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The Board and Oxfam – a wholly unnecessary row

This is a cross post by Marcus Dysch from The JC Blog

So here we are again: the Board of Deputies once more finds itself mired in internal strife - and largely because its elected leaders tried to do the right thing.

We could spend an age debating – not for the first time – whether the Board stumbled into this embarrassing mess through weak leadership, a misunderstanding of its deputies’ concerns, its own complex democratic process, or a mixture of all three.

What is clear is that the Grow Tatzmiach joint campaign with Oxfam will help starving people – and that cannot be a bad thing.

But there is a deep and long-running problem at the Board and other great institutions of Anglo-Jewry: how to deal with issues that touch on Israel.

There seems a perennial struggle to decide which answer should carry most weight – should it be “is this good for us?”, or “is this good for Israel?”, which defines an organisation’s modus operandi?

Some of the grassroots anger is understandable – it is, after all, only five months since the meeting at which Board president Vivian Wineman and chief executive Jon Benjamin questioned Oxfam’s chief executive and Middle East director over the charity’s stance on Israel.

Mr Wineman said at the time that the NGO had been “receptive” to the Board’s position, and it is understood that the August meeting was seen as a turning point in relations between the organisations.

But explain that to deputies who hold long grudges when it comes to those they believe to be “anti-Israel”. For many deputies it is a simple matter of “you are either with us or against us”. The most vociferous among them have little time for discussing nuances or debating the ins and outs of issues such as settlements or labelling policy.

Jonathan Hoffman’s claim that Oxfam is “institutionally anti-Israel” is rather wide of the mark. The charity is evidently not in the same league of visceral Israel hatred as some employees at Amnesty International or War on Want, which is quite blatantly an anti-Israel organisation under any definition of the term.

The Board leaders stand accused by their own deputies of gross naivety at jumping into bed with a charity which some claim is attempting to “launder its reputation” with British Jews.

One deputy likened senior vice-president Laura Marks’ actions to those of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 – quite some claim, and quite some exaggeration.

There are other issues bubbling under the surface here as well – in particular the changing demographics of the Board. Among the strongest support for Grow Tatzmiach is that coming from the younger end of the deputies spectrum.

Union of Jewish Students representatives and Liberal Judaism’s youth group Netzer have expressed support for over-looking Oxfam’s Israel approach and pushing forward with the food campaign.

The younger sections of the community tend to sensibly put forward different arguments to older dyed-in-the-wool deputies in cases such as these. Put our relationships and work in Britain further to the fore, they say, and for once leave arguments around Israel for another day.

It’s a fair point. Issues over Israel threaten to overshadow the Board’s valuable work on day-to-day matters in this country.

No doubt the plenary meeting on Sunday week will descend into the typically undignified, ranty, shouting, abusive pantomime that so often dogs Board meetings. Mr Wineman has already repeatedly begged deputies to remain calm and polite. I fear his request will fall on deaf ears.

Once more, the leading body of Anglo-Jewry is likely to be turned into a laughing stock, both within our own community and quite possibly, worse still, in the eyes of British non-Jews.