For Jewish News June 9 2023
UJIA has distributed a new policy making clear that it will not support projects “undertaken in a manner which treats areas being the Green Line” as being part of Israel – in a move which it suggests was essential to saving Israel tours for hundreds of teens this summer.
Jewish News understands that the policy document was devised in the wake of last summer’s controversy, when two members of the UJIA-supported Birthright group, Lauren Keiles and Jacob Middleburgh, left the tour after accommodation difficulties within Israel proper led to a previously unscheduled stay in Kibbutz Almog, near the Dead Sea and close to the border with Jordan, but behind the Green Line.
At the time of their walkout, Middleburgh told Jewish News: “I only knew it was in the West Bank because Lauren found out. I was so angry, I felt I had no choice but to leave.” He added that he and Keiles “were far from alone in being deeply uncomfortable about staying in an illegal settlement, but others felt they had no choice”.
UJIA said last year that the issue had arisen because of logistical problems with accommodation for the 30-strong group of 18-32-year-olds, including the 2022 Maccabiah Games and a visit to Israel by US President Joe Biden.
In a detailed statement issued on Wednesday, UJIA said: “The development of policy in this area is legally complex and has required careful thought.
“In recent months UJIA has been responding responsibly to legal advice received, and has worked hard to develop a workable and consistent policy regarding the expenditure of charitable funds over the Green Line. [The policy] has been formulated to protect UJIA’s work in Israel, which includes its support for the Israel Experience programme, run in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, and to comply with UJIA’s charitable obligations through our regulator, the Charity Commission, all while remaining neutral on the politics of the situation. As a charity, UJIA cannot promote any political position beyond its charitable purposes.
“During this time, we have worked at all times in the best interests of UJIA’s charitable purposes in support of the community, to ensure that Israel Tours are carried out in a manner that does not prejudice their existence, but that rather allows them to take place in a safe and compliant manner, and with full transparency for all participants and their parents”.
The charity added: “It was clear, from the advice received, that having no policy in place was not an option and could have risked compromising the charitable status of UJIA as well as the youth movements and other organisations we work with, which deliver Israel Tour. Without this policy it is highly likely that there would have been no Israel trips taking place with UJIA’s support this summer”.
The heart of the policy, UJIA maintained, was “transparency, allowing all participants and their parents to know where any programme will be travelling. Some people are happy to travel over the Green Line, while others are not. This allows them to make informed decisions. Regarding visits to the Old City, the policy itself makes clear that programmes there are very likely to meet the requirements of the policy such that visits may take place”.
The new policy document acknowledges that “there are educational and religious sites and institutions beyond the Green Line, which are of the highest importance to some members of the Jewish community”.
But while the “General Rule” states that “UJIA does not fund or support activities beyond the Green Line”, the policy document allows some “wiggle room”. It says, for example, that UJIA “will consider any limited exceptions to the General Rule on a case-by-case basis in accordance with UK public policy and UJIA’s charitable purposes”.
So the charity says, for example, that “It is recognised that visits to the Old City of Jerusalem, which is over the Green Line, will likely be approved, but these will still need to be considered on a case-by-case basis”.
On the other hand, it says, organisers need to be able to answer the question as to whether there is a “compelling reason why the specific activity could not realistically be carried out without going over the Green Line? Where the intended activity could be carried out in a similarly meaningful way without crossing the Green Line, it is unlikely to justify an exception to the General Rule”.
In practice, this means that Jewish youth groups on Israel Tours — the groups supported by UJIA and most immediately affected —will continue to be able to visit the Old City and the Western Wall, or Kotel, but a repeat of last summer’s three-night stay at Kibbutz Almog is unlikely to happen.
In future, UJIA says, “organisations applying to UJIA for support for programmes or visits to or encompassing Israel, will be required to provide UJIA with full details of the programme of [the intended] visit, and specifically whether the visit will or could involve participants travelling beyond the Green Line” If a group wishes to travel beyond the Green Line, a full explanation is required “as to how it justifies an exception from the General Rule”.
Lauren Keiles, one of the two people who left the UJIA-supported Birthright trip last summer in protest at being sent to stay in Kibbutz Almog, told Jewish News: “This is an important and much-needed step taken by UJIA to respect the autonomy of the participants and leaders on their programmes. I believe support of the two-state solution must be reflected by all of the policies and actions of our community”.
Hannah Weisfeld, executive director of Yachad, said: “We fully support the UJIA’s sensible decision to recognise the difference between Israel proper and the Occupied territories beyond the Green Line. The UJIA’s decision is in line with UK public policy and there should be no controversy around this decision. We would urge Jewish organisations that are invested in Israel’s future and committed to peace to follow suit.”
The policy document was shared with Jewish youth movements last week. In a joint statement from Bnei Akiva, Ezra, FZY and Tribe, the four groups said: “Youth movements received a letter from UJIA on June 8 regarding trips to israel run in partnership with UJIA. We have raised questions about the proposed policy with UJIA, and are pleased they have been listening to us. We look forward to receiving a further update for us to consider soon”.
UJIA said it was aware “that opinion among the youth movements regarding this policy will not be uniform, but we are confident that the end policy is one that is workable for all youth movements”. Its spokesman added: “UJIA is committed to working consultatively and collaboratively with our partner movements and organisations. We understand that some have concerns regarding the policy and are working closely with them to address any concerns they have.”