How Britain is transforming the Galilee

UK leadership’s vision is raising the sights of the under-developed Galilee, and helping to give economic hope to both Jews and Arabs


If there is one word which is used repeatedly in the Galilee, it is “vision.” Sometimes, looking around the northern region of Israel and realising the range of the challenges, vision is about all there is: a vision of the future of the country which, little by little, is changing for the better with British input.

Last week, marking his last official visit to Israel as chief rabbi, Lord Sacks led a group of UJIA supporters to a number of the charity’s projects in the Galilee. The variety of the projects is dramatic and practical, echoing a heartfelt plea from many British Jews that their work in Israel should be about people, not buildings. There are certainly buildings — but their purpose is directed entirely at the regeneration of a neglected part of Israel, and the UJIA vision appears to be paying off.

Slowly but surely, the Galilee is changing under the watchful eyes of its UJIA partners. On Israel’s northernmost border, in Kiryat Shemona, a town once crime and drug-riddled, UJIA is working with Tel Hai Academic College, now a magnet for a diverse student population of Jews, Druze, Christians and Muslims.

Tel Hai is now the largest employer in the Upper Galilee and proudly offers a range of BA and MA courses, with cutting-edge biotechnology, environmental sciences, food and nutritional sciences, and computer science departments. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without you”, Professor Yona Chen, president of Tel Hai, told the UJIA supporters.

Over at Yeshivat Netiv Tefachot, Rabbi Eyal Greiner told the UJIA much the same thing. Netiv Tefachot, between Tiberias and Karmiel, is a hesder yeshiva — designed for young Orthodox men who serve in the Israeli army in specialist units. It is home to 110 young adults, from high-risk backgrounds and poor urban neighbourhoods. It offers a five-year programme of Torah and practical studies. The students graduate with a thorough knowledge of Jewish sources, a professional qualification where appropriate, and an impressive roster of volunteering at local schools and farms. Thanks to the UJIA and its partner, the Rashi Foundation, a new beit midrash (synagogue) will be built on the Tefachot campus.

Since the yeshiva was first established in 2001, new young families have moved in to the adjoining moshav, and now 100 new plots are being prepared for young couples on Moshav Tefachot.

All of this is the stuff of brochures and glossy hand-outs: what no-one expected was the joyous, dancing and musical welcome to the UJIA donors from the yeshiva members, a genuine, unprompted embrace of the diaspora partnership. Yes, there will be a building at Netiv Tefachot, but it’s plainly the people who make the difference.

Over in the notional capital of the Galilee, Sfat, two Britons, Professor Mary Rudolf and Professor Michael Weingarten, are making a difference in one of the UJIA’s most exciting projects — the brand new Bar-Ilan University Medical School.

Designated by the Israeli government as a national priority initiative, because of the national shortage of doctors, the school aims to breath new life into the Galilee by groundbreaking research and wooing back to Israel top medics who have been working abroad.

Londoner Mary Rudolf is one of them. She was, for 20 years, a consultant paediatrician at Leeds General Infirmary and honorary professor of child health at Leeds University. In January 2012 she joined fellow Brit Michael Weingarten, vice-dean of the Faculty of Medicine, to become professor of public health.

The UJIA is one of four partner organisations, working with the Israeli government, which have enabled the core buildings of the campus to be built in a record eight-and-a-half months.

Now the school is educating 120 new medical students and working with all the hospitals in the Galilee, including three in Nazareth. “Our aim,” said Professor Weingarten, “is to bring up a generation of Israeli doctors who are not just technically brilliant, but are truly committed to the patients and the community in which we work.”

Professor Rudolf, using the “vision” word again, added: “This place is a public health dream in the Galilee; and our vision is that this place will transform the region.”

To date there are just 15 faculty members, but they are doing extraordinary research, focusing particularly on two areas: cancer and Alzheimer’s. It is hoped to build the numbers up to 40, bringing them back from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Oxbridge, to establish labs at the Medical School. President Shimon Peres was in no doubt: “When the faculty is completed,” he said, “it will change the face of Israel.”

Just north of the port city of Akko, another academic institution, supported by UJIA, is trying to do much the same thing. The Western Galilee College (WGC) has recruited the super-smart Brigadier-General Eival Gilady, said to be the “intellectual father” of the Gaza disengagement plan, as its chair of governors. He is also chief executive of the Portland Trust in Israel and the chairman and co-founder of the Israel-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce.

Wearing all these hats Brig-Gen Gilady is helping WGC, academically credited in 1994, to transform itself into the management hub of Israel, with a strong British presence supporting the initiative — Sir Harry Solomon, co-founder of the Portland Trust, is chairman of the WGC board of trustees.

WGC, described as the UJIA’s flagship capital project, is building a state-of-the-art school of management on its its campus, due to be completed by October 2014. The Gilady vision is nothing if not ambitious. “Seventy-five per cent of our students come from families where they are the first generation to have a higher education,” he says. “Fifty-two per cent of the Galilee is not Jewish, and 40 per cent of our students are Arab.

“The real change is the difference we are making to women: 72 per cent of the Arab students are women, and we are transforming their lives.” He has the backing of Cherie Blair, whose foundation is paying for a special women’s empowerment programme at WGC. (Blair herself is receiving an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University in May for her work with women in underprivileged communities.)

Gilady is confident that the economic growth in the Galilee will keep pace with the number of management-savvy, techno-literate graduates whom WGC is turning out each year. Even if he is wrong in the short term, in the long term the huge input of UJIA in the region, and its carefully thought-through projects, are clearly bound to make a difference.

The vision for the Galilee is being methodically planned in the UK. Jewish learning and economic improvement are marching side-by-side. Israelis and their British partners are changing the region, quietly but effectively.

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