Just over a month ago, entrepreneur and former FHM model Shashi Naidoo was called out for posting foolish and uninformed opinions about Palestine.
Following the severe public shaming and loss of endorsements for calling Gaza “a s***hole”, she turned full circle and metamorphosed into “Shashi-the-social-justice-warrior.”
If we remember, Naidoo was serenaded by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in South Africa which held an entire press conference about her. There she promised to travel to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to see the struggle for herself.
Only the most patronising and privileged among us would jump on a flight to “see oppression” instead of first visiting Google and making it a point to research it thoroughly. As she was about to leave, the Israeli embassy informed her that she would not be allowed into the Holy Land. She went ahead anyway, and after arriving in Israel and spending several hours with border officials, she was turned away.
She described it as an “ordeal” and “mental warfare”.
“I was in tears at the end of it,” she said.
By banning her, Israel certainly illustrated that it had something to hide. But it was almost inconceivable that Israel was going to allow her in.
In so doing, it prevented a spray of social media posts from Naidoo in which she would have shared superficial stories from Palestinian families, a masquerade at the apartheid or annexation wall that runs through the occupied West Bank, and perhaps a keffiyeh-clad selfie with recently released Palestinian teenager, Ahed Tamimi.
For the Israel administration, absorbing the backlash for swatting Naidoo away before she instagrammed the hell out of the occupation was more convenient.
Why? Is Naidoo so important, so dangerous to Israeli security or public image that they could not let her in? Of course not.
The decision to ban Naidoo is not about her but rather the new company she keeps: BDS-SA. The campaign has grown into a considerable nuisance for Israel. So much so, that the state has worked tirelessly with its partners and fellow Zionists in universities in the US and the UK to ban its activities. Israel frames BDS as bringing harm to Israel.
In reality, BDS is only against Zionist policies of racism, occupation, and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
In banning Naidoo from Israel for 10 years, Israel is not acknowledging her power to influence (she has little to none); it is merely framing her exclusion as part of its intolerance for BDS.
On the one hand, it has made for a thunderous media spectacle; many South African journalists and editors have scampered over one another to take the story to its next logical point. But as a story initially borne out of imprudent remarks made about Palestinians living under fraught conditions of occupation and neglect, the importance given to Naidoo, her misperception turned dubious activism has left me feeling nauseated. I am left with questions that won’t dissipate.
What is it about the figure of a “celebrity” that it would have us lose our minds when it comes to social and political causes?
If it’s a matter of influence, this is understandable. But are substance and integrity of lesser importance? Naidoo said she needed to go “see for herself”. But if she wasn’t allowed in to “see”, how could she say on her return that Palestinians “are living in purgatory”? I know this to be true, but how does Naidoo? This is fraud.
What is it about our media and our news organisations that we cannot recognise a bogus story from the get-go, and that we are willing only to chase but refuse to lend some common sense to the scandal?
What of the reasons for her dramatic U-turn? Did anyone bother to find out how much money Naidoo lost? Or which community she had offended and why it had proved so costly for her in contrast to other celebs who have and continue to say nasty and uneducated things about Palestine (and just about anything else)?
Is this not how we also mindlessly cover and consume political talk in this country? It seems we chase stories only if they can provide entertainment value. This desire is eclipsed only by stories of hardship if the subjects are “one of our own”.
This is why we saw the obsession with Tamimi, the teenager who was arrested and held in prison for slapping an Israeli soldier. Hundreds of Palestinian children remain in Israeli jails but Israelis and most media organisations across the world zoomed in on Tamimi. Why? Just this week, Tamimi’s mother said that her daughter had received inordinate attention because of the way she looked. In other words, blue-eyed, blonde and not “typically” Palestinian.
What then, does it say, if even the stories of oppression need a white face for it to seen as hurtful, credible and relatable? Is this why our social delivery protests are often described as disruptions and inconveniences?
Similarly, I can wager that Naidoo’s story has received 100 times more coverage than Israel’s new “Jewish nation state law”.
While the obsession with Naidoo in mid-July ensued, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passed a law during the same period that institutionalised apartheid in the country. The law situates the Jewish people as the only community with a right to national self-determination. “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it,” Netanyahu said.
The law also omits any mention of democracy or principle of equality and downgrades Arabic as an official language.
In other words, it puts to rest any doubt about the tiers of citizenship in Israel; the similarities between this law and discriminatory policies introduced by apartheid South Africa are striking. But some of our news organisations decided to describe the law using the amorphous term “controversial” as if we have no understanding of oppression and injustice.
Makes you wonder. At least, it has left me wondering what is it that we are doing; whose side are we on?
To the media: Why does Naidoo’s refusal of entry to Israel solicit more attention and concern than a law that will affect millions of Palestinians?
To activists: what did it serve to prop her up when for her it was an obvious exercise in damage control?
And crucially, why is it so hard to see that even in our condemnation, we are unable to put the people we purport to care about first.
* Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.