Israeli embassy claims it was asked by organisers to sponsor Sydney festival

Correspondence suggests festival told groups opposed to sponsorship $20,000 would also pay for Q&A session hosted by Israeli embassy

The government of Israel was asked to financially contribute to the 2022 Sydney festival by someone from the festival’s management, a representative from the Israeli embassy in Canberra has claimed.

The deputy Israeli ambassador to Australia, Ron Gerstenfeld, told ABC radio on Wednesday that “someone from management” approached the embassy for sponsorship of the Sydney Dance Company production of Decadance, a work devised by Tel Aviv choreographer Ohad Naharin.

“They told us about it … and we were happy and honoured to support it,” Gerstenfeld said.

“We didn’t think about it twice … and there were 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.”

Division continues over the Sydney festival decision to accept the $20,000 sponsorship with politicians and the militant Palestinian organisation Hamas joining the debate over the past five days.

More than 30 productions and individual performers have either pulled out of the festival, or removed themselves from the festival’s banner, to protest the Israeli government’s involvement.

In correspondence seen by Guardian Australia dated 20 December, the festival board chairperson, David Kirk, told a coalition of groups lobbying the festival to terminate the Israeli sponsorship that the $20,000 would also pay for a Q&A session hosted by the Israeli embassy, at an invitation-only festival event at the Sydney Opera House.

A spokesperson from the embassy told the Guardian the Q&A event was “planned as a private arts and culture event” and confirmed a Sydney festival statement that the event had been cancelled due to Covid-19 concerns.

Despite continued requests for comment, festival management and its board – which met on Tuesday night to discuss the crisis – have refused to address the issue publicly since releasing a statement on 4 January, standing by the Israeli embassy deal but pledging to review how future sponsorships would be handled.

On Wednesday, Gerstenfeld described the boycott organisers as “agents of chaos” and accused them of anti-Semitism and of politicising the festival.

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Writer Michael Mohammed Ahmad, one of the boycott organisers who last month announced he would no longer be joining the festival board as planned, said it was the festival, not the boycotters, who were engaging in a political act.

“It is completely paradoxical and a contradictory argument for the festival to defend the most politically contentious nation on earth, and claim that this is non-political,” he told the Guardian.

“The non-political position would have been to withdraw and to tell the Israeli embassy that [the festival] is not a political organisation so it has to end this partnership.

“You have to ask, why is the Sydney festival putting Israel ahead of the festival itself, and the hundreds of artists caught up in this?”

Last Friday, Hamas issued a statement via the Palestinian Information Center supporting the boycott.

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Another boycott spokesperson, Fahad Ali, said it would be wrong for people to assume guilt by association with any group.

“This campaign is big, it’s gone global,” he said.

“Of course, Hamas or various other groups are going to react in some kind of way. But it would be nonsensical to assume as some people have suggested that just because one group supports what we’re doing that we immediately endorse that group, or that we are guilty by association.”

The comedian Judith Lucy and singer-songwriter Saint Claire are among the latest acts to pull out of the festival.

Lucy placed blame for the division within the arts community squarely at the feet of the festival board.

“As has been pointed out by other [billed] artists, we’ll be condemned no matter what we do,” she posted on Facebook, saying she was reluctant to add her voice to an already polarised situation.

“But after sitting with this for days, I’ve decided not to perform. I can’t support the actions of the board; particularly their sponsorship deal with the Israeli embassy but also leaving their artists in the shit.”

Melbourne band Tropical Fuck Storm accused the festival board of handing billed artists a “shit sandwich”.

The group posted on Instagram that by choosing to accept such a divisive sponsorship it “would inevitably mean that hundreds of unwitting artists (who are having a rough enough time with the pandemic as it is) would become the targets of online harassment, bullying, smear campaigns, ridiculous accusations, misrepresentations and abuse from total strangers who have no idea what’s actually going on behind the scenes, what any artist’s position is or even what they’re talking about”.

Late last week, the Guardian put a series of questions to Kirk concerning how the decision to accept the Israeli embassy sponsorship was made, and what, if any, risk assessments were undertaken.

On Monday, the festival’s executive director, Christopher Tooher, speaking on behalf of Kirk, said the board would not discuss internal deliberations.

Posting on Facebook on Saturday, the singer Katie Noonan said she had experienced “vigorous and quite aggressive” social media pressure to join the boycott.

“I could not ask my fellow indie artists to turn down paid work after the hardest 2 years of their lives. Simple,” she posted.

  • This article was amended on 13 January 2022. An earlier version incorrectly listed the Hayes theatre production Lizzie the Musical as among the shows boycotting.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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