‘It’s not about peace’: The endgame behind the boycott of the Sydney Festival

By the time the Sydney Festival concludes and the famed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and the Sydney Dance Company ensemble take their last bows, the anti-Israel activists will have claimed their victory. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians will be no closer. Palestinian statehood will remain a mirage owing as much to the civil unrest between the main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, as to the conflict with Israel. But peace has always meant something different to the anti-Israel activist. Yasser Arafat spoke of a “peace through Israel’s destruction”. And state-building and the sorts of sacrifices and painstaking technocratic exertions through which every modern state has come into being are nowhere to be found in the manifestos of the Palestine solidarity movement. The slogan, “from the river to the sea”, will do. Its meaning being a Palestine in place of Israel not alongside it, says it all.

Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company dance company rehearse Decadence, the piece the Sydney Dance Company will perform at the Sydney Festival.
Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company Decadence, rehearse the piece the Sydney Dance Company will perform at the Sydney Festival.

Nonetheless, through promoting a boycott of the festival, anti-Israel activists in this country will have again gotten their column inches and online chatter devoted to the bloodlust and greed of Israelis and the quiet dignity of the Palestinian resistance. The stabbing of an Israeli mother walking with her kids in Jerusalem earlier this month generated no such verbiage. The image of a Hamas operative toting a sub-machine after slaying a young Israeli tour guide on the cobblestones of the Old City, a mere triviality compared with the question of who sponsors an interpretative dance routine. And while the leadership of the Sydney Festival has politely (perhaps too politely) notified the activists that the festival program will proceed as planned, they will already be looking to other literary, artistic and film festivals hoping their organisers will have seen what they can do and will simply say, “I don’t need the aggravation” of threats and boycott calls and will quietly, politely, decline to work with Israelis.

Herein we see the strategy of anti-Israel activism. It is to take the stage, co-opt every movement, every forum of prestige and saturate it with stories of Israeli evil to the extent that the hand of Israel is placed on every gun in every police shooting in the United States and protesters in London claim that Palestine is a climate issue. Incredibly, Palestine activists still maintain they are being silenced by all-powerful, shadowy lobbyists.

Abu Iyad, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s head of security in the 1970s, articulated the aim of this strategy as follows: “If one could succeed in changing public opinion in the Western world, then the overthrow of Israel would be just a matter of time.” It’s not about peace or shrinking the conflict to improve lives, it is about winning the world over to the view that Israel is the central cause of all suffering and misfortune, and that the mere presence of an independent Jewish state a third the size of Tasmania on the same land where the Jews had a commonwealth 3,000 years ago, is some cosmic injustice that must be undone.

Isolating Israelis from the world, keeping their academics, artists and dancers away from others lest their basic humanity be discovered is a key plank to this strategy. Journalists or politicians who travel to Israel are smeared as being in the pay of the “Jewish lobby”. Heaven forbid they should see the scene of the conflict for themselves or find that things aren’t quite as the anti-Israel movement would have us believe.

The Palestinian unionist Majdi Shella admitted the folly of anti-Israel boycotts. “We have a long tradition of boycotting everything. Sometimes boycotting is the easier road. If you want to do nothing, boycott.”

 This was a courageous admission but not entirely accurate. Boycotts do achieve something. They poison every forum where they are allowed to manifest. They divert institutions from their true purpose. They force people doing challenging, virtuous work who probably profess no particular expertise or insight into an ethno-nationalist conflict playing out on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, to either submit to the irrational demands of the boycotters or face their wrath. When Marrickville Council briefly dabbled with boycotting Israel in 2011 it only succeeded in turning the local authority into a laughingstock and incited an outpouring of contempt and loathing that turned resident against resident.

Like all campaigns based on bullying and threats, anti-Israel boycott calls should be met with fortitude and integrity. Submitting to such demands or treating them as legitimate only invites more.

Nick Cave spoke of the tactics used by anti-Israel activists before he performed in Tel Aviv in 2017. Activists “bully, shame and silence musicians” who plan to perform in Israel, he revealed. Cave called a cultural boycott of Israel “cowardly and shameful”. He knew how to respond. “It suddenly became very important to make a stand against those people who are trying to bully musicians, censor musicians and silence musicians. I wanted to take a principled stand. So really, you could say, the anti-Israel boycotters made me play Israel.”


Alex Ryvchin is the co-chief executive officer of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the author of Zionism – The Concise History.

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