Oxfam’s West Bank Bubble

The great Scarlett Johansson debate shows that Oxfam has become a fully-fledged political campaign group – with all the associated contradictions and obfuscations.

Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman
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Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman

Before the hate mail begins, let me just say that Oxfam is a magnificent organization that does a superb job battling poverty in far-flung places where other aid doesn’t reach.

But the great West Bank Bubble debate over ScarJo-Sodastream-Settlements-Sanctions shows just how far Oxfam has come since it was founded in 1942 as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, campaigning for food supplies to be sent through an allied naval blockade to starving women and children in enemy-occupied Greece during the Second World War.

It is now a fully-fledged political campaign group – with all the associated contradictions and obfuscations.

Last week, Scarlett Johansson resigned as an Oxfam goodwill ambassador after the charity failed to defend her against criticism of her decision to front a new advertising campaign for Sodastream, the bubbly brew band with a factory in Mishor Adumim, an Israeli industrial estate in the occupied West Bank.

After she quit, Oxfam bade her good riddance, noting that “Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador.”

Sodastream CEO Daniel Birnbaum hit back on Sunday, accusing “some Oxfam branches” of “donating funds to the BDS, and this money is used to demonize and attack Israel.”

“We would deny that,” said an Oxfam spokesperson. “We don't provide financial support to the BDS campaign or fund any activities that call for a boycott of Israel.”

“Oxfam,” said the spokesperson, “is not opposed to trade with Israel, and we don't support a boycott of Israel or any other country. However, we do oppose trade with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”

But was Oxfam being entirely straightforward? I asked Sodastream how Birnbaum could make such an incendiary accusation without any evidence. The company directed me to the financial reports of the Israel-based Women’s Coalition for Peace, a leading campaigner for BDS in Europe, which received more than 1.2 million shekels from OxamNovib in Holland between 2011 and 2013. Nor were they the only group actively promoting BDS to benefit from cash transfers from Oxfam branches in Europe – money that mostly originates from government aid and public charitable donations.

I presented that report to Oxfam and got the following response:

“Oxfam funds Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations on projects to reduce poverty and address injustice. We value the independence of our partners and we do not expect our grantees to agree with us on all policy issues. We do not provide our partners with funding for promotion of the BDS movement, or activities that call for the boycott of Israel.”

In other words, Oxfam is happy to “partner” with – or fund – groups whose campaigns are directly opposed to Oxfam’s own policy, so long as the money is not used to fund those specific activities. You may wonder about the ethics of that distinction, or its practical effect for a group like the Women’s Coalition for Peace, which received 22% of its entire donations in 2011 and 17% in 2012 from Oxfam (slightly less than the amount it received from the European Commission during the same period).

Scarlett Johansson may be wondering why she does not enjoy the same “independence” or freedom “not to agree on all policy issues” as the Women’s Coalition for Peace.

Perhaps the answer lies in Mishor Adumim.

Last week, Daniel Birnbaum told The Forward the Mishor Adumim plant was “a pain in the ass.” For most of the world, though, his factory teeters somewhere in the netherworld between a gross violation of international law and a despicable war crime.

Oxfam’s fury at the settlements is so great that the reasonable doubt granted to partners in other parts of the world – or even on the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – goes out the window.

Oxfam has been campaigning against Israel’s West Bank settlements for years. Its personnel in Jerusalem were the driving force behind the successful campaign to label settlement goods from the West Bank, first in the UK, and now throughout Europe. They teamed up with British diplomats in East Jerusalem who told me that the isolation and economic strangulation of Israel’s settlement enterprise was a key aim of British policy in the region.

A senior British diplomat once took me to his office in the British Consulate-General in Sheikh Jarrah and pointed to a spot near the Dead Sea on a map on his wall. “It’s my job to f*** settlement factories like this one in Ein Gedi,” he said, pronouncing it to rhyme with “Whine Ready.” He didn’t take kindly to me correcting his pronunciation, or pointing out that Ein Gedi was not, in fact, a West Bank settlement, or suggesting that the Ahava factory he meant to indicate was several miles to the north, across the Green Line.

The settlement enterprise is viewed in Europe with such contempt, it’s not unusual for usually urbane European diplomats to lose all sense of propriety when discussing it. Even their sense of direction.

A few years ago, frustrated at treating the catastrophic symptoms of poverty without being able to address their underlying political causes, Oxfam successfully campaigned for an amendment to the UK laws governing charitable donations, allowing the use of public funds to campaign for political change. The charity seemed to feel it was time to supplement its well-intentioned re-arrangement of the deckchairs on the surface of failing societies with a frontal attack on the development iceberg that was causing them to go under.

In this context, Birnbaum’s argument that Sodastream is a good employer is seen as irrelevant.

“Some Palestinians in the West Bank do find work in Israeli settlements, but this is often because they have little other choice as the occupation, of which the settlements are a key part, has placed severe restrictions on their livelihoods and eroded the Palestinian economy,” says Oxfam. “We want a 2-state solution, but we want a viable Palestinian state where people can get jobs without having to rely on work in settlements that were built on Palestinian land and resources.”

That’s a long way from simple “famine relief.”

An employee uses a forklift to prepare pallets of SodaStream products for export at the SodaStream International Ltd. factory in Mishor Adumim.Credit: Bloomberg
Scarlett Johansson SodaStream ad.

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