This is about more than Oxfam

By Jonathan Freedland, January 17, 2013

On Sunday the Board of Deputies of British Jews will decide whether it should go ahead with a joint project with Oxfam, in which the aid organisation will train 25 Jewish volunteers, equipping them to become better campaigners. The idea is that Jewish organisations working against poverty and hunger — the likes of, say, World Jewish Relief or Tzedek — will gain expertise from a body with unmatched experience in the field.

Put like that, it sounds uncontentious. Who could be against anything that could help those in desperate need? But this is the Jewish community, where things are rarely so simple. There is a vocal group, active in the Board, who believe that Oxfam is “institutionally anti-Israel” and who worry that the project will be used by Oxfam to disguise this fact. They believe the Board is naively proposing to give the non governmental organisation a hechsha, a Jewish seal of approval that will make any future Oxfam action against Israel look kosher.

It won’t surprise regular readers to hear that I side with those who favour engagement over non-engagement. As Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould — widely recognised as someone who is a good friend to both British Jewry and Israel — has put it: “If the Jewish community only speaks to people who agree with them, they’ll never win the argument.” I think he’s right.

Indeed, what Gould says has always been true — but that truth is about to gain added urgency. On Tuesday Israel is set to elect what many believe will be the most right-wing government in the Jewish state’s history. That’s not just the view of usual suspect lefties: David Horovitz, founder editor of the Times of Israel, has warned that “a different Israel” will emerge after January 22, one in which: “The right has become the far-right.”

What he and other analysts chiefly have in mind is the surging Jewish Home party, led by the star of this election season, Naftali Bennett. Bennett is not a settler, but is the settlers’ champion. He advocates the immediate annexation of 60 per cent of the West Bank and has ruled out a Palestinian state, saying it would be “a disaster for the next 200 years”.

They believe the Board is proposing to give the NGO a hechsha

His party will put into the Knesset not one but two residents of Hebron, the hardest of hard-core settlements. Bennett has a modern, hi-tech image but occasionally the mask slips. In a TV debate with a Palestinian-Israeli member of the Knesset, he said: “When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here.”

You might expect the racism to be less overt inside Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party, but if anything it is even more naked. Consider Moshe Feiglin, high up on his party list, who in 2004 said: “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers…The Arab destroys everything he touches.”

Here’s the point. Few of those opposed to the Board-Oxfam project claim that Oxfam rejects Israel’s right to exist (difficult since Oxfam is committed to the two state solution). Rather, they oppose Oxfam because Oxfam has opposed some Israeli government policy. But there are about to be many, many people opposed to the Israeli government. Take Feiglin: he’s about to be an MK for Israel’s main governing party, but he was banned from entry to the UK in 2008.

If we decide that we can only have contact with those who support the Israeli government — as some are, in effect, demanding — we are about to become very lonely. For we will find that we have no one to talk to but ourselves.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 11:23am, January 23 2013