Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has labelled the anti-Israel boycotters of the Sydney Festival “useful ­idiots” of Hamas, accusing the participants of sabotaging the city’s premier cultural event in a bid to politicise and censor artistic freedom in Australia.

Nicholas Jensen
The Australian
January 21, 2022

Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has condemned the boycotters of the Sydney Festival as “useful idiots”. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Emma Brasier
Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has condemned the boycotters of the Sydney Festival as “useful idiots”. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Emma Brasier

In his first public statement since the beginning of the controversy last month, Mr Fletcher blasted the campaign and accused the boycotters of crossing a “political red line”, warning that censorship will inevitably lead to “dreadful art” – comparable to Russia’s Stalinist era.

Since late December, the festival has been embroiled in a bitter controversy after it was revealed organisers approached the Israeli embassy and accepted a $20,000 grant to support the staging of ­Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s production Decadance at the Sydney Opera House.

In response, a coalition of pro-Palestinian organisations – backed by the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement – have urged participating artists to boycott the event until the festival’s board relinquishes the embassy money. It’s believed more than 30 performances have joined the boycott.

Writing in The Australian on Friday, Mr Fletcher condemned the campaign’s characterisation of Israel as “difficult to reconcile with reality” and said Australia considers Israel as “the only multi-party democracy in the Middle East” and not an “apartheid state”.

“The lessons of history are pretty clear: if programming and curatorial choices are subject to political censorship, you end up with pretty dreadful art,” Mr Fletcher writes.

“Stalinist Russia, with its turgid dramas and operas celebrating heroic workers exceeding their tractor production quotas, is but one of many examples.”

The political significance of this “propaganda action”, Mr Fletcher added, was designed to “advance the cause of Hamas” across the globe, noting that the fundamentalist organisation is regarded as a terrorist group in Australia. “Hamas controls Gaza and notoriously deals with its opponents by throwing them alive off tall buildings … the last thing Hamas cares about is a vigorous and lively artistic and creative scene in Australia,” he writes.

“Certainly a lesson from political history is the role of the “useful idiot,” as Russian communists disparagingly termed their naive left-leaning sympathisers in other countries. Evidently Hamas has some of its own useful idiots to call on.”

The festival’s board, led by chairman David Kirk, has since launched an independent review into the “processes around the taking of public money”.

But the board has ignored demands to cancel the production of Decadance and return the grant to the Israeli embassy, which amounts to less than 1 per cent of the festival’s overall funding.

In response to the campaign, Mr Kirk said he regretted that artists had been placed in “a very difficult position” and that many had been “pressurised to withdraw”. Despite criticism, Mr Fletcher said the festival’s board and staff deserved praise for carrying on with their work “in difficult ­circumstances”.

Last week, as performances continued to withdraw from the festival, Liberal MP Dave Sharma condemned the boycott, saying performers had found themselves in “odd company” after Hamas released a statement in support of the campaign earlier this month.

He was joined days later by NSW opposition arts spokesman Walt Secord who said no artist should be forced into “showing any deference to the vile and racist BDS movement”, adding the controversy had inflicted “hurt to the Jewish community”.