On 17 January 2010, UK Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis announced that the British government would be contributing an additional £29,000 (174,000 NIS) to the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange partnership scheme. Launched by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and then Israeli PM Ehud Olmert on 20 July 2008 at a meeting of the Knesset, the scheme was created “to strengthen academic cooperation between universities in the UK and Israel by awarding grants for joint research in all fields of science, both pure and applied, including social sciences and humanities. Its wider goal is to contribute towards the growth of Britain and Israel’s knowledge economies.” BIRAX currently supports 15 scientific research projects involving 17 different universities in the UK and Israel. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s own statement on the subject: “Government support for BIRAX is a tangible example of our determination to oppose boycotts against Israel, which are unacceptable and do nothing to promote understanding or the cause of peace in the Middle East.”
BIRAX was designed by the British Council in collaboration with The Pears Foundation, the UK’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills and Israel’s Ministry of Science and Technology, and is funded in equal measure by both governments (£20,000 and 120,000 NIS). It is further supplemented by the Pears Foundation (£550,000 or 3,300,000 NIS) and the United Jewish Israel Appeal (£200,000 or 1,200,000 NIS) and it is to run initially for 5 years. The scheme is being administered by The British Council—a body whose mandate is to promote British culture abroad.
Aside from the obvious issue of the UK government being so openly opposed to the academic boycott of Israel, allying itself with the UJIA presents another area of concern. As with all large, charities, its activities are a mixed bag. With an annual income of £17,232,000 in 2008 they were able to fund a great many programs and initiatives. Describing themselves as a charity “designed to help guarantee a sustainable and positive future for the people of the Galil and the Jewish community of the UK,” they fund many projects in the Galilee which aim at community transformation, school upgrading, curriculum support, encouraging volunteerism, and providing employment opportunities to young people. Roughly two thirds of their income was spent in Israel (£10,869,000) in 2008, with the majority of this money being spent on such programs hinted at above.
However, aside from this philanthropic work, the UJIA is also involved in work with a more obvious political goal. In 2008, according to their consolidated accounts, £1,744,000 was spent on “Immigration and Absorption assistance,” and £863,000 was spent on providing financial assistance for Birthright trips and for their own Israel Experience programs for young people. All of the Israel Experience trips of UJIA are run in partnership with the Jewish Agency, which states on its website that: “The core belief of the Jewish Agency is a strong Jewish future requires a strong Israel at its heart. Yet Israel in the 21st century continues to be embattled on all fronts—both external and internal. It is clear that the existential challenges to the modern Jewish homeland are far from over. Israel’s very future and its character will be shaped by the actions we take today. Our unparalleled experience has shown us how vital aliyah was in building a strong Jewish state. That task is not over.”A quick perusal of the section entitled “Jewish Zionist Education” reveals a complete unwillingness to accept any part for the state of Israel in the flight and continued plight of the Palestinian diaspora, any aggressive behaviour by the state of Israel throughout its history, and even goes so far as to categorise the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands as “a result, and not the cause, of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”
In addition to funding Birthright and their own programs, UJIA also supports Zionist Youth Movements throughout the UK, and assists in the funding of trips to Israel for their Bogrim (graduates). One example is the Federation of Zionist Youth which runs a summer Israel tour for 16 year olds which includes a week spent living and volunteering on a military base in Israel. Similar longer-lasting opportunities are given to 18 year olds on the “Year Course” that includes an “educational” component to the Israeli military experience: the “Marva” is a programme that consists of two months simulated basic training, and whilst the participants are not doing official military service and are not considered part of the Israeli military, the programme includes “training, hikes and marches, history of the IDF, living in field conditions (no bathrooms or showers), camouflage, survival training, topography, physical fitness and extensive education programmes.”
By making UJIA a partner—the second highest contributor—in the BIRAX scheme, the UK government is elevating the politics of the UJIA and giving them the de facto backing of the UK government. In and of itself , the BIRAX scheme—having no Palestinian counterpart – sends the message that the UK government stands behind Israel at a time when British civil society is becoming more critical of the Israeli occupation and supportive of the BDS movement. The extra funding announced on 17 January is intended to grow the program, and as the program grows, so may the power and influence of the UJIA.
For a list of academic co-operation initiatives between the UK and Israel supported by the British Council in 2008, click here. This Includes the UK-Tel Hai Partnership, which provides funds for joint science research projects between UK universities and Tel Hai college in the Galilee. This fund is also supported by UJIA.
For a list of the 15 research projects being funded by BIRAX in 2009, click here.