Oxfam is Wrong on Israel

On January 29, 2014 the 29-year-old actress Scarlett Johansson announced she was quitting her role as an ambassador of Oxfam, the international charity organization, whose mission is to help alleviate poverty, because of "fundamental differences" between them. She had worked for Oxfam since 2005, and became one of its ambassadors in 2007 engaging in highlighting the impact of natural disasters and helping raise funds to save lives and to fight poverty. After the Indian Ocean earthquake, she travelled to India and Sri Lanka to aid the tsunami survivors, and also went to Kenya to help provide support for the poor.

The basis for the fundamental differences is now well known. Oxfam is opposed to all trade involving products from Israeli settlements which it holds are illegal under international law. Ms. Johansson signed a contract to be the first brand ambassador and spokesperson for SodaStream, the Israel business making products that allow people to produce carbonated sodas. The company makes those drinks in 25 factories throughout the world, and another one is being built in Israel in the Negev where Bedouins will be employed. The problem for Oxfam is this SodaStream factory located in Mishor Adumim, in the industrial area of the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, a city of 40,000 people.

Oxfam has shown its public face of being part of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel, and has succumbed to the pressure of politically-correct leftists, anti-Semites, and the Palestinian Campaign for the Boycott of Israel. By taking this bigoted position Oxfam has departed from its declared humanitarian mission focused on alleviating poverty.

Oxfam is echoing, if in more subdued manner, the other bigoted organizations and people who call for a whole or selective boycott of Israel, or for cutting of ties with it. A prominent example of this is Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who has called for a boycott of Israel, approved the boycott decision of Israel by the American Studies Association of December 4, 2013, and also declared that Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace. This rock and roll singer went further, in an article on December 4, 2013 implicitly comparing Israel with Nazi Germany because of its "systematic racist apartheid." Waters found the parallels between the 1930s in Nazi Germany and Israel today are "so crushingly obvious."

But Waters, like others in the BDS movement, sometimes inadvertently reveal their outrageous true sentiments, which have little to do with Israel or its settlements. In his article he warned, "The Jewish lobby is extraordinary powerful here, and particularly in the industry in which I work... people are terrified (of it)."

Oxfam cannot be characterized as an anti-Semitic organization, but it might take care of the company it keeps. By contrast, Johansson, in her difference of opinion with Oxfam, has exhibited qualities of grace and courage, and confirmed her principled advocacy of peace. She replied to Oxfam that she never intended to be the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation, or stance. She believes in economic cooperation and social interaction between democratic Israel and Palestinians.

She, like objective analysts, could inform Oxfam that the settlements do not pose a grave threat to efforts to achieve a durable solution, based on international law, to the conflict, nor are they the result of unjust policies and practices that lead to poverty among the Palestinians.

The SodaStream factory in Ma'ale Adumim employs 1300 workers; of these 442 are Palestinians from the West Bank and 237 are Palestinian citizens of Israel, all of whom receive the same benefits as Israeli workers. Apparently their salaries are far higher than those paid by Palestinian employers. Unquestionably, Palestinians would suffer from the closure of this factory.

On a broader level, the official position of Oxfam was made known in remarks made on December 10, 2009 by Barbara Stocking, former chief executive of Oxfam GB and now president of a Cambridge University college. She held that Oxfam was impartial but not neutral. Yet her protestations of impartiality can be challenged.

Stocking argued that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and that trade with them contributes to their economic viability and serves to legitimize them. Disregarding the fact that more than 600 Palestinians are employed by SodaStream, Stocking argued that settlements have created poverty for many Palestinians.

Of course problems remain, but Oxfam ignores progress made in reduction of the number of roadblocks and checkpoints, and in the easing of travel restrictions into Israel by some 650,000 entry permits for Palestinians. Oxfam pays lip service to the security needs of Israel but has ignored in any meaningful way the violence still waged against the people of Israel. Oxfam has, wittingly or otherwise, endorsed the Palestinian narrative of victimhood.

In his speech to the Israeli Knesset on January 20, 2014, Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, countered the argument of the BDS people that Israel be treated as a pariah state. They should accept it as a state based on freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Oxfam and BDS should be concerned with the multitude of deeply rooted problems faced by Palestinians, and indeed the rest of the Arab world -- instability, oppression of its own people as well as the persecution of Christians and Jews, poverty, and sectarian bitterness, just to name a few. These problems have no relationship to Israel or its settlements, but have become the excuse for resentment and hatred of Israel.

Oxfam should take account of statements of that hatred. A recent appalling utterance, on January 22, 2014, is quoted in the official Palestinian Authority daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida: "Do the Arab Jews enjoy equal treatment in Israel? I believe that when Netanyahu will broach the topic it will give off a very bad odor of racism. It is possible that Netanyahu has preserved it and acquired it genetically from the days of the Nazis and the Aryan race."

The biased attitude of Oxfam and those succumbing to Palestinian pressure are undermining the prospect of reaching a negotiated resolution of the conflict. Oxfam funds the organization Crisis Action, a group whose agenda is clearly political, to stop the building of settlements, and to label the products coming from those settlements. In January 2014 Oxfam was prepared to sponsor, until it was obliged to cancel because of strong criticism, an exhibition at a London mosque, the organizer of which was Ibrahim Hewitt, a trustee of a Hamas-linked organization, and a man alleged to have made anti-Semitic remarks.

Finally, an observation on the contentious and complicated subject of Israeli settlements about which Oxfam is so worried and which have become the Palestinian excuse for refusing to enter into peace negotiations. The allegation of illegality is based on the assumption that the settlements are on land that is the private property of Palestinians. In fact the land was, under the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate occupation, state owned. While both authorities may have given some land as gifts, these gifts do not constitute property deeds, nor are they likely to have been officially registered. Today, claims to the land are based on verbal assertions, not on any government official documents. Oxfam might take these facts into consideration in view of its statement that Israel must cease further settlement construction and expansion in the West Bank.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.