A bottle of wine, contemporary gifts and the spiritual essence

A lot has been written about foreign aid in the Middle East and the analytical framework offered by gift theories. An author can hardly wish a better ‘last post’ than a story written by life. While most development aid (ODA) – as financially un-reciprocated grant – is provided to Palestine, Egypt, Jordan (and Turkey), the biggest beneficiary of US military aid, however, is Israel.

A few days ago, the US Embassy in Israel – wishing shana tova before the Jewish New Year – sent gifts to Israeli and international organizations (civil society and non-governmental organizations included). It contained, among others, a bottle of wine from Jewish settlements. As reported by Reuters, +972mag and Newsweek, ‘one of the recipients of the gift basket containing settlement produce was Peace Now, an anti-settlement organization that monitors the Israeli government’s settlement policies and activities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.’

While the message to most people is that ‘it is impossible to distinguish between Israel and its illegal settlements these days’, the explanation ‘accidental’ and ‘unintentional’ says equally much about the nature and unintended impacts of foreign gifts – foreign aid – channeled to the region. It is worthwhile to quote Mauss (1928/2002, 16):

“one must give back to another person what is really part and parcel of his nature and substance, because to accept something from somebody is to accept some part of his spiritual essence, of his soul. To retain that thing would be dangerous and mortal, not only because it would be against law and morality, but also because that thing coming from the person not only morally, but physically and spiritually, that essence, that food those goods, whether movable or immovable, those women or those descendants, those rituals or those acts of communion—all exert a magical or religious hold over you.”

Gifts – let them be private or public, innocent or calculated – have ‘magical, religious, and spiritual force’ even today. It applies at least as much to official foreign aid as to private donations. A bottle of wine can be rejected for its ‘spiritual essence’. Billions or a few thousands of dollars?  No way.

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