The growing artistic and cultural boycott of the Sydney Festival over a questionable sponsorship arrangement with the Israeli Government has pushed art into the background, writes Irfan Yusuf.
I told a close friend recently that I was thinking of writing something about the boycott of the Sydney Festival. Here’s what he said in response:
“No, no! Don’t do it. You only speak to the converted. You don’t convince anyone who disagrees. The whole issue goes feral so fast. One of those polarising issues. And what good will come of it? You expend a lot of emotional energy. You get upset. No one changes their views.”
He’s right. It is messy. People on either side of the argument can go feral very quickly. Few people change their views. What’s the point?
A tiny group of pro-Palestinian and Indigenous activists behind the boycott argue that Israel is now an apartheid state. Some readers won’t be familiar with how apartheid ravaged South Africa. You may have heard of Nelson Mandela but not have known about the decades he spent in prison. You may have heard of the party he led – the African National Congress (ANC) – but not have known that it was once treated as a terrorist organisation even in the United States or of the grassroots efforts by people across the world to combat apartheid using a range of measures including peaceful economic, sport and artistic boycotts.
These boycotts isolated the apartheid regime that privileged white-skinned people and marginalised everyone else. It wasn’t just a system of racial segregation. It was much more.
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I was a teenager when the boycott movement went international. I was too young to appreciate what apartheid really was. I was a privileged brown kid living in a middle-class Sydney suburb and attending a posh school. I had no idea that people who looked like me in Durban and Cape Town and Port Elizabeth were being beaten and imprisoned and tortured and went missing in a fight for racial equality.
And it wasn’t just brown and black people either. A host of white people, many of them of Jewish backgrounds, fought and died in the struggle. I had heard of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But there were so many others like Joe Slovo.
Many in the Establishment argued that boycotts were divisive, that they would punish black workers and that they were designed not to free but to destroy South Africa.
I guess you don’t really know what apartheid is like until you live under it. To get a taste (and be entertained at the same time), read South African comic Trevor Noah’s memoir Born A Crime and find out what it’s like to have a white dad and a black mum under apartheid when your very existence is illegal.
For people like me who have never experienced apartheid and who grew up in a media atmosphere in which Israel “the Holy Land” was always the victim and Palestinians were all terrorists, the description of Israel as an apartheid state by the Sydney Festival protesters still makes me wonder. But just as I had never been to apartheid South Africa, I have also never been to Bethlehem or East Jerusalem or Gaza or Beit Jala (where the real Santa Claus – St Nicholas – is buried) under military occupation.
In the pre-internet days, I didn’t have access to reports from Israeli human rights organisations or from Israeli newspapers like Ha’aretz. I only recently became aware that many of those who fought apartheid in South Africa recognised apartheid in Israel and the territories it occupies and controls.
I could criticise the Sydney Festival protesters. I found some of their language and tactics a bit tedious. I do become a bit impatient when I see people calling for boycotts of Israel while racial and religious violence are alive and well in China and India. I also wonder why certain activists have a “winner-takes-all” attitude and condemn other human rights activists who are fighting their own battles.
But then no group of activists has absolute consistency. Even among Israel’s supporters there is no consistency. There are those who always support Israel, right or wrong. There are those who strongly sympathise with Palestinians. And there are those somewhere in the middle.
Whatever mistakes were made by the Sydney Festival boycott organisers, there is no doubt that they have made a substantial impact. The fact that some of their opponents are now describing them as “HAMAS” is a sure sign of this. The fact that so many artists have withdrawn from the festival notwithstanding the economic cost in a pandemic is indicative of the impact they have had.
It’s unlikely this article will change many people’s minds. But there is no doubt that the boycott organisers have.