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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

No, Oxfam Has Not Called for a Boycott of Israel

Video of a debate about SodaStream’s factory in the occupied West Bank, pitting the Israeli company’s chief executive against the charity Oxfam’s policy director.

It may be too soon to tell if SodaStream made a wise investment by hiring the actress Scarlett Johansson as a “brand ambassador” for the products it makes in a factory in the occupied West Bank, although its share price has dropped sharply since then and the company also missed its earnings target. But one thing is already clear: Criticism of the deal from the charity Oxfam has been a publicity bonanza for a Palestinian-led movement to counter Israel’s military dominance with a campagn of boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

As that movement, commonly known as B.D.S., has received more attention, though, it has been frequently confused with a narrower campaign to boycott the settlements but not Israel, a tactic supported by some prominent Israeli and American Jews.

Ms. Johansson was responsible for some of the confusion because she implied, in a statement explaining her decision to stop working with Oxfam, that the charity supports the B.D.S. movement.

In fact, as the charity’s director of policy, Ben Phillips, reiterated in a televised debate with SodaStream’s chief executive on the BBC on Tuesday night, “Oxfam doesn’t support a boycott against Israel â€" we’ve been very, very clear about that.” However, Mr. Phillips told Jeremy Paxman of the BBC: “This factory and the settlements are not in Israel. That’s the position of international law, and the settlements hurt Palestinians.”

The confusion about Oxfam’s position is not as arcane a detail as it might at first appear. As the debate fueled by Ms. Johansson’s resignation from the charity has unfolded, defenders of Israel’s settlements seem to have made a concerted effort to discredit Oxfam’s stance against SodaStream, and other businesses that profit from the occupation of the West Bank through tax breaks and lax enforcement of labor laws, by tying it to the more radical aims of the B.D.S. movement.

While Oxfam’s stated position exactly matches that of Peter Beinart, a supporter of Israel who calls the settlements a disaster for the country, many B.D.S. activists want a total boycott of Israel until it both withdraws from the land it seized in 1967 and acknowledges the right of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes when Israel was created in 1948 to return to what is now the Jewish state. That last demand strikes many Israelis as an existential threat, since allowing the return of those Palestinian refugees and their families could well make Jews a minority in Israel, destroying its character as a Jewish homeland.

One Israeli who insists that Oxfam does support the B.D.S. movement no matter what it says is Gerald Steinberg, the president of the Jerusalem-based group NGO Monitor, which was set up to expose “politicized” nongovernmental organizations critical of Israel by “noting when their rhetoric and reports are inconsistent with their claimed principles or missions.”

In emails to Jennifer Rubin, a conservative opinion blogger for The Washington Post, Mr. Steinberg argued that because one of Oxfam’s 17 national branches had provided some financing to a group of Israeli feminists opposed to the occupation whose research on businesses that profit from the settlements is used by B.D.S. activists, the charity must support the wider boycott movement.

According to Ms. Rubin, Mr. Steinberg used similar reasoning to accuse Oxfam of endorsing the “demonization” of Israel by calling on the European Union to take “urgent and concrete measures to push for an immediate end to settlement construction.”