IsrACTIONday: Let them eat Bamba

I can picture the meeting. Someone stands up and explains: “What the poor of England really need,” they say, “What the poor of England really need is peanut-flavoured snacks, and to be mired in a bitter geopolitical controversy that has nothing to do with them.”

IsrACTIONday (Sunday 21 December) is a terrible pun and a terrible plan. British Jews are being encouraged to buy Israeli produce from supermarkets and donate it to food banks. This scheme, organised by Sussex Friends of Israel and several of the other Friends of Bibi groups, has the advantages of making Israel look vicariously charitable and providing new grounds on which to attack its critics.

Nobody, as far as I am aware, has bothered to ask the food banks what they need. The general attitude seems to be, let’s dump a load of lokshen noodles on it and they should be grateful. Naftali Bennett meets Marie Antoinette: let them eat Bamba.

Of course, Judaism has a lot to say about the virtues of charity. Maimonides famously identified the eight categories of charitable giving in increasing order of righteousness. His top two – this would make a great Buzzfeed! – were: (1) making the recipient self-sufficient, eg. by teaching them skills with which they could gain employment; and (2) giving anonymously to an anonymous recipient.

IsrACTIONday appears to disagree with Maimonides. They see charity more as an exercise in political point-scoring than in righteousness. Their highest form is, apparently, to give so publicly that they could be accused of showing off. And far from making the poor self-sufficient, they are giving arbitrary Israeli produce to food banks who will find Yarden hummus about as much use as shekel coins – and that is no doubt the organisers’ next ‘charitable’ initiative.

So what is the point of IsrACTIONday? It provides an admirable opportunity to vilify opponents. The BDS movement has (ridiculously) been urging food banks to boycott donations of Israeli produce. The Friends of Israel groups immediately pounced on this as evidence that not only do anti-Israel organisations want to gas the Jews, they want to starve the poor: a smear about as undignified as it is wilfully inaccurate.

Sussex Friends of Israel is even using the day to stoke controversy within the British Jewish Zionist community, demanding aggressively of pro-Israel pro-peace group Yachad: “Are you supporting IsrACTIONday? If I don’t get a clear yes or no answer I’m going to slaughter you tomorrow!” (As Rabbi Bunam said, if you seek peace in your world, first seek peace in your town…)

The project also suffers from the drawback that it fails to advance Israel’s cause: why does British Jews’ donation of Israeli-manufactured food mean Israel is a better place than the BDS movement gives it credit for? There is no logical connection between IsrACTIONday and the rest of the Friends of Israel groups’ work (except for the opponent-bashing which continues unabashed).

But what makes IsrACTIONday a disaster is this: it treats the poor as pawns. The project organisers are using the poor, placing them in intolerable political positions that have nothing to do with them and taking away their dignity and independence, all for their own political ends.

In Hebrew, the word for ‘poor’ and the word for ‘oppressed’ are the same. Maimonides made it a task of all righteous Jews to work towards ending this link. Those supporting IsrACTIONday are cementing it.

If they cared even a little about the poor, rather than about their own machinations with BDS, they would not be forcing food banks to expend time and social capital on dealing with this controversy. They would not be using the controversy to score points, and they would not be disingenuously accusing their Jewish critics – including me, no doubt – of being both anti-Israel and anti-charity. The organisers are the anti-charity ones, for faux charity is no charity at all.

So please do donate to food banks – and maybe even help to change society to make them unnecessary: remember Maimonides and self-sufficiency? And please do buy Israeli products (especially Bisli because it’s delicious).

But here I am, as an anti-BDS pro-Israel Zionist British Jew, urging you to boycott IsrACTIONday. It is an un-Jewish subversion of charity that abuses the poor for political purposes. It does neither Jews nor Israel any credit.

This post is written in a personal capacity and does not purport to represent the views of any organisation with which the author is associated.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London