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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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”.
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.