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From the archives: Oxfam and the Israeli “gas chambers”

Guest post by James Vaughan

Oxfam has recently been embroiled in the Israel-Palestinian conflict; the result of a minor political storm surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s involvement with the Israeli-owned company, SodaStream, which operates a factory in Maale Adumim, a West Bank settlement a few miles to the east of Jerusalem. The official Oxfam line was made clear in a statement released on 30 January 2014 which declared that the organisation was “opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law” and that Johansson’s promotional work at SodaStream was thus “incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador.”

A less well-known episode, but one that reveals much about the evolution of Oxfam’s attitudes towards Israel, occurred in October 1977. Oxfam’s then director-general Brian W. Walker had just returned from a visit to Jordan and Israel. His observations in the West Bank prompted him to write to Judith Hart, the Minister for Overseas Development in James Callaghan’s Labour Government. His letter contained a number of remarkable suggestions, not least of which was that Oxfam would be happy to assist a British minister to “travel incognito” into Israeli occupied territory via Jordan.

By far the most disturbing aspect of Walker’s letter, however, was the allegation that Israeli policies in relation to West Bank water resources amounted to a crime against the Palestinian people that could be compared to the Holocaust.

“The policy being followed by Israel,” Walker declared, “is in no real sense different from the use of the gas chambers by the Nazis – for a ‘living’ death is, in many respects, worse than death itself.”

It becomes wearisome continually to have to state the obvious fact that it is perfectly possible to engage in responsible criticism of Israeli policies without the need to deploy historically illiterate and, to put it mildly, deeply insensitive analogies. Oxfam’s comparison of Israeli policies on the West Bank to the industrial extermination methods used by the Nazis during the Holocaust, and its introduction of this comparison as part of an attempt to influence a British Cabinet minister, went far beyond anything that might be called responsible criticism.

“We do not serve the past by misdescribing it,” Howard Jacobson once wrote, “Turn every abomination into a whatever-takes-your-fancy-holocaust, and there never really was one. Little by little, the thing itself is washed away.”