The Sydney Festival is set to begin on Thursday, but its highly anticipated program of culture, comedy and music has been thrown into disarray after more than 25 acts pulled out of the event over the past month.
Comedian Tom Ballard became the latest high profile act to make a public statement saying he would no longer perform at the festival on Tuesday, with Malyangapa and Barkindji rapper and artist Barkaa, and Indigenous dance organisation Muarrugeku also standing aside.
The festival became embroiled in controversy after it accepted a $20,000 sponsorship deal with the Israeli embassy to support Sydney Dance Company's production, Decadence, created by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.
According to the Palestine Justice Movement Sydney, the sponsorship was secured in May 2021.
What is the BDS movement?
The boycott of the festival comes under the umbrella of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global initiative led by Palestinians that aims to place economic sanctions on the state of Israel and associations linked to it.
"Israel maintains a regime of settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation over the Palestinian people. This is only possible because of international support," a statement on the movement's website says.
"Governments fail to hold Israel to account, while corporations and institutions across the world help Israel to oppress Palestinians.
"Because those in power refuse to act to stop this injustice, Palestinian civil society has called for a global citizens’ response of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality."
A coalition of advocates and organisations met with Sydney Festival in late 2021 in an urgent call to remove Israel as a star partner of the event. But in December, Sydney Festival refused, justifying its stance as a "non-political" organisation as a reason to steer clear of the BDS movement.
Since then, more than 1,000 creatives have signed an open letter to "do better on Palestine", dubbing themselves as "artists against apartheid", as they withdraw from their scheduled events, or refuse attendance as spectators.
"We will not perform in or attend a Festival where the Israeli regime rainbow-coloured logo is used to artwash the violence, ethnic cleansing, and crimes inflicted upon the Palestinian people," the letter reads.
Barkaa, one of the creatives who signed the letter, announced her withdrawal from the event on Instagram.
"I stand with Palestine ALWAYS and I'm pulling out all events associated with Sydney Festival. We as a nation live in a time where should KNOW BETTER, so we should DO better," she wrote.
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director at Human Rights Watch, speaks to the media. Source: AAP
Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) labelled Israel's treatment of Palestinians , but the state has strenuously rejected the organisation's claims.
HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in a statement on the release of a report in April 2021: "This detailed study shows that Israeli authorities have already turned that corner and today are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
Israel's foreign ministry condemned the HRW report as a "propaganda pamphlet".
"The fictional claims that HRW concocted are both preposterous and false," it said.
Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Thursday that "in the coming year, there will be debate that is unprecedented in its venom and in its radioactivity around the words ‘Israel as an apartheid state.'"
He said peace talks with Palestinian leaders were critical to ensure Israel isn't branded as a state which facilitates apartheid, a title he said was a "despicable lie by a bunch of antisemites."
“Without peace talks with the Palestinians, the danger of Israel being defined as an apartheid state will only grow worse. We need to be careful of a situation in which the world says that the Palestinians are advocating peace negotiations and Israel is refusing,” Mr Lapid said.
As opening night nears, the Sydney Festival board released a public statement on Wednesday affirming it will honour the sponsorship agreement with the Israeli embassy.
"The Sydney Festival Board wishes collectively to affirm its respect for the right of all groups to protest and raise concerns," chairman David Kirk said.
"We respect the right of any artist to withdraw from the festival and hope that they will feel able to participate in future festivals."
Mr Kirk said the board would review its practices in relation to funding from foreign governments or related parties in the future.
In a statement provided to SBS News, a spokesperson for the Israeli embassy said it was in full support of the festival's decision to honour the sponsorship agreement.
"Israel has always and will continue to promote cultural exchange and engage in cultural dialogue in numerous countries including Australia," they said.
"Culture is a bridge to coexistence, cooperation and rapprochement and should be left out of the political arena."
'Solidarity is a verb'
The controversy in Sydney comes as British actor Emma Watson shared a photo of a pro-Palestinian rally on Instagram that read, "solidarity is a verb".
She received immediate backlash from Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, who dubbed the Harry Potter star an anti-Semite for her post.
"10 points from Gryffindor for being an antisemite," he wrote on Twitter.
Another Israeli ambassador, Gilad Erdan, also used a Harry Potter reference to criticise Watson.
"Fiction may work in Harry Potter but it does not work in reality. If it did, the magic used in the wizarding world could eliminate the evils of Hamas (which oppresses women & seeks the annihilation of Israel) and the [Palestinian Authority] (which supports terror). I would be in favor of that!" he posted on Twitter.