Phoenix from the Sydney Festival ashes: Australia, Palestine & Israel — towards a surprising fresh start?
Statement by E.G. Boulton, 15 Jan 2022
I was due to speak about climate as part of the 2022 Sydney Festival event: THAW Enough Talk. However, due to the festival’s acceptance of funding by the Israeli Embassy, and in support of Palestinian activists, I have withdrawn. I appreciated the Sydney Festival staff’s response — they supported participants in whatever choice they made, with no hard feelings. They were graceful and dignified.
In this article I wish to:
- Explain my reasons for participating in the boycott of the festival;
- Respond to some of the counter arguements;
- Dare to imagine that Australia (currently mocked on the world stage for numerous reasons) coud be part of finding a new solution to this global, generational problem. Really? Yes. Really. Relatively speaking, Australia is a successful multi-cultural society and, with some distance from the issue, we could bring a fresh approach. In general, my hope is that from the ashes of the Sydney Festival boycott, some new positive options might emerge.
However, I caution you, to get to a good solution, we must start by being clear-eyed about what is going on.
1. My reasons for participating in the boycott
a) Israel has been officially recognized as enacting apartheid
The geopolitical situation has changed. In 2021, Human Rights Watch and the UN both concluded that Israel was now enacting ‘apartheid’ against the Palestinian people. See these reports:
- Human Rights Watch 2021 — A Threshold Crossed
- UN Special Rapporteur 2021 — Situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967*
b) Israel not acting in good faith
- The UN report found that Israel had proven a “bad-faith occupier.” The Israeli State’s actions defy its words; it has accelerated harm against Palestinians. It is NOT genuinely trying to achieve peace.
c) The dire situation of the Palestinian people
The condition of Palestinian people has reached an intolerable level.
d) Silence of International community is part of the problem
The UN report concludes:
The international community bears a significant responsibility for the persistence of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the failure to secure a just and lasting peace in the region. The occupation is more embedded than ever. The living conditions of the Palestinians, let alone their political future, have become even more precarious. The defiance of Israel has gone almost completely unchecked. The peace process is moribund, if not comatose, and there is no serious talk about reviving it.
A further plea to the international community is made by UN Special Rapporteur, Michael Lynk, in his ‘Just Security’ article: The International Community and Israel: Giving Permission to a Permanent Occupation, 7th January 2022.
As part of the international community, and as a democracy that believes in freedom from oppression, my view is that Australia must ‘hear’ this call and acknowledge that we have contributed to the problem through silence.
2. Response to counter-arguments
a) Antisemitism? — consider actions and human rights
On Sky News, Australian Jewish Association’s President David Adler told MP Cori Bernardi the boycott represented anti-Semitism.
I disagree; it is a human rights issue. Israeli State actions are wrong for precisely the same reasons that the holocaust was wrong.
b). Antisemitism ? — yet many Jewish people oppose occupation
The idea that criticizing Israeli State actions is anti-Jewish or antisemitic is old, tired, and wrong. People are reaching conclusions about the ethics of the situation as independent thinkers, regardless of their ethnicity or Nationality, or that of those involved. Some examples of Jewish perspectives helps to demonstrate this:
- One of the most prominent Israeli stars of the Sydney Festival is dancer Ohad Naharin. He choreographed the famed Decadence performance which received the disputed Israeli Embassy funding. At the centre of the controversy, it is telling that Naharin recently said:
“I’ve always said that if boycotting a performance of mine will improve the situation in the territories or bring a solution to the conflict, I will support the boycott myself…”
- The Jewish news outlet Forward published reflections by Eric Golding, who authored the HRW ‘A Threshold Crossed’ report.
- As covered by Fahad Ali, in 2015, a panel of three Jewish speakers spoke at Sydney University at an event titled ‘Why Boycotting Israel Isn’t Anti-Semitic’.
c). Destroying free expression, chances for dialogue and unity?
It has been argued by several people that the ‘boycott, divest and sanctions’ (BDS) approach represents an attack on free expression; embodies ‘cancel culture;’ destroys the chance for effective dialogue; and represents an attack on artists and artistic expression. Such arguments appeal to high-minded and noble ideals. However, a careful eye is required because narrative spin and gaslighting is at play. Let’s examine them one by one.
i) In ‘The Australian Jewish News’ Deputy Editor Gareth Narunsky asks whether it is time to boycott the boycotters.
- In Narunsky’s article, the boycott actions are described as extreme, toxic, ugly, false free speech martyrhood. Colin Rubenstein is quoted as saying his organisation “supports any reasonable effort to marginalise it and expose its ugly nature.” The ‘NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel deputy chair’ says: “Boycotts, apart from being repugnant, are inexplicable if your goal truly is a peaceful resolution to the conflict.” In this entire article, while there are strong calls for peace, not once do any commentators acknowledge Israel’s role in undermining peace or do they confront the troubling 2021 reports. An unwillingness to honestly look at the problem undermines claims that their “true goal” is “peaceful resolution.”
- Narunsky quotes several people calling for Australian Government action and legislation against BDS, including defunding activist artists and enacting legislation to ban activist activity. It is hard to believe, but blink and you realise they are proposing solutions which represent totalitarianism. Last year, environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion launched a campaign targeting the National Australia Bank over its support for fossil fuels. Over history, various community groups have protested against a range of institutions to achieve change. Should all that be outlawed too?
- Thus, while BDS is undertaking normal protest action typically seen in a functioning democracy, such actions are portrayed as extreme and possibly criminal activity. Meanwhile, some of the legal options Narunsky’s article discusses to protect free expression would more likely harm free expression across Australian society in general. The logic doesn’t make sense.
ii) Liam Getreu, the Executive Director, New Israel Fund Australia, argues that BDS is a ‘blunt instrument’ which is counter-productive.
- Getreu argues the boycott means anti-occupation Jewish artists are being de-platformed. He portrays the artists as BDS’s targets and victims. He laments a point which is true, but not at all in dispute by BDS: “art is always deeply political and should remain so.” This is a misreading and a redirection of the argument. The boycott is aimed at Australian institutions partnering with the Israeli State. The artists are not the target. Artistic expression is not the issue. The target is the Sydney Festival — a prominent institution in an Australian democracy, funded by taxpayers, which is expected to uphold Australian cultural ideals — which do not involve supporting apartheid.
iii) MP, Dave Sharma argues the boycott represents “intimidation… to stifle free expression,” and that it is about an ideological disagreement.
- Yet it is not merely an ideological issue: it is about actual harmful actions towards Palestinians and the failure of Israel to obey international law. Sharma ignores the extraordinary efforts to intimidate and stifle Palestinian expression, described by journalist Jennine Khalik.
- Sharma asks, “What if Donald Trump is re-elected and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra plans a tour of Australia — will they also be de-platformed?” Here he mischaracterises the issue to one of banning arts performers because Australia might disprove of another countries Head of State and their decisions. That is different from Australians responding to news that another state is enacting apartheid.
- For the Trump analogy to fly, the touring orchestra would need to be, not an independent performance, but part of a landmark Australian cultural event; be sponsored by the US State or Trump himself; facilitate other soft-power lobbying type events; and either the US State or Trump would need to be subject to a formal international judgment on serious wrongdoing or sustained, deliberate breeches of international law and human rights.
- Australians have long protested various US Policies, as have Americans; for example, protests against the Vietnam and Iraq War. Trump encountered huge protests on visiting Europe especially. Protest activity against international actors or States is normal activity in free and democratic societies.
iv) The ‘Creative Community for Peace’ open letter, signed by 120 creatives.
- With a beautiful name, the ‘Creative Community for Peace’ is led by people from some of the worlds biggest and most powerful entertainment and cultural corporations, (“Warner Bros Records, Sony/ATV Publishing, Geffen Records, Atlantic Records, Columbia Records, William Morris Endeavor, Interscope Records, Ultra Records, AEG Presents, Capitol Records, and Amazon among many others.”) They argue:
“a boycott turns the festival from an opportunity for unity into a weapon of division… art should never become subservient to politics and artists and cultural events should never be forced to be politicized.”
- Yet unfortunately the Sydney Festival was politicized by accepting the funding. It is not just the money, it’s about influence and legitimacy. Israel is listed as a ‘star sponsor’ on the festival website, but also the Israeli Embassy was going to host an invitation-only Q&A session at the Opera House described as a “private arts and culture event.” The Q&A session, now cancelled apparently due to COVID concerns, looks suspiciously like a lobbying and influence activity with Australia’s Very Important People (VIP) in the cultural sector. This is how diplomacy, influence, control of the narrative and soft power work.
Israel argues for full participation in the ‘fruits’ of Australia’s democratic and peaceful life. All these authors call for peace, dialogue, and unity. They celebrate free expression. Yet most do not acknowledge how the Israeli State undermines these fine ideals. The suffering of the Palestinians is ignored or treated as a minor asterisk. Apartheid status is swept under the carpet. It is not credible to call for peace when undermining peace. It is not ethical discourse to utterly ignore the principal issue that the boycotts are about.
To be associated with such higher ideals, a State must commit to the hard, vigilant, teeth gritting work of ensuring peace and freedom — the bedrock of human flourishing which allows great festivals — is a reality. You can’t simply rave about these values; you must demonstrate your commitment through actions.
d) Is this ‘cancel culture’?
Having experience being ‘cancelled’ myself, I was pleased to hear The Pope recently warn on ‘cancel culture.’ People can be unfairly ‘cancelled’ for:
- honestly expressing their opinion, or how they feel about a situation; (and it is not ‘hate speech’);
- saying words which they do not realize cause offence, (i.e., there is no intention to cause harm); or
- seeking to uphold certain ethics or laws, in the case of whistleblowers.
Cancelling involves sending someone into social and professional exile. A voice is banned, no longer listened to nor given opportunity to be heard. Whenever it tries to speak, it is structurally silenced. It is shunned in most circles. The cancelled individual is taken as representing a ‘bad’ viewpoint that is not permitted to be spoken. But more than that, they are branded a ‘bad person.’ They can no longer participate in societal conversations, no one will employ them or invite them to events.
What are the differences in this situation? In the case of BDS arguing the Sydney festival should not accept Israeli funding, and encouraging a boycott, is the Israeli Embassy or are Israeli’s being ‘cancelled?’ I’d argue ’no’, for these reasons:
(i) As shown in publications discussed above, people against the boycott clearly are still being published and heard.
(ii) No individuals’ rights are being damaged. Israeli artists participating in the event may have a smaller audience than usual; that is true, but not overly significant.
(iii) It is the behaviour of the Israeli state that is in question, not an individual or group of Israeli artists.
(iv) When we are talking about The State, not an individual, ‘cancel culture’ is not the right framing.
In the fields of international relations and diplomacy, sanctions, non-participation in events, withdrawing Ambassadors and so on, are the regular tools of trade.
They are ways of applying pressure and ‘speaking’ about contentious issues without having to use violence.
Thus ‘cancel culture’ is not the correct term. It is a hated word, because ‘cancel culture’ can be cruel and unforgiving. It sticks a finger up to the notion of dialogue. Without any legal process involved, the cancelled human is given a harsh sentence, which often includes a loss of their livelihood. Thus, by accusing the BDS organization of ‘cancel culture’ opponents unfairly smear BDS. It is not cancel culture, it is about accountability for harm caused to Palestinians, and it involves using the normal tools used in socio-cultural-political disputes.
It is about Australia and our stance on Foreign Affairs as well. Will Australia play a role in legitimizing and accepting partnerships with States which are deliberately and consciously conducting severe human rights abuses? Of course, we already have in the past, consider our arms deals with Saudi Arabia, and their possible link to the Yemen conflict; but that doesn’t mean it is right. Yet, Australia has also previously made a stance against apartheid in the case of South Africa, and in that case, international sanctions and condemnation worked. We are at that point again, where “what we stand for” is being tested.
3. A proposed alternate pathway for Australian and Middle Eastern relations
a). Another Sydney Event
I propose another event in Sydney. An event orientated around finding a way in which Australia can help positively influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as part of our foreign policy. It could be a whole-of-society activity, which draws in more that the usual suspects from foreign affairs and trade. For example, artists and creatives could help with the re-imagining process. The format itself would require discussion; the point is, it should happen.
b.) Join forces in the battle against the hyperthreat of climate and environmental change
The context of this discussion is a time in which neither humanity nor the planet have time for warfare and pointless disputes.
It is a time when a radical reorientation in State’s approaches to security is required. This is because the vanguard of the hyperthreat of climate and environmental change has arrived. The hyperthreat kills, destroys, harms, and inflicts violence in devastating and heart-breaking ways. It does not care whether you are an Israeli; a Palestinian, or whether you live in Tamworth, Rose Bay, Cronulla, Katoomba, Penrith, Blacktown, Coffs Harbour or Broken Hill.
It will decimate fisheries, flood crops, and burn forests. And that is merely preliminary target softening activity.
The only possible way to contain the hyperthreats’ destructive power, is for humanity to cease fighting each other and instead unite against the hyperthreat. Israel and Palestine need to play for the same team, humanity, and they are both needed on the team.
c). PLAN E and Western world repatriations to the Middle East
What could this look like at a practical level?
In my research on ‘threat framing’ and threat in the 21st century, I developed PLAN E which is a climate-centered security strategy, introduced here.
The approach draws from a deep theoretical review, where one of the concepts that emerged was the criticality of justice, and a form of justice which makes amends for past wrongs. Thus, PLAN E includes the Western world making some form of reparations to those Middle Eastern countries which suffered under the illegal Iraq invasion, and twenty years of conflict in the region. This reparation would involve assisting countries which wish to participate, with training and funding to transform their cities and towns into zero emissions, ecologically designed, beautiful homes, buildings and infrastructure which can withstand the pressures of the hyperthreat.
Of course this would have to be managed in a completely different way than the Hallibuton-self-enriching, corrupted approach seen in Iraq; or the horrific exploitation and murderous approaches John Perkins describes in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman.” I am daring to say it is time to try a decolonialised form of ‘helping’ and undertake what I call eco-multilateralism.
Worldwide, human rights protections are on the decline. It is easy to do nothing and allow slow violence against Palestinians to continue — as some sort of peverse norm. “That’s just the way it is.” “It’s not Australia’s issue.” But what if we decided to start clawing back some lost ground? To recognise that an ‘apartheid’ label changes things and that there are steps Australia could do to help?
What if Australia, Australian-Palestinians and Australian-Israelis, together, could help turn the tide?