Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Engaging with anti-Israel charities

Engaging with anti-Israel charities

Isi Leibler

I had to rub my eyes in disbelief when I observed yet another botched initiative by the well-intentioned leadership of the Board of Deputies of British Jews recently. By a vote of almost 2:1, the board's plenum endorsed a linkage with the British branch of Oxfam International, one of the world's largest charity organizations, with branches in more than 90 countries.

The Board of Deputies will send 30 representatives to a training weekend with Oxfam, where they will be taught how to raise funds to "tackle injustices in the international food system." The cost, about $13,000, will largely be borne by Oxfam.

It is unprecedented for an umbrella body like the Board of Deputies to enter into partnerships with charities. The board struggles to fulfill its clearly defined constitutional obligations. Besides, Jews are renowned for their generous philanthropic contributions, and there is no rational reason why it should seek to highlight such non-Jewish activity.

But even if the board felt an obligation to become visibly engaged with a charity, it is staggering that it chose to do so with Oxfam, an organization which has a notorious reputation for engaging in anti-Israeli initiatives totally beyond the normal province of a charity.

Oxfam's hostility toward Israel goes back over a decade. One particularly troubling example of this was when in the wake of the Durban hate fest, when the Belgian branch produced huge posters with oranges dripping in blood titled "Israeli fruits have a bitter taste: Reject the occupation of Palestine, don't buy Israeli fruits and vegetables." Following a storm of protest, this blood libel was withdrawn.

In 2009, Oxfam effectively promoted the boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaign by terminating its relationship with actress Kristin Davis, one of its principal spokespeople, because she had endorsed Israeli Ahava cosmetic products.

Oxfam director Jeremy Hobbs proclaimed that "the people of Gaza are living in the world's largest prison but have fewer rights than convicts." Oxfam called for ending the boycott of Hamas and repeatedly condemned the "illegal" Israeli presence in east Jerusalem. It was party to a document urging the international community to demand that Israel "provide compensation for the damage caused during Operation Cast Lead and other Israeli military action."

Following the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, which Oxfam considered "a direct result of the Israeli blockade in Gaza," it denounced Israel's "appalling use of violence and killing of civilians."

Oxfam has condemned Israel's security fence, which has played an important role in bringing an end to suicide bombings inside Israel. To this day Oxfam calls for the specific labeling of goods produced beyond the Green Line — clearly a form of boycott. In addition, Oxfam cosponsors initiatives with bodies that have clear records of supporting terrorists such as the London Muslim Center and Islamic Relief.

It is thus inexplicable why a Jewish representative body would associate itself with a charity that prides itself on maintaining a consistent record of hostility toward the Jewish state.

Even more bizarre was the fact that the board was encouraged by other Jewish establishment bodies. These included the principal public relations organization promoting Israel, the British Israel Communications and Research Center, and the United Jewish Israel Appeal, the principal Israel fundraiser whose former leader had the dubious record of having urged British Jews to speak out against the policies of the democratically elected government of Israel.

Astonishingly, even the British Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, intervened, telling the London Jewish Chronicle that the board should engage with Oxfam as well as with other bodies that criticize Israel. It is unprecedented for a British civil servant, an ambassador to Israel, to intervene in such a controversial domestic issue. What motivated him to do so on this occasion?

In justifying the initiative, Board of Deputies President Vivian Wineman sought to calm his constituents by remarking that working with Oxfam did not mean the board shared its views. However, he opined that his executives felt obliged to "engage" with bodies that were hostile to Israel.

He stated that after meeting with Oxfam, he was satisfied it would not boycott Israel or associate itself with organizations linked to terrorism. If it did, the board would terminate the association.

However, Oxfam refused to modify ongoing political attacks on Israel or suspend its campaign to oblige Israel to label all products produced beyond the Green Line.

The board also failed to explain why, if it sought to "engage" with organizations hostile to Israel, it chose a charity which it was unlikely to influence, rather than concentrating on "engaging" with more relevant organizations such as the government and political parties. In this context few would hail the board's promotion of the case for Israel in the broader political arena as a stellar success.

Clearly, sole British Jews would be happier if the board was seen as more "balanced" or "evenhanded" in relation to Israel. There are undoubtedly pressures from elements within the Jewish establishment — the "trembling Israelites" — that are discomforted at being perceived as a pro-Israel lobby. Perhaps they sought to distance themselves from this by displaying their broad-mindedness and commitment to society at large by linking to an anti-Israeli charity.

During the debate, there were repeated remarks that dealing with Oxfam might not be good for Israel but it was good for Anglo-Jews to be seen as helping charities providing food for children. Senior Vice President Laura Marks conceded that it was highly unlikely that the board would succeed in persuading Oxfam to modify its policies toward Israel, but gushed that the board's involvement would at least result in "helping Oxfam understand our values as Jews, to help them to see that we share values with them."

It should be noted that those opposed to this initiative were not calling for a Jewish boycott of the charity. They argued, with irrefutable justification, that there was no rationale for the official organ of the Jewish community to provide an imprimatur to an organization which has a consistent record of hostility toward the Jewish state.

There is also the issue of Jewish dignity. What sort of message is the community sending to the British public? And for that matter, what example is it providing to Jewish youngsters, when it associates itself with such an organization?

Following the plenum vote, Jonathan Hoffman, an leading opponent of the association with Oxfam, said it was a sad day for British Jews. "To Israel's enemies it says: Even the board supports an organization hostile to Israel — look how isolated Israel is. To Israel's friends it says: The board is not serious about fighting delegitimization. How can it be when it rushes into a tie-up with one of Israel's most hostile charities?"

Despite obtaining a plenum majority to endorse their initiative, it may well be a Pyrrhic victory for the leaders of the board because the divisions created will not soon be healed. British Jews who are passionate supporters of Israel and at the forefront of Jewish activity will not easily forgive their leaders for shamefully linking them with an organization consistently displaying double standards and bias against Israel. According to the Jewish Chronicle, numerous outraged constituents have already threatened to withdraw their communal levy payments from the board.