The homepage of the 2022 Sydney Festival’s website. Photo: Screenshot.
Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to Australia Ron Gerstenfeld called organizers of a boycott against the 2022 Sydney Festival “agents of chaos” for pressuring artists to withdraw from the event because of its $20,000 sponsorship deal with an Israeli embassy.
“We heard a lot about people being targeted, being threatened, through social media of course but also through other means,” he said Wednesday on Australia’s morning news show “RN Breakfast.” He also commented on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement’s “antisemitic” and “aggressive campaign” against performers, saying, “They want to do everything in their power to destroy, to distract, they don’t want the embassy to continue.”
The Sydney Festival kicked off on Jan. 6, but not before more than 30 acts pulled out in protest of the festival’s $20,000 sponsorship agreement with the Israeli Embassy in Australia, funding to support the Sydney Dance Company’s performance of “Decadance,” a piece by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.
BDS supporters had also said that Australia’s celebrated Belvoir Theatre was boycotting the festival, but the theater company denied those claims in a statement released on Tuesday.
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The festival said on its website that it regularly partners with foreign embassies and cultural agencies, and Gerstenfeld told “RN Morning” that the Israeli embassy was asked to financially support the performance of “Decadance” by “someone from the management of the festival.”
“They told us about it … and we were happy and honored to support it,” he said. “We didn’t think about it twice … and no strings attached. We didn’t ask any promises from [the festival] or the dance company to do something, we didn’t intervene in anything, so it’s a bit of hypocrisy to say we are doing some sort of art-wash in order to hide some kind of Israeli activities in any other sphere.”
On Jan. 4, festival organizers said they would not terminate their partnership with the Israeli embassy, despite facing pressure to do so from boycotters.
Meanwhile, the Australian Jewish Association has called for anti-BDS laws at the state and federal levels. Robert Gregory, AJA’s director of public affairs, wrote in the Australian Jewish News Thursday that the group had secured support from some organizations, but understands that such legislation would only be advanced by the government “if the Jewish community unites behind it.”
Sydney Festival chairman David Kirk apologized on Thursday for its handling of the fallout over the Israeli embassy partnership, and for putting artists in a “very difficult position.”
“They feel compromised, many of them, and many of them are being pressurized to withdraw their performances from the festival,” he told “RN Breakfast” in an interview. “And we’re very sorry about that. That is something we would never have wanted to do and we never want to see happen again.”
Asked why the festival’s board didn’t anticipate backlash for taking the Israeli embassy’s support, Kirk explained, “I guess we just missed it. I mean, that’s all we can say. We have to, I guess, in that sense, offer a mea culpa.”
Kirk said the festival would undertake a “comprehensive review” to examine how artists were left feeling “unsafe … and unhappy.” He added, “I’m not trying to hide from the fact that this was a mess. We should have understood, we should have been prepared to debate this much more fully at the time but we didn’t.”
Kirk also told the morning show that the “pressuring and battering” some artists received on social media was “unacceptable and entirely inappropriate.” The festival had chosen not to “inflame” the situation by having a “public spat” with organizers of the boycott campaign, he said, and instead speaking to artists and other groups privately.
The $20,000 sponsorship agreement was originally scheduled to also help fund a Q&A session hosted by the Israeli embassy, as part of an invitation-only festival event at the Sydney Opera House, The Guardian reported. However, that event was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.