The “threats” facing Israel are numerous and diverse: artists painting murals on walls; poetry on Facebook; even clowns and circus performers. The newest danger to the Zionist state is a South African celebrity who usually features in the entertainment section of the newspapers, rather than the politics pages. Last week, Israel banned South African entrepreneur and former model Shashi Naidoo for 10 years after she tried to enter the West Bank to educate herself about Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.
Naidoo decided to embark on the trip after she was caught in a social media storm when she copied and pasted anti-Palestinian propaganda on her Instagram account to defend Israel’s violent response to the Great Return March protests in the Gaza Strip. Following a massive backlash, Naidoo deleted the posts and issued an apology. On 20 June, she announced her intention to educate herself about the reality of the Israeli occupation by going on a self-funded educational tour of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Although she managed to visit Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, she didn’t make it to the West Bank. After two hours of interrogation by Israeli security at the border, and what Naidoo calls “mental warfare”, she was denied entry and banned for a decade.
The whole experience has been a steep learning curve for her. In a candid interview, she admitted that her entire understanding of Israel and Zionism was informed by her close interactions and relationships with Zionist Jews. “People spoke about Israel proudly, and Zionism was an important part of being Jewish,” she explained. “There was never any mention of occupation… I find it unfathomable that the people I knew – people who were so kind and loving — could ever be in support of this type of oppression. I’ve always heard that there was a conflict, but I had no idea about the Nakba, occupation, refugees or what everyday life was for Palestinians.”
Given her high-profile status, Israel’s banning of Naidoo was covered widely in the media in South Africa; it also touched a raw nerve for many of her fellow South Africans.
“When model and actress Shashi Naidoo was barred from entering Palestine this week I couldn’t help thinking, wait a minute, I think I’ve seen this movie before,” wrote veteran journalist Fred Khumalo in his weekly column for the Sowetan newspaper. “Naidoo’s experiences in the Middle East were a replay of what happened to hundreds of outspoken people who were barred from entering South Africa at the height of apar`theid. The government of the day was convinced that what it was doing — killing and jailing opponents, but also sending some into exile — was God’s plan and anyone who questioned it had to be punished.” His comments were written on the day that Naidoo landed back in South Africa.
“I did not know that my pursuit of knowledge would attract the label of ‘terrorist’ or ‘threat’ from the government of Israel,” the former model pointed out. “I now know that any person who has a different opinion to that of the State of Israel could be seen as a ‘threat’.”Journalist Erin Bates and photographer Leeroy Jason accompanied Naidoo on the trip to document her learning experience. They made it through to the occupied West Bank, and went ahead with the journey that Naidoo would have taken had she been allowed in. According to Jason, it was Naidoo’s search for the truth that kept him and Bates inspired to continue the journey without her. They are now on a mission to share the truth about what’s happening under Israeli occupation. They got a small taste of Palestinian life while touring Hebron with the Breaking the Silence group, where tour leader Yehuda Shaul was violently attacked by illegal settlers.
Israel claims that Naidoo was denied entry because her trip was allegedly planned by the South African branch of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Israel regards as an “existential threat”. Prior to this whole saga, Naidoo confesses that she didn’t even know what BDS was. Thanks to Israel, however, that has now changed. “I see boycotts as an important way of challenging Israel. Yes, I’m a supporter of BDS now, and I would encourage people to boycott Israel to get that country to end the occupation.”
Naidoo was offended by the offer of a return trip made by Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, but only if her hosts were approved by the Israeli government. She has pledged that she will only go back to a free Palestine.
Erdan’s offer of government-approved hosts is a replica of apartheid South Africa’s propaganda ploys. One of the most effective tools used by the former regime to obscure the apartheid system of government was its offer of trips to South Africa to allow those we now call “influencers” to see that it was really “not that bad”, and that calls for a boycott of South Africa were “excessive”. State officials would take visitors on carefully-scripted tours to show them how happy black people were — in tightly-controlled scenarios, of course — and how the condemnation of apartheid did not reflect this “success” story.
As long as you were hosted by a group that was approved by the government, stuck to the carefully-chosen itinerary and only spoke to the “good” natives, then you were welcome in apartheid South Africa. Being hosted by “terrorist” group like the African National Congress (ANC), venturing into the prohibited townships, and speaking to anyone calling for a boycott of South Africa earned you the label of “threat” and a permanent ban from entering the country.
The only real danger facing Israel is that the world is learning the truth about its brutal occupation and apartheid policies, despite attempts to suppress it. The real upshot of Shashi Naidoo’s banning is that it has stripped away Israel’s veneer of democratic respectability, leading many South Africans to ask a simple question: If Israel has nothing to hide, why does its government keep banning people from entering the occupied Palestinian territories?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.