Oxfam project in chaos after secret meeting

Board president Vivian Wineman (Photo: AP)

Board president Vivian Wineman (Photo: AP)

Chaos surrounds the Board of Deputies’ proposed project with Oxfam after a secret meeting aimed at rescuing the plan, which has drawn huge opposition from some deputies, ended unresolved.

The JC can reveal that Board president Vivian Wineman and senior vice-president Laura Marks set up a meeting with the NGO’s Middle East director Olga Ghazaryan, with the aim of securing Oxfam’s agreement to a series of “red lines” which it was believed would allay the fears of deputies who are opposed to the Grow/Tatzmiach leadership programme.

Mr Wineman and Ms Marks then invited one of the leading opponents of the project — the former vice-president of the Board, Jerry Lewis — to attend the meeting on Wednesday.

Executive members of the Board had agreed on Monday to tell Oxfam that any hardening of its stance on Israel would lead to the termination of the scheme.

If the NGO were to call for a boycott of any Israeli goods or support boycott, divestment and sanctions calls by others then the Board would “instantly abandon the project”.

Further, if Oxfam exploited the project in a way that could be detrimental to Israel, then the partnership would also end immediately.

But as the JC went to press on Wednesday night, the indications were that the charity would reject the Board’s demands.

It is understood that although Mr Wineman and Ms Marks left the meeting thinking that Oxfam had agreed to the “red lines”, Ms Ghazaryan told Mr Lewis in a further conversation that she had no power to sign up to them on Oxfam’s behalf.

As part of its efforts to diffuse the opposition, the Board said that it would monitor the project — and its entire relationship with Oxfam — after four months, six months and then twice yearly. An advisory group of deputies will be formed to monitor developments.

The Grow/Tatzmiach programme will bring Jewish campaigners together with Oxfam experts to tackle injustices in the international food system.

A motion calling for the project to be put on hold until Oxfam “abandons its support for a partial boycott of Israeli goods” will be debated at the Board’s plenary meeting at the end of next week.

Proposals for the project were drawn up before last year’s Board polls and pre-date the election of Mitzvah Day founder Ms Marks as senior vice-president.

Neville Sassienie, chair of the Board’s social action group, said that the vote would be a pivotal moment in the Board’s relationship with NGOs. If deputies scuppered the project by backing the motion, then the Board’s reputation would suffer a severe blow.

Mr Sassienie said the project had benefits for both bodies. “The Board wanted to engage some of the leading NGOs to influence their thinking and build up a relationship so we knew who we were talking to if there were problems with Israel.

“Oxfam said they wanted to put a proposal to us by which we could join together.”

The charity realised, he said, that working with the Board could be a way of appeasing Israel advocates and the Jewish community who disagreed with the NGO’s stance on the country and views on settlements.

Mr Sassienie said the training offered by Oxfam as part of the agreement would substantially benefit the Board and the volunteers taking part.

He acknowledged the opposition from deputies but added: “To suggest Oxfam is anti-Israel is farcical really. If the deputies vote against the project I don’t know how the Board could go ahead with it.”

Around 30 people are understood to have already applied to secure places on the project, with training due to begin next month.

“It makes you very proud to see the applications,” said Mr Sassienie. “To dash it away from the volunteers now would damage the Board’s reputation.”

Three deputies from Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue said it was vital for the Board to engage with Oxfam in order to help those who are less fortunate.

Rowel Genn, Emma Stone and Jonathan Arkush, who is also a Board vice-president, said in a statement that a secondary motivation “may include engagement with those who do not see matters exactly as we do with a view to influencing them.

“We cannot only engage with people who agree with everything we do and believe in. Oxfam are not enemies of the Jewish people. Influence comes from positive and persuasive engagement, not from petulant boycott.”

Last updated: 11:44am, January 10 2013