The remarkably successful pro-Palestinian boycott by artists of the recent Sydney Festival was a vibrant example of engaged citizens taking foreign policy into their own hands.
Perhaps 35% of the festival’s participants withdrew, objecting to Israel’s A$20,000 sponsorship of a dance created by an Israeli choreographer and performed by the Sydney Dance Company. Over 1,000 artists also signed a letter supporting the boycott.
The heat on Israel follows alleged war crimes in last year’s Gaza war, accusations of apartheid by Human Rights Watch and now Amnesty International, evictions and home demolitions in East Jerusalem and the ever-expanding colonial settlements in the West Bank.
Read more: Jerusalem: evictions show how urban planning is being weaponised against Palestinians
The boycott caused uproar. The conservative federal and state arts ministers condemned it, as did a conservative former Australian ambassador to Israel, conservative Australian Jewish groups and some artists. Israel was apoplectic.
Caught like a deer in headlights, the festival organisers belatedly acknowledged the moral objections of artists by pledging to review their policy on donations by foreign governments, but refused to return Israel’s money. The Sydney Dance Company still danced, to rapturous reviews.
Surprisingly weak objections
Opponents of the boycott have mounted some surprisingly weak objections.
They say it censors art for political reasons.
Artists themselves chose not to perform, persuaded, in the free marketplace of ideas, by boycott campaigners. Artists who still wished to perform were free to do so, and audiences were free to attend. There were no union-style pickets. This was a relatively “smart” boycott.
As the European Court of Human Rights unanimously found in 2020, advocacy of boycotting Israel is protected free speech – the opposite of censorship.
Democracies only function if citizens are free to voice their opinions, hoping to convince others. It is absurd for government ministers to condemn such advocacy as censorship. It also patronises artists as unqualified to make up their own minds.
Opponents say it politicises art. Yet political critique has long been a function of art and artists. Art is not just elevator music. The same arguments are often made not to politicise sport. Yet Australia is willing to diplomatically boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Read more: Australia will follow US in diplomatic boycott of China's Winter Olympics
Critics argue Israel is anti-Semitically singled out for a boycott when other states have worse human rights records. But it is not the responsibility of campaigners for Palestine to crusade for victims in every other bad country.
It is to their credit they have mobilised an effective boycott, which campaigners elsewhere might learn from. It is not anti-Semitic to criticise Israel for violating international law or to take peaceful action to urge it to stop.
Opponents claim Israel is a democracy. But democracies violate rights too and should not be immune from sanctions.
In any case, Israel is not a democracy for five million Palestinians living under Israeli military control. Most of them have been unable to vote in Israeli elections for over 50 years – even though Israeli settlers in Palestine enjoy the vote.
Opponents warn Hamas has endorsed the boycott, as if invoking the spectre of terrorism automatically discredits it. Hamas supports COVID vaccines too, which hardly makes them a bad thing. Smearing boycotters by association with Hamas is pitifully cheap.
Critics claim struggling artists need to perform because their incomes plummeted during COVID. Again, the artists know best whether they are willing to forgo income to stand up for human rights.
The questions which should be asked of a boycott
There are three genuine questions that should be asked of any boycott. Are the offender’s violations serious enough to justify it? Is the collateral damage to innocents, if any, proportionate? Could the boycott potentially improve the wrongdoer’s behaviour?
First, Israeli violations of international law have been exhaustively documented. It denies Palestinians their rights to self-determination and statehood, has committed war crimes and human rights violations and denies justice to victims.
Its sponsorship of illegal Israeli settlements proves its agenda is to colonise Palestine, not free it or bring it peace. It has constantly defied the international community, including the Security Council and the International Court of Justice.
Palestinian violations do not excuse Israel’s violations. That other countries may be worse does not diminish the case of a boycott of Israel, but draws attention to the need to boycott others as well.
Secondly, the boycott has caused limited collateral damage. It targeted Israeli support for a blameless Israeli dance performed by blameless Sydney dancers and inconvenienced audiences. The calculus of the boycott is these are small sacrifices if stigmatising cooperation with Israel may pressure it to change.
Thirdly, a boycott inflicts pointless vengeance if it has no prospect of success. Critics cry shunning a tiny amount of Israeli money for a harmless dance in faraway Sydney will hardly bring peace to the Middle East.
Yet Israel is hyper-sensitive about its perception by western allies. The spread of sympathy to the Palestinian cause among the Australian community has rattled Israel’s cage and increases its international isolation.
A case of conscience
Citizen boycotts are growing precisely because western governments like Australia and the US have so spectacularly failed to hold Israel to account for systematic violations. We should not only apply our new Magnitsky Act human rights sanctions to adversaries like Russia or China, but also to our “friends” when they badly misbehave.
China will not stop its repression of Uighurs just because Australia doesn’t send officials to watch the Olympics, but we boycott anyway, to stigmatise terrible behaviour. Who knows what might happen when the butterfly of citizen boycotts flaps its wings in the desert of Middle Eastern politics? There is so little to lose and so much to gain.
Australians must exercise their own conscience about different types of boycotts. But the case for boycotts is plausible and should be taken seriously – not sledged by specious or misleading criticisms.
Read more: Sydney Festival boycott: when arts organisations accept donations, there is always a price to pay