"English is the greatest asset we have," says Sir Vernon Ellis, 65, chair of the British Council, the organization overseeing international cultural and educational programs around the world on behalf of the British government. In a period where the venerable council needs to drum up most of its own funding for projects in 110 countries across the globe, the fact that it is recognized as a world leader in teaching the universal language is certainly an advantage.
For many English speakers in Israel, the British Council is associated with the libraries that it once operated in Israel, including the much-loved Jerusalem library that was closed in early 2007. That building was shuttered following budget cuts and a strategic decision on the part of the council to shift its focus to other fields.
The closure may have saddened thousands of Anglos but ultimately, the British Council is there for those who are not that well acquainted with the language and culture it represents. Its focus now is concentrating on academic cooperation between Israeli and British universities and on teaching English. And now the organization is exploring a much more ambitious prospect: teaching English in the Haredi and Israeli-Arab community.
Ellis's first visit to Israel was filled with meetings with local staff and senior officials in the education and cultural establishments. There was also the opportunity, however, for Ellis to be appraised about a new window of opportunity, opened by the government's decision to make government funding in Haredi schools conditional upon the teaching of core subjects, including English.
"We are very interested in both the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli-Arab communities," Ellis says. "We believe English is a skill for life, an entry to higher education and business and we are preparing specific programs to teach English to both those communities."
This will not be the British Council's first foray into teaching English in religious schools. Today in Cairo, they have a project in the school of religious studies in Al Azhar, teaching English for religious purposes.
And when it comes to making headway in the notoriously cloistered Haredi community in Israel, the council – being foreign – may be at an advantage. Haredi rabbis do not want to work with the Education Ministry on the core subjects curriculum, but someone from the outside may be able to persuade them.
Ellis says that he is already in contact with a number of British-Jewish foundations and charities and hopes that the Jewish community could partner with the council on an English studies program for both Haredi and Israeli-Arab communities. "Our belief is that you can establish a common ground with English – and this is one of the ways," he says.
While the British Council is a non-political organization, cultural and educational work in Israel and the Palestinian territories can never be detached from politics.
Ellis previously worked as a successful senior management consultant and served for six years as the chairman of the English National Opera. He knew that when he visited Israel he could not ignore the politics on the ground. Israel may be in the Middle East, but since cooperation with the council's branches in neighboring countries is currently impossible, it belongs to the "wider Europe" region. The local operation has a dual identity, with offices in the West Bank and Gaza operating in a separate framework despite having basically the same management. As far as joint Israeli-Palestinian activity today, there is very little.
On one issue, however, Ellis is emphatic: The British Council will not condone any form of boycott.
"We absolutely believe in engagement," he says. "Our whole role is to find opportunities for that. Our principle is that we do not believe in boycott because we believe entirely in interchange. We have demonstrated that cooperation in education leads to a greater degree of trust." He calls the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, which is active particularly in Britain, "a vocal minority who doesn’t want us to work here. Some of that view is vocally expressed but it is really a minority."
Three years ago, Ellis was at a London concert of the Jerusalem String Quartet that was disrupted by boycotting activists who had bought tickets specifically to heckle the performing musicians. He describes the experience as "quite chilling."
In principle, Ellis says, the British Council does not boycott countries. That does not mean, however, that their anti-boycott stance equates support of Israeli policies. The council continued working in Apartheid South Africa and in Burma under military rule.
"Actual interchange is better than no interchange," Ellis says. "There is going to be some compromise but if we push too far there will be no interchange, and if you bend too far backwards you are too compliant."
The council also hung on in Syria for a few months after civil war broke out there two years ago, but the British coordinator eventually had to leave for security reasons. They also worked in Afghanistan for many years until they were forced out by the Taliban, returning in 2002 after the Taliban were ousted by the Americans and staying on in chaotic Kabul until a suicide bomber destroyed their offices and killed 12 people in 2011. In that case, it seems that the bombers were opposed to the teaching of English, but the council, which is officially an independent entity, has also been targeted as a representative of Britain.
In 2006, the British Council offices in Gaza were completely burned down in violent demonstrations following an Israeli operation to snatch Palestinian prisoners in Jericho after the British prison officers supervising there had left. But even there, the council still works and has a small low-profile English-teaching operation in Gaza.
The only concession to the difficult diplomatic situation between Britain and the Hamas government there was that while Ellis toured programs in the West Bank, visiting offices in East Jerusalem and Ramallah, the meeting with English teachers in Gaza was held over video conference.