney Morning Herald arts editor Nick Galvin reported that “a coalition representing Sydney’s Arab community and others are calling on patrons and performers to boycott January’s Sydney Festival in response to the event’s $20,000 partnership with the Israeli embassy in Canberra”.
In a letter to the board, the coalition’s signatories wrote that the “partnership” between the Sydney Festival and the Israeli embassy and the use of the Israeli government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs logo on the program “creates a culturally unsafe environment for artists and festival attendees of Arab background, particularly those who are Palestinian”.
It is not at all clear how many Australian citizens and residents of Arab background support, or are even aware of, the letter. Moreover, those who advocate a boycott of the Sydney Festival made it clear that they do not feel in any way “unsafe” in the physical sense of the term. Rather they object to a “culturally unsafe environment”.
This is a very wide ambit claim that has the capacity to have an impact on all future festivals of the artistic or sporting genre.
Some Australians could claim to feel culturally unsafe in an environment where a nation such as the US or Britain contributed a relatively modest amount of money to support an artistic or sporting performance.
The same outcome could apply with respect to such countries as France, Russia, China – even Saudi Arabia and, yes, Australia. It is not clear where such demands might stop.
What is happening here is yet another advance of the cancel culture movement, which is increasingly prevalent in Western societies in closing down debate.
The matter was discussed in recent days on the ABC Radio National Breakfast program. Presenter Hamish Macdonald commenced the week by complaining that Ansell had not agreed to come on the program.
On Wednesday, Australian-based poet Sara Saleh (who described herself as a Palestinian) and Ron Gerstenfeld (the deputy ambassador of Israel) were interviewed separately. Saleh said the “Sydney Festival has put us in this really quite inconsiderate and untenable position”. She declared that Israel was an “apartheid state” and accused the festival of not creating an “anti-racist space” for her fellow artists.
Saleh demanded that the Sydney Festival surrender and return the $20,000 to the Israeli embassy. For his part, Gerstenfeld made the point that he and his colleagues were merely doing what other embassies do in response to requests for support. But Macdonald suggested that the Sydney Festival had “failed to fully grasp and understand this situation”.
On Thursday, David Kirk, the Sydney Festival’s chairman, was interviewed by Macdonald. In response to persistent questioning, Kirk offered what he termed a “mea culpa” for the Decadance sponsorship, but said the $20,000 would be kept. Soon after, Macdonald asked Kirk whether he was “considering your position as chair of the board” – a suggestion that he should resign.
Any such move would set a dangerous precedent. It would mean that organisations like the BDS could determine the content of taxpayer-funded events. Some dozens of performers are reported to have withdrawn from the Sydney Festival in the wake of the BDS-inspired pressure.
However, Decadance premiered on January 6. As Deborah Jones reported in The Weekend Australian last Saturday, it received a standing ovation.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hugely complicated and will not be decided in or outside the Sydney Opera House. Moreover, Israel is not an apartheid state like South Africa once was. Arabs experience greater freedoms in Israel than in any Arab or Muslim majority nation. Inter-cultural artistic exchanges are a factor for, not against, resolving conflict.
Two days after Ballard announced that he was quitting the 2022 Sydney Festival, Hamas declared its “solidarity with the participants” in the boycott.
This is the very same Hamas that, in 2016, executed Palestinian gays for being male homosexuals – and threw a number from high-rise buildings. With ideological friends like these …