BDS T-shirt show finds its audience
The SA Jewish Report usually ignores BDS’ campaigns or it attempts to write about them in an objective way. These have included BDS and its supporters’ vocal call to boycott Woolworths followed by their ongoing plea to US rapper Pharrell Williams not to collaborate with the retailer. There was also their strong objections to a trip to Israel taken recently by youth leaders with strong ties to the ANC and their public complaints after being accused of intimidating the youth leaders upon their return.
This week, however, Jewish Report could not help but comment on the fact that BDS-SA national coordinator, Muhammed Desai, was thrown out of Virgin Active’s Old Edwardian branch in Johannesburg last Wednesday night for wearing a BDS T-shirt.
The story goes something like this: Desai says he received a call from the gym on Wednesday asking that he not wear T-shirts with pro-Palestinian messaging, or that call for a boycott of Israel. They had received several complaints from members. Desai said he was told he would not be allowed to enter the gym if he wore a BDS T-shirt again.
Later that evening he arrived at the gym in a BDS T-shirt with an image of the late Chris Hani and various slogans for BDS and the Young Communist League on the front and text reading: “From the coast of Cape Town to the coast of Gaza, in solidarity with Palestinians against Israeli apartheid” on the back.
He was asked to leave and he refused, demanding that the gym show him the specific rules he had breached by wearing the T-shirt.
The gym apparently called the police who would not arrest Desai. After being told he was not allowed to enter any Virgin Active gym wearing a BDS, or any other social justice, T-shirt, Desai threatened to lay a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission as well as to take the matter to the Equality Court.
This sparked further uproar and Virgin soon sent its managing director to Johannesburg to deal with the matter directly. Ultimately Virgin caved saying that their decision to inform Desai that he could not wear the T-shirt was “wrong”.
The incident raises a host of considerations. The South African Constitution protects freedom of speech and expression. Thus if Muhammed Desai chooses to wear a free Palestine T-shirt to the gym, that is his right in this country despite any offence it may cause. A pro-Israel supporter would have a similar right to wear a T-shirt supporting the Israeli army or the Zionist cause.
However, because Virgin Active is a private members club, it is entitled to set its own policies and while “no legal item of clothing is banned from Virgin Active clubs” at present, perhaps it will change its policies going forward to include banning certain provocative items.
In reflecting on Desai’s decision to wear this T-shirt, we can probably assume it was pure provocation on his part, and specifically his decision to wear the T-shirt to the gym that night when he was asked not to – was a well-crafted, staged, media opportunity.
Apparently e.tv journalist Yusuf Omar just happened to be there at the time and the incident was carried on various media channels. Social media was also alight. Comments appearing on Desai’s Facebook page called for a boycott and protests outside the gyms. Statements like: “Let’s make sure that Woolies and Virgin be removed in our country”, among others were rife.
For many of our pro-Israel, SA Jewish community, BDS represents an offensive set of beliefs. Some of its members do not even support the right of Israel to exist. BDS is also seen as a gathering post for anti-Semites – we remember when their ranks called out to “shoot the Jew” at an Israel apartheid rally at Wits University in 2013.
Further, Desai has worn T-shirts supporting the ANC Youth League and Amnesty International, but what about T-shirts calling to “Help the millions of Syrian refugees” or “Stop ISIS”. Our community rightly feels that BDS places undue focus on criticising Israel in South Africa and not on other much more tyrannical regimes in the Middle East.
The sad reality is that Desai benefited from the media circus he was looking for through this incident and admittedly, he does have the right to wear this T-shirt. We as Jews also have a right to be sensitive and vigilant.
Perhaps, however, all of us South Africans – with contentious issues such as the Israel Palestine question – should be more respectful and less antagonistic. Even though Virgin backed down on its initial response, there was a worthwhile message in its statement: “We would hope that members would understand the need for both tolerance and respect in this space. We do not believe our clubs should be forums for contentious political activity.”
This would be more in the spirit of the peaceful co-existence with a focus on common ground – that our democratic forefathers fought so hard for. After all – South African Jews, our staunch pro-Israel supporters, Muhammed Desai and his supporters at BDS – are all watching events evolve in the Middle East from the sidelines anyway.