The Oxfam partnership is a major gamble for the Board

By Gerald Steinberg, January 17, 2013
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If the controversial partnership between Oxfam GB and the Board is approved, the results will provide a highly visible test of the competing optimistic and pessimistic perspectives. This small project, “Grow/Tatzmiach”, will link Jewish volunteers sponsored by the Board with Oxfam mentors to “tackle injustices in the international food system”. There are already many solid Israeli and Jewish humanitarian aid projects, and the main goals of this new partnership are political and symbolic.

This is also a complex and risky initial experiment. Oxfam International is the most powerful humanitarian aid organisation in the world, with 17 country branches active in 92 countries, drawing on an annual budget of £750 million. Oxfam describes itself as “part of a global movement” against “the injustice of poverty”, creating a foundation for double standards and distortions under the façade of humanitarian assistance.

Under this framework, Oxfam’s record on Israel is not good, to greatly understate the case. One year after the infamous NGO Forum at the 2001 UN Durban conference, which adopted a strategy of political warfare against Israel, Oxfam Belgium produced large posters featuring an orange dripping blood, with the phrase “Israeli Fruits Have a Bitter Taste”, and promoting the boycott of Israeli products.

Following intense protests triggered by NGO Monitor’s report on theological antisemitism, Oxfam International apologised “for any offence that has been caused”, but the anti-Israel campaigning continued. In 2009, Oxfam promoted BDS by severing ties with actress Kristin Davis – an “ambassador” (supporter and spokesperson) for the NGO – due to her work endorsing the Israeli Ahava cosmetics company.

Oxfam consistently paints a highly misleading picture of the Arab-Israeli conflict, erasing terrorism and repeating the Palestinian victimisation mythologies.

In a July 2012 briefing paper, Oxfam recommended that NGOs should provoke conflict with the IDF and engage in explicit violations of international law by “initiat[ing] and support[ing] development projects in the Jordan Valley and other parts of Area C...even if they have not been approved by the Israeli civil administration…”.

In the political arena, Oxfam uses its huge influence to lobby the EU to sanction Israel over Gaza (referred to as “the world’s largest prison) and other “unlawful” acts. Oxfam lobbying also led the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to recommend that retailers label goods produced in the West Bank as “Israeli settlement produce” or “Palestinian produce.”

Perhaps key Oxfam officials now recognise the damage, and the co-operation with the Board will give them the framework to push towards a long-overdue return to morality regarding Israel. However, Oxfam is a huge and complex organisation, and it will be difficult to make any progress among those who are deeply and blindly committed to the BDS and demonisation networks.

Therefore, as the co-operation with the Board under the “Grow/ Tatzmiach” programme expands, the expectations for change might easily turn to disappointment. More Oxfam statements attacking Israel will trigger a very divisive conflict within the Jewish community, between those who will accept Oxfam’s explanations or minimise the infraction, and others who will say “we told you so”.

For all of these reasons and more, the Oxfam partnership is a major gamble for the Board. But if, despite the odds, changes in Oxfam’s central role in the Durban BDS strategy become evident, and the organisation returns to its original objectives of promoting humanitarian aid, rather than radical politics, this will indeed mark an important achievement.

Professor Gerald Steinberg is on the faculty of Bar Ilan University, in political science, and is the founder of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem research institute.

Last updated: 1:45pm, January 17 2013