© HaShomer HaChadash/FacebookHaShomer HaChadash volunteers patrol a hillside carrying Israeli flags, October 2022.
HaShomer HaChadash offers 'weaponised volunteering'.

One of the most prominent Jewish charities in the UK donated more than £1m to a group since described by Israel's newspaper of record Haaretz as "Israel's largest militia".

Accounts for the Jewish National Fund (JNF) show that between 2015 and 2018 it donated over £1m to HaShomer HaChadash (HH). JNF's website says it has been supporting HH since 2011, though evidence of its donations to the organisation ends in 2018.

On its website, the Jewish National Fund (JNF UK) is open about providing "capital and operational" support to HaShomer HaChadash (HH), which it describes as "a grassroots organisation helping farmers and ranchers in the Negev and the Galilee safeguard their land". It is less open about what exactly the organisation does.

The new guards

JNF UK is an arm of the JNF, an international organisation established at the turn of the 20th century to buy up and cultivate land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. The charity describes itself as having "supported the Zionist pioneers since the days of the second aliyah"; the umbrella organisation still owns 13% of Israel's public land.

As well as being a major Israeli landowner, the organisation plays a visible role in Jewish communal life across the Jewish diaspora, with its tree-planting fundraisers and ubiquitous blue collection boxes the hallmarks of many Jewish childhoods (including my own).

Much like the JNF, HaShomer HaChadash - whose name means "new guards" in Hebrew - presents itself as an apolitical organisation connecting Jewish people to the land of Israel. In reality, it serves to extend the state's project of land defence and expansion, often through militarised means.

The group was founded in 2007 to deal with the problem of what it calls "agricultural terrorism" or the theft or destruction of Israeli farmers' land by what it with tactical vagueness calls "enemies" or "cousins" (military slang often used to describe Palestinians or Arabs more generally), focusing on the Israeli borderlands of the Negev, the Galilee and the Jordan Valley.

Now with an annual budget of around $24m (£19m), much of which it receives from the Israeli state, HH combines civilian volunteering projects such as fruit-picking with highly securitised activities such as land patrols, using the former to whitewash the latter.

Kindler, gentler neo-nationalism

While originally modelling itself on the first HaShomer militia founded in 1909, whose purpose was to guard the new Jewish settlements from indigenous Palestinians, the group has begun to soften its image. Since the late 2010s, it has shifted to offering more and more educational activities and is now the largest recipient of Israeli state funds for educational programmes. In 2017, 120 students from the Jewish secondary school Yavneh College visited HH as part of a JNF-organised trip. Meanwhile, it has also played down the spikier aspects of its programme, such as night patrols and drone surveillance.

Ran Cohen, of civil society nonprofit the Democratic Bloc in an interview with Haaretz last year, said:
"It started out as a militant, right-wing organisation with the support of the patrons of the settlement enterprise. As part of a planned process, they began to offer outings, activities and educational activities. The ideological thrust hasn't changed, but the way to achieve it entails disguising themselves as 'moderate-centre.'"
An HH spokesperson told Haaretz in 2017:
"It's a tragedy that in the State of Israel, dealing with love of land and connecting to the land has in some quarters turned into a political issue labelled rightwing."
Sure enough, the group attracts support from across the Israeli political spectrum, though in particular from the far-right settlers who share its vision of a militarised citizenry deputising for the state.

In September, the group co-hosted a "governance and personal security" conference along with the rightwing Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom (nicknamed "Bibiton" for its support of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu). Among the invited speakers was Itamar Ben-Gvir, the country's far-right security minister and a convicted terrorist supporter - and proponent of a national guard not dissimilar to HH.

It's no surprise extremists such as Ben-Gvir are so enamoured with HH. Despite pivoting to a more family-friendly public image, it has not stopped its security activities, some of which are of questionable legality. An investigation into the group published by Haaretz last year found that while officially claiming not to operate in the occupied West Bank, the group played a key role in defending multiple settler outposts.

More recently, academic research into the group has provided further context to Haaretz's revelations. Researchers Nir Gazit and Erella Grassiani, in a recent journal article about HH, wrote:
"Security practices at times turn more active and even go beyond TNG [The New Guards]'s mandate. For instance when volunteers patrol Bedouin villages in search of stolen crops and herds."
Among the support the JNF offers the group are all-terrain vehicles and fully-equipped caravans, which act as mobile operations bases for its security operations.

Based on five years of ethnographic research, the article concludes that HH offers "weaponized volunteering" that uses the cover of harmless volunteerism to "advance a neo-nationalist agenda".

JNF UK's website still hosts a promotional video about HH, despite Haaretz's revelations.

Losing its grip

JNF UK's links to HH will surprise few who have witnessed the charity's slide into extremism. In January last year, the organisation was formally censured by the Board of Deputies of British Jews (though 75 voted against the move, with 133 votes for it) for "failing to disavow the inflammatory and bigoted remarks of its chair Samuel Hayek".

Earlier that month, Hayek had told the Jewish News that "the demographic of British society is changing" due to immigration, and that "in Islam there is not a term for 'peace'". Hayek remains chair of the charity, though several mainstream Jewish organisations - including the Progressive, United and Masorti synagogue, as well as the Union of Jewish Students - have vowed to cut ties with the organisation until he stands down.

Hayek's remarks accelerated the decline in the JNF's standing within the British establishment that has been ongoing since at least 2011, when David Cameron became the first British prime minister since the JNF's founding to step down as its honorary patron, following political pressure. A commons motion tabled two months earlier calling for the JNF's charitable status to be revoked attracted 66 signatures.

The organisation is also known to fund other controversial groups, notably the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), a charity that grew to prominence during the Corbyn years and nominally exists to fight antisemitism but is widely seen as pushing a hard-right Zionist agenda. The CAA organised the recent march against antisemitism, where far-right leader Tommy Robinson was in attendance.

Tayab Ali is director of the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, a coalition of lawyers, academics and politicians who work to support Palestinian rights using the law. In a statement to Novara Media, she said:
"If these allegations are true, British public money should not be collected or used by the Jewish National Fund to fund an organisation like HaShomer HaChadesh.

"HaShomer HaChadesh has platformed Israeli national security minister Ben-Gvir, who has previously been convicted for supporting terrorism. They have also used euphemisms like 'land patrols' to securitise land.

"It is imperative for the Charity Commission to investigate the allegations made about the JNF funding an organisation like HaShomer HaChadesh."
JNF UK did not respond to Novara Media's request for comment.