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Editorial: This is how BDS-SA responded when we offered them the chance to reply to their critics

It’s “f***** malicious” to publish criticism of BDS-SA. Also, we must have a vendetta against Muhammad Desai – but likely not. If you’re confused, so were we. But that sums up the thread of responses we received when we asked BDS-SA to respond to Steven Friedman and Minhaj Jeenah this week.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Last Friday, we spoke to BDS-SA’s Muhammed Desai and informed him that two opinion pieces we were running in the coming days would be criticising his organisation’s work.

The articles were part of our ongoing Apartheid 2.0 series running from March 1-15, in which we are focusing on Palestine, Israel’s settler-colonial project, and apartheid policies over the Palestinian people. We said that the articles would be sent to them on Monday, a day or so in advance, of publication. We were offering them a chance to respond to the criticisms of Steven Friedman and Minhaj Jeenah.

Since the series runs till March 15 and we had already scheduled  a live hangout Q&A session with BDS-SA for Tuesday afternoon in any case, the organisation had ample opportunity to respond to the fair criticism of their work and their impact on Palestinian solidarity activism in South Africa.

So on Monday, my colleague Khadija Patel sent this email to the Muhammed Desai, head of BDS-SA.

Dear Muhammed, As discussed on Friday, the two pieces we will publish commenting on BDS-SA are attached here. Kindly note, that these are being sent to you as part of an offer to respond to the commentary on BDS-SA included in these pieces. Please refrain from distributing these pieces as they will be published on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. We look forward to receiving and publishing a response from BDS-SA. Best, Khadija”

We then received this reply from Prof Farid Esack, the Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Johannesburg. The email trail detailed beneath Esack’s response, showed that Desai had forwarded our request (and attached articles) to the BDS Board.

Esack is a board member of BDS-SA and an advisor to Desai. Since we’ve criticised BDS-SA before, in his reply, Esack seems to have concluded that we have malicious intent towards the BDS-SA organisation.

2

This is fuckin malicious! Couldn’t these guys have waited a week or two until after IAW to run these piece. Where the hell do they expect us to get the time to do replies in the middle of this week. Just what is their agenda? Muhammed, which of them did you piss off and when?

f

Some hours later, Desai replies to Professor Esack (and copies our editorial team). And it is an extraordinary response. There is no mention of the content of these pieces and no acknowledgement whatsoever that they were written by comrades – i.e. pro-Palestine, pro-justice advocates, Steven Friedman and Minhaj Jeenah.

3

Dear Prof,

To the best of my recollection the only two things that I did which could have possibly (only possibly but I doubt) have offended these good folk was the Coalition for Free Palestine tweeting something criticising Kadija Patel’s presence at an Obama event and acknowledging his praise… or something like that. Perhaps some thought it was me operating the CFP account. Though it was not me that put that statement/tweet out (or even knew about it before it was sent/posted). In fact it was a journalist associated with the CFP, I think.

The other is that I flirted with Azad’s ex partner, though I should emphasise that she made it clear that she was not involved at the time.

And this is how Esack responds.

4

Look I would have puked if Obama praised me, by that’s me.

Muhammad, why don’t you just write to these folks and apologise for whatever – even if you don’t mean it – and get them off our backs. Our work is far too damn important to have them constantly yapping at our heels.

Take care, buddy.

Ps. That event tonight was great. Thanks for all that you do

F

We are not entirely sure if the group realised we were included in the thread, but by then we had had enough.

I wrote to them on Tuesday morning requesting they “kindly take us off the list”. I then received an apology from Esack. He said he didn’t realise “you were on it” and that he would “be more careful in future”.

5

My apologies. I did not realise that you were on it.

Will be more careful in future

We have all made gaffes; sent messages to the wrong people, to bosses and colleagues, and outsiders. We can sympathise with the folly of “reply all”.

But when Professor Esack was forwarded our mail, we were not copied. From what we gather then, he manually selected our names, all three editors at The Daily Vox, all with corporate email addresses, and added them to his reply. In so doing, we have to assume he added us with purpose. Unless, of course, evil spirits lurk in his devices.

However, by replying to us directly, his smug retort was now in the public domain, offering us unique insight into the internal machinations of an organisation that is crucially important to effective Palestinian solidarity activism in South Africa. We’re not interested in publishing salacious gossip. In this instance we are reproducing this correspondence here as we feel it is crucial to highlight the manner in which an organisation founded on the principles of social justice reacts to news media.

Consider the good professor’s responses

“This is fuckin malicious! Couldn’t these guys have waited a week or two until after IAW to run these piece. Where the hell do they expect us to get the time to do replies in the middle of this week. Just what is their agenda? Muhammed, which of them did you piss off and when?”

“Muhammed, why don’t you just write to these folks and apologise for whatever – even if you don’t mean it – and get them off our backs. Our work is far too damn important to have them constantly yapping at our heels.”

There is no attempt to engage with the material written by comrades. His immediate reaction is to ask about an agenda (because lo and behold, this criticism needs to be on their terms). Then, he advises the head of BDS-SA to issue an apology to us – even he doesn’t mean it.

Pray tell, professor, we have read your work, and respect your activism, but who do you think you are?

And when you apologised to me for copying me in the email thread, what exactly will you be more careful about in future? Not revealing what you really think? Or was it an apology in the vein of “apologise even if you don’t mean it”?

Would it have hurt if your team replied to us and asked for more time to respond? We had no ethical or legal obligation to share the material with you. We did it because we thought it would spur more rigorous engagement. We did not expect a written response on the same day.

Then, as we predicted, later on Tuesday morning, BDS-SA withdrew from the afternoon Hangout with us in which they would have had ample opportunity to extol the merits of their own activism.

Let’s take a step back

Why did we publish these pieces during Israeli Apartheid Week?

When we planned our special series on Palestine last month, titled “Apartheid 2.0” we assembled a tremendous program of voices. Children from the West Bank, the elderly from Gaza, analyses from New York, Washington DC, the UK and Johannesburg – and we are not even half way through.

In this series, we explore the apartheid analogy, we show proof of Israeli bigotry and discrimination. We even offered a platform to Ambassador Lenk to talk, and to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to explain why Israel is misunderstood, and they both declined.

We managed to host a Zionist student from Wits who told us why she thinks Israel is not an apartheid state, even though we disagree with her.

Let us be clear.

We want to tell this story properly. And in order to do so we need to engage with ideas and perspectives other than our own. We also need to interrogate the efficacy of solidarity activism.

Why then would BDS-SA think they would not be scrutinised, or their work not be examined? Who is BDS-SA exactly? Did this organisation fall from heaven? Do we report to BDS-SA or to the cause of justice? And why are they above scrutiny?

We can indeed quibble about the timing of these pieces and debate whether we should have waited for IAW to end. But that is a matter of contention. Our intention was to push the debate to a new level. We seek to disrupt, because the status quo is untenable. But we are above all, a news publication, and while we value the work done by solidarity activists, our interests here lie in the pursuit of justice.

As evidenced above, BDS-SA is not interested in anything that challenges their methods, or logic.

It is quite apt then, that BDS-SA’s response to us speaks to the core of the very criticism outlined to them in Steven Friedman’s piece. Friedman wrote that BDS-SA’s arrogance has undermined real and tangible Palestinian solidarity in the country.

“Why this failure? In very broad terms, it is a product of a refusal to treat public opinion with respect, as something to be nurtured rather than taken for granted. But the more concrete problem is not telling the Palestinian story.”

It also speaks to Minhaj Jeenah’s argument that their “inability to properly politicise Palestinian solidarity and approach it with principle rather than just tactic has also seen many ad-hoc airy-fairy events that result in minimal understanding of the complexities of Palestinian activism.”

Let’s be clear as well that when we have taken on BDS-SA previously, we were only too happy to allow its supporters to write back and label me a moron, among other things. Never mind the same author, in the comments section, as well in person, told me: “It wasn’t what was said, it was how you said it.” What is this ridiculous insecurity that marks BDS-SA activism that you feel that a handful of critical articles threatens the hard years of work that many of you have put into the movement?

We believe these are important discussions that need to occur in order for Palestinian solidarity in South Africa to amount to more than the occasional chant of “Amandla!” in an echo chamber.

So on Friday, when Khadija called Desai to tell him about this “right to reply”, he first congratulated her for our Apartheid 2.0 series. On Monday morning, the story was very different.

We want to put on record our disappointment at Farid Esack’s impetuous tone, and his imprudence as a board member of an organisation. Muhammed Desai’s insinuation that any criticism of BDS SA published by us is borne out of some pitiful issue over “flirting over an ex-partner” (which until Tuesday I had no idea about) is juvenile. But if all it takes to motivate me is an ex-girlfriend then my current work must be suffering. Still I can tolerate this, because I am impartial to such a crass display of chauvinism.

But the fact that the good professor can entertain such bigotry and then claim that their work is more important than us “yapping” at their feet is preposterous.

Since there seems to be some confusion about this, I will be unequivocal: this is not personal.

I don’t know Desai. I’ve never spoken to him. I don’t know anything about his personal life. So even if his comment was made in jest, it is completely demeaning to ridicule legitimate criticism of the movement in which so many thousands have put their faith and belief and frame it as a joke. It is an extraordinary feat to be leading a movement with such a careless attitude.

Furthermore, Khadija has never entertained any association of Desai towards the CFP’s tweeted responses about her in 2013. But bringing it up in this way is a spurious attempt to discredit her, especially since Desai was himself congratulating her on our Apartheid 2.0 series just days prior.

The Daily Vox is a small start-up. We are not backed by anyone important. We survive on a month-to-month basis.

We know we can grow into something bigger, because we are ready to challenge the existing narratives and unafraid to be bold. Or, we can fold up within the next two months because this media game is no joke. It is the nature of what we do. We are effervescent, alive, and we are under no illusions.

But we will not be intimidated by people who think they are gatekeepers of Palestinian solidarity in South Africa, or otherwise. And we will continue challenging power, in all its manifestations, for as long as we are around.

Azad Essa is an Exec. Editor at The Daily Vox.  Feel free to get in touch with him here.

Featured image by Ihsaan Haffejee
16 Comments
  1. Shaheed Mahomed says

    Well done to the Daily Vox for this piece. What still needs to be interrogated is the politics that underlies this arrogance. What you have stumbled on here perchance, is that Bds is indeed pro zionist.

  2. Darryn says

    Oh my word, this made for some laughter and would have been quite funny had it not shown up a serious character flaws of the BDS leaders ai toggie.

  3. emma says

    Well done Azad.

  4. Mehdi says

    It’s a shame. You’ll have to either laugh or weep for such level of purpotment from BDS side, depending on which side of the story you stand.

  5. Nivas Wejah says

    Is it possible to function as an organisation while being directed by egotistic, volatile, chauvinistic leaders who use 4 letter words to express their emotions?

  6. Karen Lotter says

    Well done! This insecurity and inability to deal with criticism is endemic and very much part of the older generation. Good on you for calling them out.

  7. Mohamed Khaleel says

    Azad thank you so much for your honest reporting and brave criticism. You are the hope of a sane voice leading the support for Palestinians.

    I had the ‘pleasure’ of attending Prof Farid Esack lecture, on the 9th of March, during IAW,in Wits, and I was appalled.

    His speech was only about pure hate and incitement and he repeatedly mocked our history and the memory of our beloved Nelson Mandela.

    I even wrote down a quote of him saying: “Claiming Mandela is the one person who got us our freedom is criminal” OR “Mandela was a shit stirrer” and other terrible things mocking Madiba’s persona.

    My friends and I rushed to the door after he was done, he just yelled and shouted nonsense, while offering no insightful information about Israel apartheid week and practically asking the students for a violent revolution against the South African government saying “it is us against the whole imperial colonial world”.

    Not to mention he also called Vox and other people criticizing BDS\PSC “stupid idiots” in front of everyone. Unsurprisingly, almost no one wanted to ask questions during the Q&A with that maniac on stage.

    Farid is dangerous and a loose cannon and should be banned from working as an educator in UJ or anywhere else.

    My fellow comrades and I also think BDS will be much more successful and effective at its mission without the harm done to it by Prof Farid Esack, this article is just one example of the negativity he brings upon the wonderful mission we are doing to help the Palestinian people.

  8. Travis says

    What a bunch of smug, sanctimonious, censorious jerks these BDS people are. Thanks for showing them up.

  9. Anthony says

    Terrible, juvenile and potentially damaging article. If this is the opinion of the ‘enlightened’, the opinion of the general public petrifies me … as one can clearly see from the other comments.
    All you’re exposing is that many of us are drama queens at heart. What you’ve done is show how you are in fact as much a drama queen as the individuals you aim to expose – while claiming to do the exact opposite.
    What’s ridiculous is that you felt the need to go personal and expose normal human traits and personalities and undermine a movement with a chosen agenda.
    While Mr. Friedman and Mr. Jeenah have valid arguments – what needs to be understood is that there might be strategic intent to BDS-SA’s actions. ‘Disruption’ comes in many forms.
    What we have learned, based on our own struggle for justice, is that it was only with all forms of disruption that some form of political liberation was achieved… At times there were terrible things that our struggle vets were involved with to achieve that end.
    Right or wrong these strategies, even if tied to personalities, should be debated and you should’ve kept this Kardashian-esque tabloid trash out of the public domain.
    Your new age sensationalism, packaged as pure intentioned vibrant journalism, just shows how increasingly our inner love for drama seems to prevail.
    By continuously using your “we are but a poor and humble team” tag as the reason we should believe and engage your opinions just shows the poor state of journalism which I hoped you guys at the daily vox would try to champion or avoid at best.
    I’m sure your humble startup will be a huge success if you continue this Kardashian-esque tabloid trash.
    All I see is a drama queen bashing another drama queen – the unfortunate thing is that you’ve undermined a vibrant (possibly flawed) movement which is just an element of a larger movement.
    Unfortunately the general public will not see it this way … now #*&$ off and continue to make a bigger name for yourselves …

    1. Lionel says

      Anthony you have marked it succinctly. It is scary that the general public would commend someone undermining a cause of good intent by broadcasting a very human and private exchange. Can I offer the author a pacifier. He seems in need of one.

  10. Fazil says

    Is this the organisation that extorted money from the unsuspecting Muslim public to fund their stirring!

  11. Yusuf Haffejee says

    Regarding Prof Friedman’s comment highlighting the harassment that Palestinians face at checkpoints for example. There is a theatre play set at a Westbank checkpoint on at Seabrooke Theatre in Durban from the 13th April to the 24th April. Please also note that we are not affiliated to any organisation but we are trying to highlight injustices through through the medium of live theatre. Please support us. Watch the press for details.

  12. Shlumpy says

    Motherfuckers

    1. Paul says

      Just caught up with all of this now. Maybe if you read the site on a regular basis you wouldn’t come up with such absurd drivel. Your response is embarrassing to say the least!

  13. medialternatives says

    Steven Friedman and Minhaj Jeenah are hardly critics. Yes, BDS consider themselves beyond criticism, and any attempt at a critique is invariably cast as Pro-Zionist hasbara. Both Noam Chomsky and Peter Hain, a celebrated anti-apartheid campaigner, and fierce critics of Israel, have been slammed by the movement for advocating a “binational solution”. Chomsky has gone so far as to address BDS in an article published by the Nation, in which he claims the strategy is bound to fail. I entirely agree, since turning everything around the problem into yet another religious statement on whether foodstuffs are Haraam, or Halaal, merely confirms that the basis of the conflict is religious in nature. Jerusalem Observant Jews have every right to make pilgrimages to the city, and Muslims who advocate otherwise need to consider what a similar boycott on pilgrimages to Mecca would entail? Surely this feeds the monster, the war machine in the Middle East, which has resulted in a cascade of conflicts. South Africa needs to consider what its policies on Syrian-Palestinian refugees is doing, in terms of humanitarian assistance. If we can’t open our doors to refugees, especially children, then who are we to dictate policy? As a hostage to the crisis, in which BDS spare no quarter in blanket blaming anyone who does not accept the dogma, issued forth by self-proclaimed activists, it makes no difference what what thinks, if there can be no dissent, and differences of opinion, then we have lost the project called South Africa. A project based upon the idea of human rights for all and tolerance of dissent. http://medialternatives.com/2016/03/04/resist-temptation-to-negate-policy-of-non-alignment/

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