The United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) is celebrating its one-hundredth birthday. Older than the State of Israel, and one of the most established institutions in the community, UJIA boasts that it has connected thousands of British Jews to their Jewish identity and to Israel over the course of the past century.
I joined a UJIA-run Birthright trip to Israel last year. My time on the trip is something I’ll remember fondly; I visited places I had never seen, tasted food I had never tried and formed friendships with people I otherwise would have never met. I did exactly what the UJIA had intended, reaffirming my Jewish identity and learning lots about Israel – all for free.
Unfortunately, what I learned scarcely mentioned the occupation. In fact, the programming barely acknowledged the existence of Palestinians at all.
I remember having conversations about the occupation with other participants, including the IDF soldiers who accompanied us, but these were never part of the structure of the trip. Many of us knew, secretly, that this trip would not be an unbiased one. Talking about the occupation and learning about how it affected Palestinians was not on our itinerary and there was no funded part of the experience that covered the occupation. Instead, it was something we spoke about in our spare time when the UJIA weren’t paying for it. I count myself lucky that my fellow participants and our madrichim (leaders) were so willing to have honest conversations with me, but I worry that other young Jews, with a limited understanding of Israel or their own identity, would not be as lucky as me. We heard from plenty of Israeli Jewish speakers but never from any Palestinians. I later learned that this was because Birthright tours are banned from meeting with Palestinian citizens of Israel.
My experience on Birthright made me start questioning the integrity of UJIA’s Israel programming altogether. Can it honestly claim to have connected so many Jews to Israel if it has done so in a skewed way? Did I really connect to Israel if the version of the country I saw was such a sanitised one? How many other young Jews have received a distorted education on Israel from UJIA?
Lots, it turns out.
The UJIA is involved in delivering almost all of the Israel education in the community, and there is a clear bias in what funds and promotes. It partners with organisations like StandWithUs, which exist to defend the occupation, and promotes events from pro-occupation organisations such as the Zionist Federation and UK Lawyers for Israel, but rarely – if ever – works in the same way with anti-occupation groups. It delivers experiences such as Masa and Birthright, which ban participants from seeing the occupation first-hand. It funds the Israel education delivered by UJS, which almost exclusively brings pro-occupation speakers onto campuses, and produces extremely problematic resources which distort the reality, and legitimise the racism of, Israeli politics.
I’m part of Na’amod, a movement of anti-occupation British Jews, and almost all of us have, in some way or another, experienced this kind of pro-occupation education. We can no longer stay silent about the UJIA’s refusal to acknowledge the daily nightmare that Palestinians endure every day because of the occupation. That’s why, for the UJIA’s birthday, we are offering to help it transform its Israel education so it centres freedom, equality, and justice for all Palestinians and Israelis. We’ve posted one-hundred birthday cards to the UJIA, and each one offers a different suggestion on how they can deliver anti-occupation Israel education. We are calling for the UJIA to end their relationships with pro-occupation organisations such as StandWithUs, and highlighting Palestinian and Israeli voices to include in their programming. Our suggestions also include basic facts about the occupation the UJIA must teach, and tours to include in future Israel trips which centre Palestinian perspectives.
Events in recent months, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, have led many of us to re-evaluate the racism that is hidden in our education. Israel education is no different. It is not right that the UJIA is funding organisations which try and justify Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians in the West Bank, and that Palestinian perspectives are either hidden or included tokenistically.
The UJIA’s centenary is an opportunity for it to re-think how it delivers Israel education over its next 100 years. Our birthday cards show that there are many simple steps it can take to honestly teach about the reality of occupation and ensure the next generation of young British Jews is not let down, but instead empowered to advocate for a free, equal and just future for everyone in Israel-Palestine.