Thursday, 24 January 2013

20th January 2013 - the first of a new style of Plenary?

Last Sunday, the Board of Deputies met for its first meeting of 2013.  Despite the snow, around 250 people made it into Central London from all around Britain because at this meeting we were due to discuss the controversial Social Action partnership with Oxfam.

I've written in previous blogs and articles about my initial impressions of being a Deputy and earlier this week, I wrote some more about this for the Changing The Board blog.  But the feel of this meeting was different, more contemporary and the 'Oxfam' debate felt really constructive. 

Both Jerry Lewis and I had the opportunity to address the plenary.  We only had two and a half minutes to put over our points of view and I thought that Hampstead Synagogue members might be interested in what I said (slightly adapted as I edited it down on Sunday so as not to repeat others)...

"Oxfam’s income of almost £400m a year puts it in towards the top of UK charity league table.    

One of the reasons that they are so big is that they are very good at what they do. Their aim to save lives by providing aid and protection in disasters, to empower people to work their own way out of poverty, and campaign for lasting change is hard to disagree with. It’s just in relation to Israel that some of us disagree with their stance.  

But they are good at creating an impact and their campaigning is exceptional. The Grow campaign is one example of this. 

Our proposed partnership project Grow Tatzmiach will train 25 Jewish volunteers in how to be ‘food heroes’.  They’ll learn from ‘the masters of the art’ and then go on to establish food justice social action projects in UK communities or internationally.  They could work with local partners or with Jewish charities and they’ll be mentored for six months to make sure that they’re achieving the greatest possible impact.  That’s a great opportunity and the Board of Deputies was invited to partner with Oxfam because of our status in the community.

This project directly supports the Boards’ goal to “Promote a better understanding of the Jewish Community in the UK and develop relations with other groups”.  The social action that results will absolutely promote a better understanding of our community and build relations between Jews and non-Jews.

But I believe, because we’re working with Oxfam on this, we may also have the chance to achieve more. Yesterday at Shul, we were privileged to have Daniel Taub, the Israeli Ambassador address us and answer some of our questions.  In response to a question about engagement with NGOs, he talked abut their rising importance and how even when we don’t agree, there was a need to find some common ground in order to create a platform for further dialogue.  The Grow Tatzmiach project provides such an opportunity.  We can work with Oxfam on an area of common interest, get to know them and hopefully build mutual trust, respect and understanding.  And that has to be a good thing so that when we want to engage on other, more challenging issues, we can build on these foundations.   

In my day job, I work in international development and specifically in promoting and building cross sector partnerships.  Partnerships work if they have three things: respect, trust and mutual benefit.  We can ensure these are part of GROW Tatzmiach.  But if things don’t work out, the safeguards built into the project and articulated in the motion protect us and mean we can discontinue it"...

As many of you will already know, the Board voted to support the project and so our volunteers will be trained in early February. The timing is great.  Just yesterday, a new campaign, supported by over 100 UK charities including  Oxfam, Tzedek and World Jewish Relief launched the IF campaign... working for 'Enough Food for Everyone'.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

And so the Oxfam-BOD Partnership debate continues...

A busy week for the Board of Deputies (BOD) in relation to the proposed partnership between the Board and Oxfam to train up 25 'local heroes' to establish social action projects to tackle world hunger.

A motion has been put to the Deputies calling for the Tatzmiach GROW project to be put on hold and this is due to be discussed at the meeting on 20th January.  The United Synagogue has asked all Synagogue Boards of Management to discuss this so that their Deputies can represent them fully at the meeting - and The Hampstead Board meets on 14th January to do just that.

Now we know that we can't believe everything we read in the press and the Jewish press has had lots of reports, quotes and speculation about the project this week.  Some of the reporting is accurate, and according to the BOD, some of it is not. For example, the printed copy of the Jewish Chronicle was 'completely inaccurate' according to the BOD President Vivian Wineman, while the online version still includes inaccuracies because Oxfam were never asked to sign any document clarifying their assurances and conditions for the partnership.  Indeed, the document that was simply shared with Oxfam as a courtesy confirmed the NGO's assurances and the BOD's 'red lines' for the partnership: that the Board will discontinue involvement if Oxfam GB: 

  1. Supports a boycott of any type of Israeli goods
  2. Partners with or supports any organisation that promotes of condones violence
  3. Partners with or supports any organisation that calls for the destruction of the State of Israel

The Board is proposing that in order to rigorously monitor the project, they will: 

  1. Create an oversight committee to monitor the project
  2. Ask the committee to reassess the project and the relationship with Oxfam GB after four months and at the end of the programme (at six months)
  3. Ask the committee to submit an informal report of its findings to the Executive after four months and a formal report to the entire Board at the end of project.
Jerry Lewis was invited to attend the meeting and was quoted in the London Jewish News to say that leaders were "misguided" in pursuing the joint initiative, which he argued would "in affect give a hechsher to an organisation which will relish a seal of approval from the community. It will give succour to others who are avowedly anti-Israel".  Ask Jerry for more details of the meeting...

On the other hand, Henry Grunwald, ex President of the BOD, ex Honorary Officer at Hampstead Synagogue, and President of World Jewish Relief said "I think it's absolutely right that the Board seeks to engage with Oxfam and other NGOs."

Marcus Dysch has blogged that he believes that the row is completely unnecessary but this in itself has elicited much argument and comment and he has also reported at length about the 'secret' meeting held between the Board and Oxfam.

Want to know more, or tell us what you think?  Please do contact me or Jerry Lewis. Jerry as you know used to Chair the Community Division of the BOD and I'm part of the BODSA (Social Action Group).

Friday, 4 January 2013

To Grow or not to Grow?

Firstly, apologies for the silence on the blog front.  No excuses, just very busy.  And rather than make a new year's resolution I may not keep, I'll just commit to trying to do better about updating you all here on what's going on at the Board of Deputies.

There's been lots of heated email traffic over the holidays between Deputies about a proposed partnership between the Board and Oxfam UK that was first announced in the Jewish Chronicle last November.  Grow Tatzmiach is the Board of Deputies’ proposed new food justice campaign. Jewish volunteers, Deputies and non-Deputies, interested in alleviating food poverty and social justice issues, can learn from experts and mentors, including some from one of the largest and most influential NGOs - Oxfam GB - together with various Rabbis and Jewish charities.  The goal is that members of our community can raise their game and improve their campaigning skills on important matters.

In a letter from the BOD President today to all Deputies, Vivan Wineman comments that Oxfam's project "to end world hunger is of huge significance and is comparable to the programme regarding millennium debt more than a decade ago. Involving the community in this would be feather in the cap of the Board and of the community and a great Kiddush Hashem – sanctification of the Divine Name."

He goes on to say "Ordinarily there would be no question as to the value of such a programme, but because some of the training is coming from Oxfam GB, objections have been raised on the grounds that they are hostile to Israel, and that any engagement with them should be limited to holding them to account for their views on Israel... 

There are some NGOs that are implacably opposed to Israel per se, but there are others that raise objections to certain Israeli policies, seeing it as speaking out for the people they seek to help.  Oxfam GB falls into the latter camp, and in our discussions with them we have stressed the need to clarify their position, so their views cannot be misrepresented by Israel’s enemies.  Consequently and possibly in response to our urging, Oxfam GB have now stated categorically that they support a two state solution, will not work with organisations advocating violence and do not support boycotts of Israeli goods, including settlement goods."

The JC has reported on this further in today's issue.  You can read Laura Mark's opinion on Why 'we' are doing it and Jonathan Hoffman's view on Why we Shouldn't.  

We'll be debating this at the Board of Deputies Plenary on 20th January.  Jerry and I are your representatives on the Board, so please do share your views with us so that we can feed these in to the discussions.