Wizo award winners discover a striking panorama of activity

By Sandy Rashty, February 18, 2016
Members of the Wizo group are well served for medicinal products at a shop run by a Bedouin woman they visited on their fact-finding trip

Members of the Wizo group are well served for medicinal products at a shop run by a Bedouin woman they visited on their fact-finding trip

John Ware is scribbling notes on his Wizo pad. The award-winning investigative journalist is in Israel with the four other winners of Wizo UK's annual Commitment Awards to visit the charity's flagship projects and other innovative schemes.

The former Panorama man won the JC-backed media award for his coverage of Israel, having reported extensively from Jerusalem to the West Bank and Gaza. But he's acutely aware that there is always more to learn - hence the careful note-taking as participants tour welfare, educational, co-existence and environmental ventures.

"I want to understand the place," he says. "Journalists are fundamentally driven by a curiosity about the way things actually are. Whatever our prejudices may be, or however we want something to turn out, that has to be subordinate to the truth."

At the Weizmann Institute of Science near Tel Aviv, he makes a studious effort to understand the technology behind a presentation by an Israeli company set on using CO2 emissions to generate liquid fuels. At the Peres Peace Centre, he listens intently to an Israeli Arab employee who says Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah, fails to engage people in her community because of its Jewish-centric lyrics. Over dinner one evening, he sits opposite a British-born IDF soldier who he quizzes on the army's ethical code on the treatment of Palestinians in detention. He later describes the aspiring officer as "level-headed and grounded with a view of right and wrong".

Notable:John Ware

But, above all, Mr Ware sees a side to Zionism that goes largely unreported. "Wizo seems to me an admirable organisation," he says, "obviously a Zionist organisation, but it is about building bridges, giving welfare to the dispossessed, whether they are Israeli Jews or Arabs".

Founded by three British women in 1920, Wizo, a UN-recognised NGO, today funds more than 800 social welfare and educational projects in Israel on an annual budget of £100 million - of which around £2 million is raised by Wizo UK.

Working in partnership with the Israeli government and an army of volunteers, the charity reflects the aspirations of David Cameron's Big Society, whereby local communities are empowered to run social projects.

After a breakfast meeting with the winners in Tel Aviv, British Ambassador David Quarrey agrees that Wizo is "quite Big Society. Connections between people are very important at a time when some are calling for the isolation of Israel. The voluntary sector has an important role to play and it's a gesture of support, affection and warmth for Israel that people abroad want to help here."

However, Deborah Gundle - founder of Netbuddy for carers and winner of Wizo's award for improving lives through hi-tech - argues that the government should not use the voluntary sector as a crutch. Talking about her 21-year-old son Zach, who has Angelman Syndrome, a genetic disorder causing severe disability, she says: "Caring for someone should not be left to the voluntary sector. It goes on for years and years and it gets harder and harder."

Ali Atuanaa (Photo: Eli Dassa)

One of the most talked about schemes among the winners is in Afula, a northern city surrounded by Arab villages. Late last year, a spate of stabbing attacks against Israelis heightened community tensions, which the Gruss Community Centre is striving to ease.There we are introduced to the Olive Tree project, encouraging Israeli Arab and Jewish women artists to paint images of olive trees - a symbol that resonates in both cultures.

Standing in front of a line of canvases, Mashhaze, an Israeli Arab from a surrounding village, says: "The situation between us is not like it is in Jerusalem. Here, we work together and shop for food together.

"While painting, we sit together as women, as mothers and talk about our children. My family are very proud of me." Martin Vegoda, 72, a Wizo winner for diversity for his Salaam Shalom dialogue group in Bristol, is clearly impressed.

The contrast between communities is showcased as we travel to a Bedouin village. The original plan was to visit Al Sanabel Catering in Hura, which employs single Bedouin mothers. But a fatal car crash involving local youths had devastated the community.

Instead our guide - Ali Atuanaa, a 20-year-old student at Ben-Gurion University - takes us to Wadi Atir, a scheme promoting the integration of traditional Bedouin farming techniques with modern methods.

Answering questions on the bus beforehand, he says members of his community were less likely to join the IDF given the destruction of homes in Bedouin towns which have not been recognised by the Israeli government.

When I heard about Bedouins going into the IDF and coming back to find their homes destroyed, it made me feel awful

Although frustrated by the treatment of his community, he still plans to join the army after his studies.

Avi Djanogly - recognised by Wizo for his award-winning Gabi H20 company, which teaches children to save water - has two sons who have served in the army. "I think it's a terrific melting pot," he says.

"You have Druzim, Bedouins, Russians, and there's tremendous admiration for them.

"When I get photos of my boys in their units and I see all of the different faces, it's fantastic. Yet, when you go out in society itself, it all seems to fall apart.

"I find it very upsetting when I hear that people who are fighting and could die for us aren't looked after or cared about in the same way my boys are. I find that an injustice. It's not my Israel.

"When I heard Ali talk about Bedouins going to the army and coming back to find their homes destroyed, it made me feel awful because we should love the stranger in our midst."

Ariel Dloomy, co-director of Arab-Jewish equality group Ajeec Nisped, says he is working to advance the rights of Bedouins in the Negev - for example, friends served with demolition orders.

Olive Tree project participant Mashhaze with teacher Sheila Davor Casdi

Wizo is collaborating with Ajeec Nisped, offering a hotline for Arabic-speaking parents struggling to deal with young children. It's an extension of the parents' hotline run by Wizo.

For John Ware, the week's highlight is the charity's Rappaport day care centre in Sderot, built in 2009 and now used by 81 children. Although we hear nursery rhymes coming out of classrooms, we are acutely aware that the building is bullet and rocket-proof. During Operation Protective Edge, rockets landed outside the school and the teachers had to familiarise the children with bomb shelters decorated colourfully to make them appear less frightening.

"I thought about having to go in there to pick up Jessie or any of my children," says Mr Ware, referring to his daughter, the award-winning singer Jessie Ware, before reflecting silently.

Across the road, we go to the police station, where rockets painted with messages of hate are displayed.

Wizo representatives emphasise repeatedly that the organisation's work is about securing the future of Israel's people. But if Israel is billed as the start-up nation, is it now time for the government to rely less on charities?

Wizo UK trustee Jackie Ellert, who has been involved with the movement for more than 30 years, points out that "Israel's future is precarious in the sense that it still has to spend more of its budget on defence. I feel very strongly that I want Israel to continue to exist.

"Supporting Israel is part of my identity. As a Jew, I have a responsibility to play my part to help secure a better future for Israel by investing in its people."

It is no secret that Wizo is looking to get more young people involved. So would the group's youngest member - JFS pupil Orli West, recognised for her voluntary work with Norwood - do likewise for Wizo? "Absolutely. I think the work they do is invaluable. Certain projects appeal more to me, such as the day care centres or the Rebecca Sieff women's shelter [for women and their children fleeing abusive environments]. But I would definitely support any work Wizo does in the future. Charities need young people who have energy and a lot of people don't volunteer. It's a problem."

At Wizo's Nir Ha'Emek School, children from tough backgrounds get opportunities to thrive. One 16-year-old considered a "child at risk" by the authorities now hopes to become a police officer.

I ask if this comes from a desire to protect others who have gone through similar experiences?

"Not just that," he replies. "If I join the police, I get a good salary. I get a pension. I have a future."

Last updated: 2:46pm, February 18 2016