BDS Movement is ‘Extremely Painful’ for South African Jewish Community, Says Leader (INTERVIEW)
The anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in South Africa has become “extremely painful” for the country’s Jewish community, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies said on Tuesday.
The movement, known by its abbreviation BDS, is “trying to abuse South African history and the South African story for [its] own narrow purposes,” Wendy Kahn, who is also part of the World Jewish Congress’s National Community Directors Forum, told the Algemeiner.
“We don’t see any benefit whatsoever in the BDS strategy,” she said. “All it’s doing is further polarizing the parties in the Middle East, and it’s causing hostility between fellow South Africans.”
Kahn, who Haaretz once called “urbane and non-confrontational,” said the organized Jewish community would “challenge [BDS] at every turn.”
She said recent incidents, such as a protest outside the South Africa-Israel Expo in March in which activists carried signs saying “Israel is the devil,” threw rocks and broke equipment, have proved that the movement calling for a boycott of Israeli products, culture and academia is “becoming intimidatory and threatening to South African Jews.”
The BDS movement is “an attempt to intimidate South African Jewry to believe what they believe, and South African Jewry is a very tenacious and resilient community, and we won’t allow that,” she said.
“There strategies have ended up in blatant antisemitic manifestations,” said Kahn, noting BDS campaigners’ recent hosting of Leila Khaled — a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine involved in two airplane hijakings — at the Durban University of Technology.
“The next morning there were calls to deregister Jews from the university,” she said, referring to a letter by the Progressive Youth Alliance asking the school to expel Jewish students. She said annual Israel Apartheid Week demonstrations, which were held this year from March 2 to 5, have compounded hostilities against Jewish students.
“It’s becoming a threatening time for Jews on campus,” said Kahn.
The movement to boycott Israel has strong roots in South Africa, where many view the economic sanctions that were taken against the country’s apartheid government as crucial to having brought about the social changes that shaped the formation of its democracy in the 1990s. The South African government in 2012 adopted a motion to have products from Israeli settlements labeled as coming from “occupied” Palestinian territories.
And Desmond Tutu, an influential South African activist and former Anglican bishop, has been a vocal supporter of the movement to boycott Israel in order to pressure Jerusalem to change its policy toward the Palestinians.
“There are some South Africans who remember fondly what boycott did for South Africa,” said Kahn. “And on a superficial level they are taken in with these arguments; they see it as a way forward.”
Kahn — who was born in Cape Town but lived most of her life in Johannesburg — called South Africa’s Jewish community, which numbers between 70,000 to 75,000 individuals, “incredibly vibrant.”
“We have a wonderful Jewish way of life… Close to 90 percent of South African Jewish children attend Jewish day school. The majority of our children are getting a Jewish education and a Zionist education,” she said.
Kahn noted that while the community in South Africa, which had a peak population of about 120,000, has shrunk over the past several decades, the number of those emigrating has stabilized. The Jewish Virtual Library notes that about 1,800 South African Jews continue to emigrate every year.
“We say it’s approximately every seven years we have a spurt of emigration,” she quipped, noting that the last was in 2008. Most South African Jews emigrating today move to Israel, she said, and most Jews in South Africa have a strong bond with the Jewish state.
“Over 85 percent of South African Jews have a strong affiliation to Israel,” she said quoting a recent poll. “By far the majority of South African Jews have a close relationship with Israel.”
Kahn was in the U.S. for the American Jewish Committee annual conference, where she spoke, as well as for meetings at the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress. She has held her position at the helm of SAJBD since 2006.