Motorists driving on the M1 near the Empire Road bottleneck on October 26, would have had their curiosity sparked by it for the first time that Friday afternoon: An eye-catching mega Palestine solidarity billboard graphically depicting the effect of the Israeli Occupation in shrinking Palestinian territory over decades, by means of a series of colourful maps.
By Monday afternoon, barely hours into the new working week – it had mysteriously vanished.
As BDS South Africa and the advertising agency concerned frantically searched for answers, the ‘hidden hand’ behind the sudden disappearance of the billboard was soon revealed to be pressure from the SA Zionist Federation(SAZF) and the SA Jewish Board of Deputies(SAJBD), two Jewish communal organisations committed to defending and protecting Israeli interests in South Africa.
A joint email circular sent out by FairPlay SA, a collaborative effort between the two bodies, stated that: “On contact with the owners of the billboard site [Continental Outdoor Media]… literally within 6 working hours of the [Palestine solidarity] billboard having gone up – it was removed.”
Corroborating this account, Mary Kluk, chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, noted in the SA Jewish Report that the Continental Outdoor Media CEO had expressed his most ”serious and sincere apologies” to the Jewish community for showcasing the billboard and pledged to ensure that immediate steps would be taken to remove it.
Contacted for comment by a local newspaper, Mr. Barry Sayer, CEO of Continental Outdoor Media, conceded to censoring the Palestine solidarity billboard, but only after allegedly receiving “comment via Facebook and telephone from many…individuals.” Sayer further claimed that Continental Outdoor Media did “not run advertising of a political nature”.
Advertiser, BDS South Africa, however contests this contention. It alleges that Continental only removed the billboard after being “harassed” by the local Zionist bodies. “The Israeli lobby is known for its pressure and threats on anyone that is critical of Israel. This sort of thuggish pressure was used just a few years again to silence Judge Richard Goldstone for his criticism of Israel. It was despicable then, and is despicable now,” said the movement’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi in a statement.
It further accused Continental of circumventing internal policies in removing the sign. “They[Continental] not only agreed to advertising, but were given the artwork prior to the billboard going up. They were given the design files well in advance. So they knew exactly what was going up. Thus, it was certainly no internal policies of theirs being violated, it was simply pressure being put on by the Zionist Federation,” BDS spokesman Mohammed Desai told Cii.
He said Zionist attempts at censorship only served to underscore the success of the campaign. “(These initiatives) are creating an uncomfortable environment – a space in which it is becoming unfashionable to be an Israeli supporter..It also shows the desperate lengths to which Israeli supporters will go in trying to counter Palestine solidarity initiatives.”
He urged all Palestinian supporters to be equally assertive in demanding answers from Continental. “This is where the community can play a role. We can make our voices known to Continental. They should tell us why they accepted the artwork in the first place, why did they place the billboard, and only after having received certain phonecalls then took it down. You could call them on 011 514 1400, and request an explanation.”
Desai indicated that BDS South Africa were also consulting with their lawyers to see what legal recourse they were entitled to.
BDS South Africa billboards that have gone up nationwide
The removed billboard was one of 12 such solidarity signs BDS South Africa recently erected across the country to graphically explain the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian lands. One version of the billboard depicts a shrinking Palestinian territory by an increasing Israeli Occupation over the years in a series of maps. Under the maps, “Palestinian Loss of Land – 1946 to 2010″ is printed in large letters. Next to the maps, a message says, “4.7 million Palestinians are classified by the UN as refugees.”
Whilst he considered BDS South Africa to have a major fight on its hands, Desai said he considered the saga to be only a minor setback. “The remainder of our billboards are still up, the Palestine solidarity billboard campaign continues, and our solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid is as strong as ever. In addition we know from our own past that this suppression of basic freedoms by the Israeli lobby is actually what will lead to the inevitable fall and failure of Zionism and support of Israel in our democratic South Africa.”