My readers at MercatorNet, I suspect, are happily unfamiliar with the hip-hop tunes of Barkaa, the purported comedy of Nazeem Hussain, and whatever Yumi Stynes thinks of the pressing issues of the day.
Attendees at the Sydney Festival, which kicks off this week, are now similarly deprived: these artists and public figures, along with a few noisy others, have decided to boycott the event. As the organisers hastily edit the program lineup, activists and troublemakers are sniping at those yet to withdraw, and ticket-holders have been urged, lest they wander over to the wrong side of history, to request a refund.
A few readers, I also suspect, will be able to guess the reason for this kerfuffle, and you have until the end of this paragraph to consider your answers. Covid hysteria is a contender, sure. Insufficient commitment to diversity seems more likely, as there isn’t a non-binary disabled person of colour panelist anywhere to be seen. A common cause of grumpiness at these types of events is the presence of the wrong sort of speaker, so you may wonder if a conservative or right-minded thinker has been smuggled into the lineup.
Give up? Well, dear reader, there is but a single item on the bill of complaint, and well done to those who guessed correctly. Yes, it’s Israel.
The Israeli embassy in Australia has provided a A$20,000 sponsorship deal for the Sydney Festival to stage Decadence, a production by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and the Sydney Dance Company. Yep, that’s all: this single event in a month-long, multimillion dollar festival is the reason for the lack of cheer and the sombre withdrawals. I guess it’s not much of a surprise, really. A smallish number in the artistic and intellectual community, in obeisance to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, never had a choice, once the pressure was on them.
That pressure has come from all angles. In Meanjin, a gaggle of academics whined about Naharin’s inclusion in the first place and set out their demands to the board members: that the festival be an “anti-racist Apartheid Free Zone” without — and this is crucial, you know— any promotional material featuring an emblem or a logo or a nice word associated with the State of Israel. There is also a good deal of rubbish about “cultural safety” and how the Sydney Festival has literally become — all because of a dance routine, remember — a dangerous space for Arab artists and audiences. That is, all sensible people would agree, a tremendous insult to the intelligence of Arab artists and audiences.
As I scroll back up to check the bylines, I wince when I see Randa Abdel-Fattah, best known as the ABC’s favourite heckler on Israel/Palestine issues. You may have seen her on Q&A or The Drum, where her mode of presentation — and this is on her good days — is bitterly deranged. This whole rotten business with the Sydney Festival, sadly, won’t do much for her remnants of sanity.
While the academics have set out the terms of negotiation, it is the activists on social media doing much of the legwork. Twitter personality Jennine Khalik, whose denunciations of Israel could rival those of many jihadists, has been posting and sub-tweeting and even scrawling in the Sydney Morning Herald, all with impressive zeal, praising the dropouts and condemning the hangers-on.
Another activist, Jeanine Hourani, has also been hard at work. In addition to her Twitter exertions, she has argued for the Sydney Festival boycott in The New Arab. Like Khalik and other activists, Hourani’s vocabulary is strikingly limited: colonial and apartheid and whatnot get a terrific workout while Hamas never seems to get so much as a disapproving mention. In her piece, though, she genuflects towards Angela Davis, the well-known terrorist and encomiast of other terrorists. Is there something of a pattern here? I’ve just noticed that Hourani’s Twitter page is creepily emblazoned with an image of Leila Khaled, another — oh dear — terrorist and the world’s first female airplane hijacker.
This leads me nicely to why I have come to enjoy these kinds of spectacles: it’s a wonderful opportunity for many activists, intellectuals and academics to beclown themselves; their self-imposed absence from the nation’s festivals can be considered, all in all, a welcome development.
I’m also heartened by the fact that these campaigns don’t really work. All this fuss over the Sydney Festival is a sequel of sorts to last year’s blockbuster flop: the failed boycott of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. I wrote in these pages about MQFF’s audacity to screen an Israeli film and its repeated rejection of demands to excise it from the lineup. Just about everyone had a couple of merry nights at the cinema, I hear, but the BDS activists, for the most part, stayed at home to tweet and be mopey. Their mopiness, I must say, cheers me.
It’s a similar situation with former Prime Minister and current national embarrassment Kevin Rudd. His retirement hobby, posting humourless memes for his organisation Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission, is exactly the type of campaign made for and exclusively popular on Twitter, where Murdoch-hating is a kind of identity. Offline, though, it only makes one yawn. To aid his cause, Rudd has even appointed as National Director Sally Rugg, the gifted demagogue formerly of GetUp, but even she can’t get the project humming. When all this fails, you can expect to see the ever-gormless Rudd also looking a bit gloomy.
Back to the Sydney Festival, which is about to get underway. The keyboard warriors, yet again, are going to be disappointed, as the festival and its board members, despite the online clamour, have shown no signs of relenting and they should be applauded for their stance. They must realise that most attendees — wise people — don’t know or don’t care about hashtag campaigns. Although things get rowdy on Twitter, it doesn’t really matter if the activist goons are essentially quarrelling among themselves.
Snob that I am, I’ll be attending the Sydney Festival’s Symphony Under the Stars in Parramatta Park, an event which I’m very much looking forward to. While there, I’ll be hoping that the Israeli embassy can be encouraged to sponsor as many artistic and cultural festivals in Australia as it can, all year round, if possible. That should continue to keep the activist riff-raff away.