In the week of 22 March, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC) and the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), clashed on a variety of issues over the duration of the Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). The PSC is a secular organisation whose progressive movements are broad but primarily focused on showing solidarity with the people of Palestine. SAUJS is an ethno-religious organisation solely focused on protecting the interests of Jewish students on South African university campuses. This story examines the complex space in which these political organisations operate on campus. In this particular case, a wall, a t-shirt and a series of online publications stand at the center of this debacle.
The stage: IAW, the PSC and SAUJS
IAW is a week-long event, usually held in March, to raise awareness of the oppression and discrimination that Palestinians face at the hands of the Israeli government. The Israeli government has been accused of being an apartheid state, in terms of international law, by human rights organisations across the globe. The significance of this week on UP’s campus lies in the fact that the PSC is an anti-apartheid, anti-Zionist organisation and thus sought to participate in IAW to further their cause of showing solidarity with the people of Palestine.
In contrast, the SAUJS is a Jewish organisation that in the words of the SAUJS UP’s Chairperson, Adir Miller, has Zionism as one of its founding pillars. In light of this, conflict, while not inevitable, was certainly a possibility and the SAUJS foresaw this. The SAUJS approached the chairperson of the PSC, Naseeha Jooma, and vice chair, Azraa Seedat to discuss the particulars of IAW.
At this meeting several concerns arose, mostly premised on the safety of Jewish students on campus, as Miller states, “Israeli-Apartheid Week in the past has been quite hostile to Jews […]”. Social media officer of the SAUJS UP, Erela Jankelowitz, continues, “[When you think of] Isreali-Apartheid Week from a Jewish perspective […] Jews on campus do not feel safe when there’s this targeted association of our homeland [with apartheid] … and people will automatically associate Jews with Israel”. In light of this, Jooma’s response sought to quell their concerns, “We did not want to get into conflict, or for people to get emotional during IAW and so I told them that none of my students are going to attack your students. I don’t have a problem with Jewish students”.
Seedat would add on to that by saying, “the last thing we want to do is be anti-Semitic”. While both sides agreed that the meeting was a success, the seeds of conflict seemingly germinated with no one noticing. The exact moment of germination can be traced to one specific sequence of events – when the SAUJS offered to collaborate with the PSC on future events.
Jooma and Seedat were emphatic with their distaste toward the offer with Seedat saying, “We can’t just throw everything that’s happening outside under the rug […] we can collaborate with Jewish students but we cannot collaborate with Zionists”. The SAUJS respected their decision, but as the events of IAW unfolded it was clear that the PSC’s refusal to collaborate would not be without its consequences.
The first front: The wall
The wall on campus is usually used by student organisations to paint murals aimed at bringing attention to various causes or promoting events. So it stands to reason that both sides had their eyes set on using this wall, which ordinarily would not be an issue, but the timing would ultimately serve as the catalyst for this conflict. Days before IAW, the SAUJS would paint a mural on the wall with the words, “heal over hate” featured prominently, much to the dismay of the PSC.
When asked what the initial reactions were to this development the positions were varied, but an air of confusion and ambiguity were consistent. On the PSC’s side Jooma said, “obviously we knew that it could only be them”. Seedat continued saying, “we didn’t expect them to do anything for IAW, it’s not a SAUJS event.” Concerning the timing as to when the mural was painted, no coherent reason can be given but many inferences can be drawn. Jooma would state, “I was told that they (the SAUJS) told Ismail, my secretary, that it was a coincidence that they painted the wall on IAW”. It was very clear that the PSC had no knowledge of SAUJS’ plans for IAW as Jooma states, “we don’t feed off what SAUJS does”. However, SAUJS on the other hand was in a completely different position as Miller would explain, “We knew that they had things planned even before the meeting […] they should have expected us [to do something that week] because there are two sides and two narratives (referring to the Isreali-Palestinian conflict) […]”.
When asked whether the SAUJS told the PSC of their events Miller would say, “we’re running two events in the same week and they’re not privy to that knowledge […] they do not own the wall it is university property […]”. When asked whether malice was a factor in the decision to paint the mural Miller responded, “we didn’t do it out of spite”.
However, tensions would further escalate when the PSC decided to paint a mural on the unpainted parts of the wall (which is not in contravention of university policy) as Seedat said, “we had no plan to tarnish their mural we worked around it as you can see”, much to the dissatisfaction of SAUJS. Jankelowitz would respond, “There wasn’t any planning or organisation, we weren’t told anything about what they were doing or that they would be doing anything at the wall and that was the initial shock.” In support of Jankelowitz, Miller would add, “We believe that there are issues, but there are ways to resolve [them]. One of the ways we shouldn’t resolve it, is by bullying each other or attacking each other […]”. Unfortunately, de-escalation was not one of the ways that would be considered either.
The second front: that bloody t-shirt
Throughout the week the SAUJS was handing out T-shirts that featured the words “heal over hate” featuring the South African and Isreali flags, with the intention of fostering a spirit of unity. One such shirt was handed to an individual who was not formally affiliated with either the PSC or the SAUJS. This individual doused the t-shirt in the red paint that the PSC was using for its mural, evoking images of blood. This display would garner a mixed reception of the PSC’s conduct.
The t-shirt upset the SAUJS for a variety of reasons with Miller saying, “If you as an organisation see that, the first thing I would do is remove it. By keeping in full view of everyone it says that they were okay with it”. That was very much the case as the PSC was okay with the bloody t-shirt. Jooma states, “We are not gonna allow students to fall for Zionist propaganda. We have a duty as PSC, students and South Africans to fight against this propaganda […] We were against their message of healing over hate […] the guy who did that to the shirt told me Israel kills Palestinians and that was his explanation for the blood symbolism and we gave him consent [to use the red paint]”.
Jankelowitz would state her discomfort with Jooma’s decision saying, “The fact that no one showed any action against it was uncomfortable, that was a SAUJS t-shirt. Nothing to do with Israel and it was a bloody mess.” Obviously from this the question of anti-Semitism arose Seedat would say, “It is not our job to explain what the symbolism means, if you see that as anti-Semitism you need to look at yourself and ask questions, nothing about that says anti-Semitism”. Jooma would contribute by saying, “I think that message was intended to show the reality of Palestine, as a response to SAUJS’ message”. Seedat would add, “when you give away a shirt it becomes the property of that person and what they do with it is their business, he went there got the t-shirt himself, it was his shirt and I cannot tell him what to do with it”.
However, this is not where the story ends, as a consequence of the events on campus SAUJS would escalate the conflict further through what factually amounts to a misinformation campaign on social media.
The final theatre: Social media, the South African Jewish report and fake news
In a series of contemptuous online posts and publications, the SAUJS would deny claims that they aided in publishing misinformation concerning the PSC and their activities during IAW. Three posts are relevant for the purposes of this article.
The first relates to an extract in the South African Jewish report which states that the PSC defaced the SAUJS mural, an extract which at the time of writing has not been redacted.
The second, is a post on Instagram by the South African Zionist federation associating the “bloody” t-shirt directly with members of the PSC, when factually this was not the case, a post which has not been redacted at the time of writing.
Finally, on SAUJS UP’s Instagram page a post titled ‘SAUJS statement Regarding the Conclusion of IAW’ perpetuates false allegations such as defacing the wall. The post describes the events as follows: “they began the week by slyly going behind us and the university administration in order to gain the chance to deface a peaceful mural we had painted,” which due to its characterisation is factually untrue. As well as the interpretation of the blood stained shirt as being, “cheerleaders for those intent on spilling Jewish blood,” when factually that was not the case. In contrast, none of the PSC’s online IAW campaigns mentioned the SAUJS.
When asked to respond to the South African Jewish report’s article Miller merely stated, “We didn’t write that article, but there are other structures [that do that] […] what we wanted them to say, they weren’t following. We wanted to promote dialogue. We’re trying to get the wording changed […]”. When asked to give a response on the South African Zionist Federation’s post on Instagram, Miller says, “our photographer does not report to us, he reports to the higher ups”.
Another aspect to the online shenanigans is the Instagram comments section of SAUJS UP’s posts concerning the organisation Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS), wherein Seedat corrected some factual errors concerning BDS. Ultimately, this action saw Seedat blocked from the SAUJS’ Instagram and her comments deleted.
Jankelowitz, who runs the SAUJS Instagram page, had this to say, “I deleted them […]. Social media is a good place for getting a message across but comments are not the healthiest place to have a healthy conversation”. When asked on whether it was hypocritical to delete comments and block people who engage with them, in spite of their desire to spark dialogue; Jankelowitz had this to say, “I think there is an element of contradiction, but to post on a social media comments place is not the right place to have dialogue”. From there, Jankelowitz would confirm, that in her role at least, she is not interested in facilitating dialogue stating, “The comments under the Instagram posts undermine our entire campaign”.
The end of IAW is not the end of the possible future conflicts. It would be naïve to view the events as they unfolded as a singular occurrence, as the SAUJS has kept the posts despite the misinformation, and has shown no intention following their interview with PDBY to remove those posts or correct the information. Both organisations will continue to further their causes and this has been illustrated, one of them is not opposed to furthering their cause at the expense of the other organisation.