How did a bleeding Belgian grape fruit spark a boycott of a leading Canadian relief organization? Oxfam officials here aren't quite sure. Tempers first flared in July, when prominent Jewish human rights org the Simon Wiesenthal Center spotted calls for a boycott of Israeli fruit on the Belgian wing of Oxfam's Web site and freaked. A graphic of a ripe ruby-red dripping a lone droplet of blood hung over the words, "Israeli fruit tastes bitter. Say no to the occupation of Palestine. Don't buy fruit and vegetables from Israel."
The Wiesenthal Center shot off a letter to Oxfam International headquarters in London damning the campaign as anti-Semitic and charging that the online poster harkened back to wartime Europe, when Belgian Nazis invoked a boycott of all things Jewish.
Oxfam International spokespeople quickly spurned the Third Reich analogy, stressing that they condemn both suicide bombers and the Israeli occupation. But an apology was issued, the bleeding fruit poster (which had been a Web link to a broader Belgian campaign) yanked and the Belgian Web site amended to clearly target brands grown in the Jewish settlements rather than all Israeli produce.
Not good enough, says the group Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal, which has recently launched a boycott of Oxfam Canada and of Belgian goods and holidays.
"The Canadian Oxfam seems to have taken the view that there's nothing wrong with what the Belgian branch is doing, and that is something we object to," says Leo Adler, the organization's director of national affairs. "We ask that supporters consider what kind of an organization this is that seems to call for boycotts when its main function is to feed starving kids."
But Oxfam Canada spokesperson Mark Fried is confused about why his office is being punished for actions an ocean away. "Oxfam Canada has not had anything to do with the campaign," says Fried. "It's just a Belgian thing." (Oxfam, after all, is an international confederacy of independent branches that run many of their own campaigns without having to clear them with the mothership.)
And at least one Jewish-Canadian group seems to side with Fried. "If people were donating to the Oxfam campaign in Belgium I'd have lots to say, but that isn't the nature of the beast," says Simon Rosenblum, director of public policy and Israeli affairs at the Canadian Jewish Congress. "Oxfam International has already dissociated itself, so we don't see a need to further involve ourselves."
Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B'nai Brith Canada, says it hasn't yet decided whether to support the bank-book embargo against Oxfam, but stresses that B'nai Brith isn't too pleased with the NGO's affiliation with the anti-Israeli fruit campaign. "Are they boycotting all the oil that comes from dictatorships?" prods Dimant. He adds that B'nai Brith's board is convening this week to decide on whether or not to yank donations.
Meanwhile, Oxfam's Fried is quick to point out that the Simon Wiesenthal Center itself, the group that kick-started complaints, dropped its anti-Oxfam crusade last week after Oxfam America's president reiterated earlier apologies on behalf of all the international affiliates, adding that Oxfam doesn't support a boycott of Israeli produce. But Adler says the Canuck branch isn't off the hook yet. The boycott stays until he hears an apology from Oxfam Canada's own lips.
"Instead of sitting on the fence, Oxfam Canada (should) make a point of condemning what Oxfam Belgium is doing," says Adler.
But Fried is still perplexed. "They never asked us. If they want us to apologize to them, they haven't told us that. They should have talked to us and examined the situation before launching such an extreme action."