Wendy Kahn is no stranger to the struggle against antisemitism and BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Kahn commands respect and carries about her the air of a down-to-earth, yet brilliant leader. The first woman to be named national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies since its founding in 1903, Kahn also served for five years as one of its elected members, including as vice-chairwoman of the Gauteng Council.
Prior to her appointment in 2006, she had a long and fruitful career within South Africa’s Jewish community. After attending Yeshiva College School in Johannesburg, Kahn became active in Mizrahi, where she ran the He’atid leadership program that took South African leaders to Israel and other countries in order to learn leadership and development skills. She remained at the helm of the organization for 14 years until it became the SA-Israel Forum.
In an interview with The Jewish Report, Kahn explained that her professional staff is comprised of more than 50% women. “I have honestly never felt undermined as a woman at the board and have been privileged to work with many extraordinary elected and professional women,” she said.
Looking back at the start of her SAJBD career, she told the Report, “When I inherited my office at the SAJBD, it was freezing cold and there was no electricity. I walked in, felt the glare of 100 men looking down at me. My first task was to remove the photographs and introduce bright South African art into my office.” And that was how she began bringing about colorful and welcome changes to the SAJBD.
Kahn has been vehemently outspoken against BDS and the anti-Israel lobby in South Africa and globally. She represented South Africa in the international Jewish response to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In 2011, she coordinated the counteraction to the Russell Tribunal for Palestine, boldly calling the tribunal nothing more than a kangaroo court.
She has spearheaded several campaigns against South African influencers and politicians who engaged in antisemitic discourse, and has met with some success in taking such cases to the South African Human Rights Council.
Speaking The Jerusalem Report earlier this year, Kahn said, “We need to show them [boycott activists] up for what they are. They’re a dictatorship. They’re authoritarian. They are trying to control the minds and opinions of South Africans. And while I fully respect their right to hold their views and to protest and say what they need to on the topic [of Israel], when they start infringing on my rights, then I need to lay down the law because that is not okay.”
Kahn explained that BDS in South Africa is a small organization of aggressive voices who are trying to portray themselves as a human rights organization, but “whose true colors of antisemitism keep showing through.”
“They are using a rhetoric that wants little more than to destroy the Jewish state and has shown little in finding a lasting and sustainable solution to the tragic conflict in the Middle East,” she said. “We have to expose their antisemitism. We need to expose their intimidation, which for us is anti-South African.”
Kahn’s has a deep love for South Africa and its people – of all faiths and nationalities. She has been outspoken against genocide, xenophobia and abuse of women. She has also headed campaigns to encourage members of the Jewish community to participate in South Africa’s democratic processes.
Kahn is married with three children, and attributes her ability to cope with the difficulties her job entails to her supportive and loving family.