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Britain steps into the breach

Donations from the UK Jewish community helped to build the State of Israel. Today, they enable citizens from diverse backgrounds to thrive — and get along with each other

    In the Galilee city of Akko, a college campus buzzes with different languages and dialects — and students are not shy about sharing their dreams. “I don’t want to just be a woman at home, I want to work in order to change the world,” says second-year student Hiba Khoury.

    About half of the students at the Western Galilee College are, like her, from Arab communities. Many, especially the women, are the first from their families to enter higher education and head into professions.

    Khoury hopes her degree will help her to make positive contributions to her Arab community, and wider Israeli society. Students at the college are breaking down barriers as they study.

    Inbal Dines, a Jewish student, says: “I had never been exposed to Arabs or Christians, Muslims or Druze.” That changed when she enrolled at the college and started studying with people from other communities.

    Brits also play a part in this multiculturalism. UJIA supports the college, and was the biggest non-government funder in construction of the Harry Solomon School of Management, which opened in 2014.

    Backing for the college highlights the change in British Jewry’s contribution to Israel over the decades. In the state’s early years it was about funding immigration and other basic needs. Then it became a case of meeting other needs as they arose, such as intense investment in “development towns” starting in the 1970s.

    Over the past few years, UJIA has become very focused on helping the different groups that make up Israeli society to get along with each other and improve their own quality of life. It has sought out projects that serve Arab citizens, Charedim, and other minority groups.

    “When you work in the Galilee, as we have for years, you see it’s not just kibbutzim and moshavim — a significant percentage of the population is not Jewish,” says Michael Wegier, chief executive of UJIA. “So we started trying to ensure that projects we support are accessible to the Arab community, too.”

    The emphasis on diversity has also prompted UJIA to help bring together Israel’s secular and religious populations. In the northern Galilee,
it has turned a failing school into a mixed secular-religious institution. That is a novelty in a country where the students would normally study separately.

    Britain is in good company in relation to donors in the US and elsewhere, with this emphasis on Israeli cohesion. Avinoam Bar-Yosef, an expert on Israel-Diaspora ties, says: “Philanthropists abroad are looking for institutions where they can make a difference, and they want to see a more united Israeli society that can confront internal challenges.”

    Bar-Yosef’s think tank, the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), closely watches Diaspora-backed projects in Israel, and believes that many are having a strong impact.

    The management school built with British money is bringing in a diverse student mix, but one particular demographic is under-represented — Charedim. In 2016 UJIA gave its support to Kemach, an Israeli foundation that provides scholarships for Charedi men and women to study for entry to higher education.

    Poverty is rife in the Charedi community, and Kemach is trying to combat it by encouraging education. The foundation’s graduates are helping their communities, as well as themselves. Ariye Mutzni, 43, received a scholarship to study special education at Safed Academic College. “Today I am involved in developing assisted living facilities for mentally ill members of the Charedi community in Safed,” he says.

    Wegier believes that British Jewry’s contribution to projects such as these is worth more than the sum of the donations.

    “Giving to Israel is about playing our part in improving the fabric of its society, and the act of giving to Israel improves the lives of British Jews by deepening our engagement with Israel,” he says.

    The theory passes muster with experts. “There is a big difference between the the need of Israel in its early years and today, when the country has a strong economy,” says Bar-Yosef. “At the same time there is a feeling that the giving unites us, and that there is a need to give as well as a need to receive.” 

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