Na’amod founder says its main focus is to ‘de-centre Israel from Judaism’

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Na’amod founder says its main focus is to ‘de-centre Israel from Judaism’

Owen Jones joined the group's co-founder Emily Hilton as a panellist as the 'anti-occupation' group held a screening of the controversial film Israelism at an east London cinema

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Owen Jones and Emily Hilton speak at previous online event
Owen Jones and Emily Hilton speak at previous online event

The co-founder of controversial “anti-occupation” group Na’amod has insisted its main focus is to “de-centre Israel from Judaism”.

Speaking to supporters at a film screening in east London, Emily Hilton said her upbringing in Zionist youth movements had left her unaware of the “horror and injustice” committed by Israel on the Palestinians.

The left-wing activist said: “I think a lot of the work we are doing now via Na’amod and broader is about how do you de-centre Israel from Judaism.

“How do we stop ourselves from being complicit and caught up in a project that has caused so much harm to so many people in so many communities?”

Describing how she had become involved with Palestinian activism, Hilton said a visit to the South Hebron hills on the West Bank had “exposed” her to the “horror and injustice” that was “incompatible with the stories about Israel I’d been told growing up.”

Hilton said she drew inspiration from “other Jewish people who wanted to build Jewishness beyond Israel.”

Hilton appeared on a panel, in front of an audience of 500, chaired by Guardian commentator and former Labour activist Owen Jones, following the screening of the American-made film Israelism, which sets out to heavily condemn pro-Israel organisations such as Birthright and AIPAC over claims they actively brainwash young Jews into taking right-wing and  pro-Zionist positions.

Also on the same panel, for the event at the Genesis Cinema in Mile End on Wednesday was Simone Zimmerman, co-founder of the US Jewish organisation If Not Now, which has also successfully sought to secure the support of young Jews who have become deeply critical of Israel over the Palestinian issue.

They were joined by Erin Axelman, the co-director of the film, and Ahmed Alnaouq, a Palestinian activist who founded the We Are Not Numbers group.

Trailer for the Israelism film

At one stage Guardian columnist Jones suggested Israel was currently complicit in carrying out one of “worst atrocities of the 21st century” through its actions in Gaza.

He claimed those who were “apologists” for Israel would “often” accuse those who opposed what was happening in Gaza as “being antisemitic.”

Jones then suggested these people were “tapping into” what was a “very real collective trauma of the Jewish people.”

He continued: “It’s real, very real. Two thousand years, in living memory, the Holocaust. But also lots of traumas, expulsions, the Dreyfus Affair. So many different horrors.”

Jones then asked the panelists how those who weren’t Jewish, such as himself, should “navigate the utter horror.”

Zimmerman, who was applauded as she was introduced to the audience, said: “The first thing I have to say about this question of Jewish trauma is to say first, the Palestinian people are not responsible for the traumas that have fallen on the Jewish people.”

This response was again loudly cheered.

Simone Zimmerman appears in the Israelism film

Zimmerman, who appears in the film explaining her own move away from a mainstream Zionist upbringing into anti-Israel activism, continued: “The Palestinian people absolutely should not be bearing the cost of the crimes committed against Jewish people by the West.

“The ongoing failure of the west to address the problem of antisemitism – we are obviously living through the most horrifying unjustified displacement of those crimes and that trauma onto the Palestinian people. It’s not OK. I’m here today, first and foremost to stop the genocide in Gaza.”

Jones then turned to filmmaker Axelman, asking him if the film Israelism was an attempt to “chip away at the very strong policing of the Jewish community”.

Axelman said the film, which features documentary interviews with leading figures in the US Zionist movement alongside clips of American settlers in the West Bank, represents an accurate reflection of his and most of his friends and family’s upbringing. But he claimed he had witnessed the “transformation” of many into pro-Palestine activism.

“Seeing the transformation over and over again,” he said, of Americans who “had been told in order to be good Jews they had to defend Israel at all costs.”

Owen Jones, Emily Hilton, Simone Zimmerman, Erin Axelman and Ahmed Alnaouq on panel at Israelism film screening

He claimed as soon as he and his friends heard Palestinian voices, they realised that their own upbringing had been one that “totally erases” the history of the Palestinian people.

“American Jews are a very progressive group over all,” he added. “When we actually see that (the Palestinian issue) we are horrified.”

To loud cheers and clapping Axelman then said he wished to tell Palestinians “we are with you – and we will be with you until Palestine is free”.

Axelman then drew a comparison with “the way we had been treated” which he said now had “echoes” in the way the Palestinians were treated by Israel.

Turning to Alnaouq, Jones said he had witnessed a process where it was made to look as though “Palestinans just don’t exist.”

Ainaouq agreed,  saying his 45 years living in Gaza had left him “dehumanised” and that “people who were outside” treated Palestinians as though “we are all terrorists.”

He attacked the Western media as being responsible for pro-Israeli propaganda suggesting they were the victims. He added “no one had talked about the 200 aid workers” who he said Israel had killed during the war in Gaza, “and then seven foreign internationals are killed, and (it’s) all anyone talks about”.

Alnaouq added: “When Israel kills 30, 000 kids in Gaza, that’s OK.”

Na’amod stage a protest outside the Foreign Office in Westminster

The Palestinian activist claimed that in one interview he had given, he had been told the deaths of his own family members were explained away as being “collateral damage.”

Jones then said it was “disgusting” that when people such as Alnaouq gave media interviews they were expected to “first” condemn Hamas over the October 7th atrocity, before they could carry on speaking.

Hilton then intervened to say it was an “abomination” that “our political leaders and our media do not take seriously and dehumanise Palestinians when they are being massacred”.

She said: “There are lots of interesting conversations to be had about the Jewish community and Israel and Zionism. But what I think it’s also important we talk about is what our politicians and our political class are doing at this moment.

“When Palestinians and their allies, hundreds of thousands of people going on to the streets every weekend to demand a ceasefire, and our politicians call those ‘hate marches’, ‘no-go zones for Jews’.

“That is anti-Palestinian racism. Saying that Palestinian lives don’t matter in our global society is completely unacceptable.”

Na’amod urging the Board of Deputies to not support annexation

Founded in 2018, Na’amod has been at the centre of controversies within the UK Jewish community.

The group stated: “We are a growing movement of Jews in the UK seeking to end our community’s support for apartheid and occupation, and to mobilise it in the struggle for dignity, freedom and democracy for all Palestinians and Israelis.”

In May 2018 an infamous Kaddish for Gaza event in London saw around 40 of the group’s supporters recite the Jewish mourning prayer for around 62 Palestinians who had joined a pro-Hamas protest and were killed in clashes with the IDF.

A Hamas spokesperson at the time confirmed that 50 of those killed were members of the terror group.

In August 2022 the pro-Israel activist and campaigner David Collier exposed a former member of Na’amod after they had offered support to the notorious anti-Zionist Pete Gregson with his planned speaking tour.

Na’amod initially denied the claims, but were forced to subsequently admit they were true.

The group said: “That staff member has resigned and been placed on gardening leave.”

Collier’s expose sparked a crisis with Na’amod. Jewish News has seen evidence of mass resignations from previously loyal members, who were appalled by the association with Gregson.

Some of the senior leadership team were amongst those to quit the group.

Young London Jews say Kaddish for Gaza in Parliament Square. Credit: Israel Advocacy Movement video on Youtube.

There were concerns also raised that after a new leadership team was installed Na’amod had moved away from a so-called non-Zionist position, and had now adopted an openly anti-Zionist one.

Sources close to former leaders of the group told Jewish News they feared Na’amod had lost its desire to remain connected to communal life in the UK, and instead was more interested in mirroring the success enjoyed by the If Not Now organisation in the US.

But the events following the October 7 Hamas massacre seem to have driven a new wave of young Jews, angered by Israel’s hard military response in Gaza back towards Na’amod.

The group have drawn increasingly sizable crowds to regular ceasefire demos they have organised in London.

Unlike groups such as the Jewish Socialists and Jewish Voice for Labour, Na’amod has managed to lure younger left-wing activists from within the community back into their fold.

Recent notes from a meeting of Na’amod members, seen by Jewish News, confirmed that some regretted the decision earlier this year for the group to boycott the national march against antisemitism in central London, because of the involvement of the right-wing Campaign Against Antisemitism group.

While many Na’amod members said they understood the stance against CAA, they believed the bigger issue of rising antisemitism was something they should have engaged with.

The meeting also saw strong support amongst the membership for participation in the pro-Palestine demos.

Some members saw it as a chance to show Palestine supporters that there were those in the UK Jewish community who wanted to show solidarity with them.

Activist Pete Gregson speaks at a rally held outside the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s High Street on 23 March, promoting his Twinning Edinburgh with Gaza City petition. (YouTube)

The Na’amod organised Israelism film screening this week took place over two nights, and attracted capacity crowds, the majority of whom were Jewish.

Like Na’amod, the Israelism film raises more questions than it answers.

The critique of the one-sided nature of the story around Zionism and Israel offered to young Jews in America will resonate with some growing up in this country’s community.

But the film’s pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist perspective is noticably one-sided as well. Jewish connection to Israel is explained mainly around the impact of the Holocaust and the post 1948 creation of the State.

The fact that Jewish cities such as Tel Aviv were booming years before 1948 does not feature. Meanwhile antisemitism is explained away purely through the rise of the Nazis, and within movements sparked by more recent right-wing leaders such as Donald Trump.

Antisemitism in the Arab world, rampant long before Israel’s formation, is not touched upon. Palestinian voices are always shown as being accommodating of the Jewish people and as the victims of Zionism.

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