Charity head regrets ‘provocative acts and language’ during Israel dialogue
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Charity head regrets ‘provocative acts and language’ during Israel dialogue

Head of UJIA bemoans the 'big challenge for the mainstream community' of allowing all sides of the debate on Israel to participate

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Michael Wegier speaking at the Israeli Ambassador's house in Tel Aviv, during the Jewish News Aliyah 10 reception
Michael Wegier speaking at the Israeli Ambassador's house in Tel Aviv, during the Jewish News Aliyah 10 reception

The chief executive of UJIA, Britain’s biggest pro-Israel charity, has spoken with regret of “provocative acts and provocative language” on both right and left of the political spectrum.

Speaking before UJIA’s first structured dialogue, “Ceasefire”, held at JW3, Michael Wegier said that “a big challenge for the mainstream community” was enabling all sides of the debate to air their opinions inside the UJIA “tent”. But, he added: “Some people want to challenge the stability of the tent. The tent metaphor only works when people want to be part of it. On both extreme sides there are people who want to challenge that notion of a tent”.

Mr Wegier emphasised that UJIA had donors at every level of the campaign who had both left and right-wing views, but that the charity itself took no political position. Nevertheless, he condemned the most recent acts in America in which small numbers of people who had gone on Birthright trips (UJIA is Birthright’s UK partner) had walked out, seeking interaction with pro-Palestinian groups.

He said: “If they want to protest against Birthright, they shouldn’t go on it: no-one’s forcing them. I think people who leave a Birthright group are behaving like entitled brats. I can’t promise it will never happen in the UK, but I hope it doesn’t. They are offered a major opportunity, at the expense of the Israeli government and the Jewish people, to go to Israel for a 10 day free trip. Birthright is a learning organisation. I have no truck whatsoever with people who come on a trip, knowing what it is, and just to make a point of disruption, they leave. I think it’s a dishonest thing to do.”

Mr Wegier said that UJIA was involved in a long process to see how best to engage young people in Israel, and was reviewing some of its Israel programmes. “The total number of people going on gap years [before university] has not declined, but the demographic has changed. The numbers going on yeshiva or seminary programmes remains stable, around 300 or so each year. But those going on non-yeshiva programmes — it was 250 at its peak, to about 90 to 100 now. That’s a big drop, and I don’t think we will get those numbers back.”

He attributed the drop to a variety of factors, including the economic situation, the rise in tuition fees, and the “overwhelming concern of students about their earning potential. However, we are seeing an increasing number of people going to Israel during, or after university.”

This shift in attitudes meant the numbers going to Israel had not varied greatly from a decade ago, but the programme range was different. Mr Wegier said one of the most exciting new programmes to be rolled out by UJIA this year was “Onward Israel”, which offers young people the opportunity to work for two months as interns in a variety of Israeli companies. “It’s really good for people who want to build up their resumes, but couldn’t afford a whole year.

He acknowledged the difficulty in getting students to commit to be Israel activists while at university, but was optimistic about post-university options. As for the “Ceasefire” event, Mr Wegier said: “I think we have tapped into something. There are a lot of people who have a lot of things to say. Our role is to listen.”

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