Boycotting art? There must be another way

February 27, 2022 by  
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Philip Feinstein from Music for Refugees introduces Ben Adler, a Sydney-based Jewish Australian violinist and the son of an Egyptian refugee, and Nawfel Alfaris, an Iraqi-born Australian Mandaean who arrived here as a refugee in 2005.

Ben Adler

Ben has played with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and currently leads klezmer fusion band CHUTNEY and the Ben Adler Quartet.

Nawfel works in the pharmaceutical industry. He organises cultural events that introduce ethnic diversity to mainstream Australian society.

These are two very clever and intelligent musicians who look at music and the arts to promote peaceful dialogue. Here are their thoughts . . .

The theatre is packed with 300 Arabs: Mandaeans, Muslims, Christians. On the line-up: a First Nations singer, an Iraqi choir, an African ensemble. A Jewish band plays an Israeli tune. Everyone claps along, and talks and laughs heartily over tabouli after the show.

Science fiction? Actually, a music festival last June in Casula, in Sydney’s south-west, which involved both authors of this article. (Nawfel organised the festival and Ben played with his klezmer – Jewish folk music – band.) It marked the beginning of our friendship.

We met again last week and, between mouthfuls of Fairfield’s best hummus, discussed the Sydney Festival boycott, a protest against its request for and acceptance of Israeli embassy sponsorship to fund a Sydney Dance Company performance. And we shared our big fear: that the Sydney Festival will wrap up on Sunday and this boycott, which tore it apart, will become the arts industry’s new, divisive norm. We refuse to accept that.

We know the moment of intercultural convergence we made in Casula was no fluke. It was the most natural thing in the world. What is art, after all, if not our best attempt to explore and consolidate our mutual humanity? What does art actually do, if it doesn’t connect people: audiences with artists, audiences with audiences, artists with artists? How can art not challenge and dismantle the preconceptions of our minds when it speaks the language of our hearts? When everyone in a room feels the rhythm as one, it’s pretty hard to find room for hate.

Simply, art unites. Art that divides is not art: it’s propaganda, and has no place in any festival. By the same token, art created, performed or funded by Israelis (or by anyone else, for that matter) is not automatically propaganda. To say so is just racist. To artists and activists alike, let art be, so it can do what we have seen it do, time and again: bring people together and slowly heal the world’s wounds.

So then, how can Palestinians draw attention to the suffering of their people? Well, how can anyone in Australia draw attention to anything? With free speech. It’s what those now boycotting the Sydney Festival exercised, at first. They spoke to the festival board, who heard their concerns and committed to reviewing its funding procedures.

But that wasn’t enough for the activists, who then lobbied artists to withdraw and shut down any hope of finding a mutually agreeable solution. Boycotts may be non-violent but they are aggressive. They assail free speech; they suffocate dialogue; they demand “my way or no way”.

Nawfel Alfaris

And for what? The Sydney Dance Company’s performance of Decadence was extraordinary: sold-out standing ovations at every show.

Had it not been for the boycotters’ efforts, only supersleuths interrogating logos on the festival website might have discovered the Israeli embassy’s sponsorship – an embassy that would sponsor any Israeli artist, if asked, including any of the 2 million Israeli Arabs who enjoy full equality with their Jewish neighbours.

Recall, for instance, that Israel sent Arab Israeli singer Mira Awad along with Jewish Israeli singer Noa to Eurovision 2009.

So what did the boycott achieve? Peace in the Middle East is no closer, Palestinians’ lives are no better. Meanwhile, in Sydney, our festival is disrupted and hatred has erupted as keyboard warriors roundly abuse artists and each other.

Consider our backgrounds. Nawfel fled Iraq to escape hatred, violence and persecution. Ben’s mother fled Egypt for the same reason. The dangerous “us and them” we left behind is the very mentality this boycott has begun to stoke in Australia.

By refusing to engage with those on the other side, the boycott “others” and dehumanises them. By lobbying – bullying – artists into lockstep, it sows fear and cancels art. Far from ushering in a better, fairer, more peaceful world, it wreaks discord wherever it festers.

Australia may not be perfect, but we are one of the most cohesive and diverse societies in the world – because we talk to each other over a coffee or beer. We don’t shout at or cancel people who see things differently to us. Or do we?

Can you imagine if we boycotted everything associated with any government whose actions we opposed? If every international conflict reared its head and raised its placards alongside the glittering waters of Sydney Harbour? What about our own government’s human rights record? Should we boycott ourselves?

As Mira and Noa sang at Eurovision, “there must be another way”. There is – we’ve done it before, in Casula, and we’ll do it again. Let art be as it draws the diverse threads of our society closer together.

Let’s take advantage of this country’s freedoms to address issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through dialogue. Let’s do all this without tearing apart our beloved city and its festival.

Artists, audiences, activists: this is Australia. Join us. There’s enough tabouli for everyone.

Ben Adler and Nawfel Alfaris


One Response to “Boycotting art? There must be another way”
  1. Sol Salbe says:

    Should we boycott the Bolshoi Ballet?

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