LONDON – A charity widely considered hostile to Israel has agreed to a series of conditions set by the UK’s Jewish community to ensure that a controversial joint project moves forward.
The British branch of Oxfam has pledged not to call for a boycott of Israeli goods or to support groups that do so, and will not partner with organizations that advocate violence or oppose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a spokesperson confirmed Thursday.
A violation of these commitments will result in the termination of the shared venture, due to launch next month with the Board of Deputies, the main representative body of British Jewry.
Even with these assurances, the project faces uncertain prospects before a Jan. 20 vote by members of the Board, some of whom consider Oxfam’s call for separate labeling of goods from settlements a “partial boycott.”
As part of the project, the Jewish organization is due to send 25 participants to a training weekend with Oxfam, where they will be taught to serve as activists in the fight against global hunger. For six months after that, the participants will volunteer with relevant organizations — including, if they choose, Oxfam itself.
‘By talking to them about Israel in an environment where we are working with them, we are able to encourage them to listen to us’
The Grow-Tatzmiach Project, whose cost of £8,000, or roughly $12,900, is being covered by Oxfam, generated a significant backlash among members of the Board, who claim that by cooperating with Oxfam, the Jewish organization will appear to be endorsing its Israel policies.
The motion against the project adds, “Save for discussions intended to change their policies, there should be no Board discussions with charities, NGOs or religious groups which support a partial or complete boycott of Israeli goods.”
The “red lines” agreed to by Oxfam were part of a last-ditch attempt to make the project acceptable to Board members before the Jan. 20 vote.
The Oxfam collaboration is part of a larger, community-wide strategy to partner with non-Jewish NGOs, and to promote volunteer work by Jewish individuals at the organizations, The Times of Israel has learned.
Other organizations whose leaders have agreed to the strategy include the Jewish Leadership Council, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM), Friends of Israel groups within the country’s major political parties, and several other organizations.
The aim of the effort, said one source, is to build ties with non-Jewish NGOs while collaborating on charitable causes of concern to the Jewish community, and to use those relationships to influence the organizations’ policies on Israel.
Jewish groups adopted the strategy in general terms several years ago, then formalized a plan in 2011, after a group from the Jewish Leadership Council was forced to cancel a visit to Ramallah by members of the Board of Deputies.
Although the central purpose of the trip — which was to include Board president and then-JLC chair Vivian Wineman — was to visit NGOs such as Oxfam working in the region, there was concern that meeting Palestinian Authority officials was politically objectionable.
Since then, leaders of Jewish groups and NGOs have met privately, including at a major inter-organizational dinner, and Jewish groups have promoted grassroots involvement in some NGOs.
But the outcry over the scheduled Oxfam training has suggested sharp divisions over a more formal relationship with the group, whose position paper on Israel and the Palestinian territories endorses a two-state solution, calls for Israel’s blockade of Gaza to be lifted and urges the dismantling of all settlement infrastructure.
Collaborating with Oxfam on Grow-Tatzmiach “almost gives a seal of approval to Oxfam’s Israel policies,” said Board representative Jonathan Hoffman, a co-sponsor of the motion opposing the project.
The partnership will also undermine efforts to counteract similar stances by other organizations, he said, allowing opponents of Israel to “come out and say Oxfam’s policies can’t be that bad because the Board is prepared to do business with them.” While Oxfam does not support a boycott of settlement goods, it wants them labeled differently from those produced within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, the organization said in a meeting with senior Board members in August.
A partnership ‘almost gives a seal of approval to Oxfam’s Israel policies’
Oxfam also funds Crisis Action, a London-based aid organization that recently called for an EU-wide partial boycott of Israel.
The Board’s senior vice president, Laura Marks, denied that working with an organization implies acceptance of its Israel policies, and said the Board can work with groups with whom it has disagreements.
Its red lines would be organizations that do not support a two-state solution or that promote violence, she said.
“We do not believe that Oxfam crosses those lines,” she added, calling Oxfam “the world-leader in issues relating to campaigning, hunger and social justice.”
Regular meetings with the organization have already produced positive results, she said.
“By talking to them about Israel in an environment where we are working with them, we are able to encourage them to listen to us,” she said.
Oxfam spokesperson Rebecca Wynn said the group’s interest in working with the Jewish community is to advance the issue of world hunger.
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