UK Jews approve controversial partnership with Oxfam

Community leaders vote decisively in favor of joint project, despite criticisms that aid group is hostile to Israel

A plan for Jews in the UK to fight hunger alongside Oxfam has generated opposition from those who reject the aid organization's positions on Israel. (Courtesy of Ami Vitale/Oxfam)
A plan for Jews in the UK to fight hunger alongside Oxfam has generated opposition from those who reject the aid organization's positions on Israel. (Courtesy of Ami Vitale/Oxfam)

LONDON — The UK’s Jewish community on Sunday voted decisively to move forward with a controversial project with Oxfam, a charity widely considered hostile to Israel.

The Board of Deputies, the community’s main representative organization, voted 113 to 65 in favor of implementing Grow-Tatzmiach, a partnership in which Oxfam will train Jewish activists to fight global hunger. There were 15 abstentions.

The six-month project, which will launch in February, generated severe criticism from community members who argued that cooperating with Oxfam would give the impression that the Board condones the charity’s Israel policies.

Oxfam, which endorses a two-state solution, calls for Israel’s blockade of Gaza to be lifted and for the dismantling of all settlement infrastructure. Its position that goods from settlements should be labelled as such is considered a call for a “partial boycott” by opponents.

Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman said he was pleased with the vote.

‘Given Oxfam’s record, I fully expect the Board’s “red lines” to be crossed within a matter of weeks’

“It’s a great project,” he told The Times of Israel. “It doesn’t mean we agree with Oxfam — we’ve made it clear to them, and they are very aware of how the Board feels. They’ve had to explain to their own supporters why they are doing a project with an organization that is so anti-boycott. We are not giving a ‘hechsher’ [kosher certification] to Oxfam’s views on Israel or its actions, but showing that we can engage on things we do agree on.”

Earlier this month, the Board sought to reassure critics by defining actions by Oxfam that would trigger the immediate cancellation of the project. These include a call by Oxfam for a boycott of Israeli goods or supporting groups that do so, and partnering with organizations that advocate violence or oppose a two-state solution.

Wineman said that a monitoring committee is being organized, and that several of those who voted against Grow-Tatzmiach have volunteered to serve on it.

Sunday’s debate at the Board of Deputies plenary was vigorous, with 22 people asking to speak in favor of the project and 17 against. Successive speakers argued that the best way to influence organizations with positions perceived as anti-Israel is to engage with them.

Laura Marks, senior vice president of the Board, said that to abandon the project at this stage would damage the cause of dialogue.

In her closing remarks, she said that the project was not just about shared efforts between the Jewish community and Oxfam to achieve social justice, but about “helping Oxfam understand our values as Jews, to help them to see that we share values with them.”

Marks described efforts to change Oxfam’s Israel policies as “not realistic,” but said she was reluctant to abandon the field to organizations seeking to influence it against Israel.

Objectors argued that although dialogue with anti-Israel groups may be necessary, official partnerships go too far, and that those interested in social justice could work with organizations that are neutral on issues related to the Middle East.

The shared project ‘doesn’t mean we agree with Oxfam — we’ve made it clear to them, and they are very aware of how the Board feels’

“This project sends entirely the wrong message,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the deputy who spearheaded the campaign against Grow-Tatzmiach. “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’s not serious about fighting delegitimization. How can it be, when it rushes into a tie-up with one of the most hostile charities?”

He called the vote “a sad day for British Jewry” and “apologized” to residents of southern Israel “for the fact that Deputies have endorsed as a partner an organization that wants to put their lives in danger by completely opening the borders of Gaza.”

Hoffman expressed skepticism that Oxfam would abide by its commitments to the Board, telling The Times of Israel, “Given Oxfam’s record, I fully expect the Board’s ‘red lines’ to be crossed within a matter of weeks — if not days.”

Gerald Steinberg, the president of NGO Monitor, also voiced doubts that the partnership would last, but said that it could serve as a model if it ultimately works.

“The Board of Deputies has taken a calculated risk by engaging in humanitarian cooperation with Oxfam while attempting to convince the organization’s leaders that anti-Israel demonization is immoral,” he said. “The initiative is certainly worthwhile, while the odds of success are low. Every statement from Oxfam on Israel will now be examined through a magnifying glass. But if the effort succeeds, the model can be extended to Amnesty [International], Christian Aid and similar groups.”

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