The crack in Oxfam's charity halo

When it comes to Israel, the NGO is guilty of human rights double standards

By Dan Kosky, September 10, 2009

Ironically, for a charity aimed at combating inequality and promoting fair trade, Oxfam is big business. Its network of more than 700 shops across the UK effectively makes it a serious retail chain. And Oxfam’s high-street cred received a major boost when Sheffield rockers Arctic Monkeys released their latest single in the charity’s stores.

By contrast, another of Oxfam’s recent links with celebrity has had it mired in political ideology. Last month, Oxfam dropped its celebrity spokeswoman, Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis, on account of her endorsement of Israeli cosmetics firm Ahava, which has a presence in the West Bank. “Oxfam,” its spokesperson announced, “remains opposed to settlement trade, in which Ahava is engaged.” By this action, the charity has once again succumbed to a disturbing Israel obsession.

Oxfam can be proud of its work to combat famine, improve healthcare and promote education for all, making a positive difference across the world. Impressively, this work is generally characterised by political neutrality. Yet, when Israel is involved, these standards appear to give way to uninhibited condemnation.

In Oxfam’s world, Israel’s existence seems worthy of recognition only in the context of Palestinian suffering, where the Jewish state is forever cast as guilty conqueror. As a result, when it comes to Israel, Oxfam ignores its traditional mandate to tackle need and injustice. The charity maintains a virtual silence over the plight of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, despite the continued daily violation of his basic human rights. Similarly, the eight-year-long suffering of residents in Sderot from rockets fired from Gaza is given only token acknowledgement by Oxfam.

Unlike their coverage of other countries, Oxfam’s reports and statements on Israel are wholly coloured by a political agenda. The title of their recent report on Israel’s security barrier — “Five Years of Illegality: Time to Dismantle the Wall and respect the rights of Palestinians” — reflects a spurious legal assumption and a political call to action which would be deemed inappropriate if applied to any other conflict. The report itself neglects even to mention the purpose of the security barrier — to ensure the safety of Israeli civilians — or that it has been a significant factor in the near-total elimination of suicide bombings in Israel. Oxfam’s failure to acknowledge the Israeli right to life is evidence of a shocking human-rights double standard.

The charity’s hostility towards Israel reached fever pitch during the recent Gaza conflict. Its comments included emotionally manipulative claims such as: “The people of Gaza are living in the world’s largest prison but have fewer rights than convicts.” Leaving no doubt where the blame lay, Oxfam cast aside the apolitical traditions of humanitarian aid and pushed for political action, calling for the suspension of the EU-Israel upgrade process. In a rewriting of history, Oxfam called for Israel “to fulfil its obligations as an occupying power” in Gaza. Echoing the Palestinian narrative, Oxfam is apparently unaware of Israel’s total civilian and military withdrawal from the area in 2005 and the subsequent rule of Hamas, which has overseen more than 2,500 rockets fired into Israel since its 2007 takeover.

Oxfam’s hostility towards Israel is bad enough in itself but the application of a political agenda to the country is unique. In Zimbabwe, Oxfam highlights “skyrocketing inflation” but puts it down to “a number of inter-related factors”, refraining to mention Robert Mugabe’s culpability in that country’s economic despair. Similarly, in Iraq, Oxfam cites “chronic insecurity” as a major problem, but does not blame occupying US forces or any other single factor. When it comes to Israel, however, Oxfam removes its customary diplomatic façade to give vent to vitriolic criticism.

The case of Kristin Davis exposes Oxfam’s split personality. Davis’s work as an Oxfam spokeswoman is part of a marketing strategy to lend the charity an everyday consumer appeal. Yet its evident displeasure over her links with Ahava demonstrates an apparent commitment to criticising Israel, and only Israel, at every turn. Oxfam should be called to account for this obsessive anomaly. Failure to do so would constitute a betrayal of the essential universality of human rights — and deliver a serious blow to “brand Oxfam”.

Dan Kosky is Communications Director of NGO Monitor,

Last updated: 11:07am, September 10 2009