Why I was almost lynched for the T-shirt I wore
I will never forget walking into the opening ceremony at the UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR,) in Durban, South Africa, 2001. I joined five Israelis from the World Union of Jewish Students to unofficially represent Israel at the NGO conference, preceding the main government conference.
There were over 20,000 people, packed in the Kingsmead cricket stadium, from all over the world, all wearing the same t-shirt. It was a white shirt with the picture of Muhammed Al-Dura, a young Palestinian boy, allegedly killed by Israeli soldiers, at the outset of the second Intifada. It was later proved, beyond a doubt, in a Paris courtroom, that he was not killed by the IDF but rather by Palestinian gunmen. At that moment, in Durban, no was was asking. Nor, I imagine, did they ask who sponsored the free shirt at registration? In addition to t-shirts, the stadium was decorated in banners, “Zionim=Racism”, “Israel is an Apartheid State”, “Star of David=Swastika” and others. When Thabo Mbeki, the South African president at the time, spoke of the Palestinian cause to be discussed, the crowd erupted in excitement. For the first time, I removed my kippa (scullcap) from my head.
We returned to our hotel after the ceremony. There was silence in the room. We were expecting antagonism toward Israel but not like this. I cannot remember the conversation that followed but at some point someone suggested producing our own t-shirt to distribute to participants. A few phone calls were made and soon we reached a generous member of the Durban Jewish community. He arranged for 20,000 of our own shirts to be produced and gave us one hour to send the design, while workers at a local t-shirt company were called to work overnight. Our design had a blue Star of David, with a peace sign in the middle, on the front and the back a quote by Martin Luther King Jr, “When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews.”
The next day, I went in a big delivery truck to fetch the shirts. The driver, had no idea what the purpose of the trip was. After the shirts were packed into the truck, I decided to travel in the windowless back, to sort the sizes, while heading back to the conference. On the way, little did I know, making its way on a service road, a few meters outside the truck, was one of the largest anti-Israel rallies that had ever taken place, since Israel’s establishment. Over 300,000 people, mostly Muslims, were heading toward Kingsmead.
We arrived and I was relieved to see the Israelis. As planned, we start handing out the free t-shirts. In the street in front of us, the front of the rally, bends around the corner and makes its way in our direction. The person leading the rally, was an official steering committee member of the WCAR (later revealed.) She notices our shirts and starts to announce to the crowd, on a mega-phone, “Stop the Zionists from handing out their shirts!” We were violently confronted by the mob, before the South African police formed a circle of protection around us, escorting us to safety. We were shocked. The next day, Marry Robinson, the deputy head of the UN, made a public apology to us, in person, during the main plenary session.
Reflecting back on that day, which was just one of many crazy things that happened in Durban, I concluded two things. Firstly, and you don’t need me to tell you, is that global perceptions concerning the State of Israel, are in ‘Dire Straits.’ Relatively hush in 2001, we encountered a well organized, influential and highly funded movement to delegitimize the State of Israel, as we are experiencing today with intensity, via the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.)
Secondly, almost cynically, was a realization of the power that t-shirts have for conveying a message. I could not believe the impact that these ‘Threads’ have influencing an idea.
For this reason, eight years later, after making Aliya and serving as a combat soldier in the IDF, I decided to create an initiative, NU Campaign– using t-shirts, design and education, to support important Israeli and global humanitarian causes.
NU, is Hebrew slang for ‘Cmon’ and begs a response. Every shirt produced by NU has a unique design on the front and the story of the cause, printed inside, by the wearers heart. When you wear the shirt, you carry Israel, literally, in your heart, and become its “Human Billboard” and Ambassador, wherever you go.
Our shirts are shipped worldwide and we have had the privilege of working with many amazing Israeli organizations and innovators. We recently launched a new website, allowing anyone to create and promote your own custom apparel campaign and our latest, in light of the upcoming ICC investigation into the IDF, during Operation Protective Edge, last year, in Gaza, is a design to highlight the morality of the IDF.