Interfaith group lies about Israel lobby connections

The Board of Deputies of British Jews was instrumental in setting up the interfaith group Nisa-Nashim. 

Gustavo Valiente ZUMA Press

Why would an interfaith group lie about the involvement of Zionists in its creation and governance?

The group – Nisa-Nashim: The Jewish and Muslim Women’s Network – presents itself as a charity. It claims to fosters dialogue and understanding between Muslim and Jewish women, bringing them “closer together” to “build personal friendships, grow as leaders and benefit wider society.”

But the evidence suggests that its real purpose is to cultivate relationships with Muslim women to undermine criticism of Israel’s state ideology Zionism and to normalize such criticism in the Muslim community.

Nisa-Nashim launched in June 2015 and registered at Companies House, the UK’s registrar of firms, in September 2016. The Nisa-Nashim website states that it raises “awareness of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and women’s role in society.”

Nisa-Nashim operates through a variety of local groups and coordinates events where Muslim and Jewish women can build “understanding and friendships” or become “active allies” through meetups such as “come eat with me” and book clubs.

The group, by leveraging personal contacts and friendships, makes it harder for Muslim participants to be critical of Zionism, particularly in the wake of each new human rights outrage and incidence of ethnic cleansing by the state of Israel in Palestine.

A British intelligence asset?

The British Palestinian writer Latifa Abouchakra attended a March 2022 online Nisa-Nashim meeting to examine how the group works in practice.

One of her questions pointed to how the Board of Deputies of British Jews – a leading pro-Israel group – states on its website that it “incubated” Nisa-Nashim.

In response, trustee Ahmereen Reza (a former parliamentary candidate) with Britain’s Conservative Party stated, “we were not incubated.”

Yet her fuller reply suggests otherwise.

“We have separated ourselves [from the Board of Deputies],” she said. “We are now registered with the Charity Commission. We are an independent identity and no longer have links. Yes, we have relationships and we do work with the Board of Deputies.”

Abouchakra also asked about Nisa-Nashim’s ties with British intelligence, since at least two members of Nisa-Nashim have been involved in the government’s so-called counterterrorism efforts, which are overseen by a British intelligence agency.

“Given this,” Abouchakra asked, “why would anyone believe that Nisa-Nashim is not a British intelligence asset?”

Saleha Islam, the main speaker at the meeting, denied such connections.

“I don’t know what you are talking about in terms of RICU [Research, Information and Communications Unit] or whatever, and also in terms of Prevent,” she said. “I am the director of many organizations. You have to work with different organizations across the board. I am not part of anything … I have been in very senior positions and I have to basically work with different people.”

Yet Islam is listed as a staff member at the organization Faith Associates.

Leaked documents show that Faith Associates has worked covertly with the British Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), the propaganda arm of the Homeland Security Group, an intelligence agency.

RICU describes itself as working at “an industrial scale and pace,” spending millions each year on public relations and campaign planning, which it covertly gifts to Muslim civil society groups.

The defining characteristics of such support to civil society groups are that RICU maintains editorial control and that its role is not mentioned by the groups. As the PR firm Breakthrough Media noted in leaked documents, “any content or messaging attributed to the state are highly unlikely to have any credibility among these audiences.”

Furthermore, another trustee of Nisa-Nashim, Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal, is West Midlands lead in further and higher education for Prevent, the British government’s racist counterterrorism policy, which overwhelmingly targets Muslims for alleged extremism.

Prevent is overseen by the aforementioned Homeland Security Group, effectively making Haroon-Iqbal an “agent” of British intelligence, at least in the definition used by MI5, the British internal intelligence agency.

At the online meeting, Abouchakra brought up how the Prevent policy targets Muslims, including children “as young as three.” In response, Reza, the former Conservative parliamentary candidate, concluded the exchange.

Abouchakra’s mic was muted and Reza stated, “I think you are going off track here. We can’t have that … I’ll just let everybody else know that if this sort of discussion goes off we will have to remove you from the site.”

At a later point in the meeting, Laura Marks, one of the founders of Nisa-Nashim, responded to a question by Abouchakra, who had re-entered the meeting with mic privileges restored, on the importance of respecting differences.

“Quite often we have differences that … fall directly along religious lines … and those differences often relate to Israel/Palestine,” Marks said. “And we believe that there are times and places where we have those conversations and we do it from a start point which is friendship and understanding and a willingness to hear the other person’s story.”

Yet, as Abouchakra learned after being muted at the meeting, Nisa-Nashim will not always be willing to “hear the other person’s story.”

Marks is a former senior vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (2012–15), which, according to its report and accounts to December 2020, has a “close working relationship with the embassy of Israel in the UK” and “strengthened links to the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the IDF [Israel’s military] Spokesperson Department.”

Who runs Nisa-Nashim?

Nisa-Nashim lists Marks as one of its two co-founders, but in reality there are three founders.

The second founder listed is Julie Siddiqi, who stated in 2013 that “British Muslims should be wearing poppies, not burning them.”

Red poppies are sold and worn each year to commemorate the dead of wars in which the British state participated, including bloody colonial campaigns. Muslims and others opposed to British imperial adventures are often rightly skeptical of what is seen as the celebration of militarism.

In 2014, Siddiqi, then the executive director of the Islamic Society of Britain, was briefed by the British defense ministry on British operations in Iraq.

“It’s crucial for us to feel that we can give our concerns and feedback and to feel that they have been taken on board and taken seriously,” she told the media at the time.

She added, “I can’t see any other country in the world where you could have something like this, so it is something we should be proud of.”

But Nisa-Nashim had a third founder, according to documents at Companies House: Denise Joseph, a self-proclaimed “ardent Zionist” and a trustee at the pro-Israel OneVoice Europe, which is engaged in pushing pro-Israel propaganda in British schools.

Accounts to the end of 2020 show that Siddiqi ceased to be a “trustee/director” of Nisa-Nashim in November 2020 but continues to “remain involved” with the company.

Marks, on the other hand, is listed as CEO (appointed in 2019), and Marks, Siddiqi and Joseph are all listed by Companies House as “persons with significant control” over the company. But the Nisa-Nashim website has not a word to say about this “significant control” by Zionists.

Who are Nisa-Nashim’s supporters?

Those involved with Nisa-Nashim fall into two categories.

First, there are Zionists – that is, individuals who hold or have held leadership or functionary positions in the Zionist movement (or in the government of Israel), including Marks and Joseph.

Two other key Zionists include Miriam Nina Gitlin, who worked as an Israeli government lawyer for five years and Judith Flacks-Leigh, who has worked with a dizzying collection of Zionist organizations. They include the the UK’s main pro-Israel lobby group, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), the Jewish Leadership Council, the Union of Jewish Students and the Jewish Labour Movement.

Second, there are individuals of Muslim origin who are fully supportive of the Islamophobic counterterrorism policies of the British state, including Ahmereen Reza and Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal.

One other director of note is Akeela Ahmed, whose main claims to public notice are involvement in the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group and a role at the Muslim Youth Helpline, which ended in acrimony in 2012 when she and her husband (the journalist Nafeez Ahmed) reportedly contacted the police to report charity colleagues to Prevent.

Nisa-Nashim indebted to Israel’s interfaith strategy

One impetus for this kind of interfaith work in Britain is the Israeli government’s Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism.

At a 2013 meeting, the forum created a working group on “interfaith dialogue as an instrument to mitigate anti-Semitism.”

One of the working group’s two co-chairs was Abdul Jalil Sajid, an imam from the UK. He was a director of the Inter Faith Network UK (2001–12) alongside Vivian Wineman from the Board of Deputies, which would go on to “incubate” Nisa-Nashim, from 2007 to 2016.

Among the recommendations of the working group were a range of measures immediately recognizable in the case of Nisa-Nashim.

The measures were to “create the potential for empathy through personal encounters and listening to each other’s narratives,” to “collaboratively combat religious discrimination and hatred” and to “work in partnership to combat together anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred.”

While the working group claimed to oppose “anti-Muslim hatred,” Islamophobic conspiracy theories were put forth.

One such conspiracy theory was that Muslims are particularly prone to anti-Semitism. In its mission statement, the group denounced “Iran and Arab countries” for anti-Semitism, claiming “anti-Semitic” declarations are “overwhelmingly the rule” in mosques in those countries.

At the next Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism in 2015, there was a call to develop “interfaith groups focused specifically on fighting anti-Semitism,” something which came to fruition when Nisa-Nashim was created that year.

In other words, Nisa-Nashim appears to owe a specific debt to the networking and planning undertaken at the Israeli government’s Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism.

Behind Nisa-Nashim, a funder of Islamophobic causes

On its website, Nisa-Nashim says it is “funded by the [British] Department for Communities and Local Government and is supported by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Nisa-Nashim is also grateful for the support of David Dangoor.”

Dangoor is a philanthropist whose family’s charity, the Exilarch’s Foundation, funds a variety of conservative and Zionist causes. They include the Islamophobic Henry Jackson Society and three leading pro-Israel groups – the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust.

The Exilarch’s Foundation has also given money to the Jerusalem Foundation – an organization involved in illegal settlement activity in occupied East Jerusalem.

In sum, the main funding sources for Nisa-Nashim have been the British government counterextremism budget and foundations run by Zionists.

In 2016 and 2017, Nisa-Nashim worked with M&C Saatchi. That firm gave in-kind support for a “strategic review of marketing and communications” through the Building a Stronger Britain Together Programme, funded by the Home Office.

It is not clear if RICU was directly involved in this project.

Despite such support, the organization bemoaned the difficulty of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic with reduced access to “opinion leaders” and “potential donors” in an annual report.

In that same report, it is stated that the total income of Nisa-Nashim declined from £82,000 ($107,000) in 2018 to $55,000 ($71,000) in 2019 and only £427 ($556) in 2020.

This would suggest that the group is possibly heading toward difficult times.

Nisa-Nashim has had some success in encouraging participation in its events and in presenting itself as an interfaith endeavor. But it has faced significant criticism in the Muslim community.

It admits as much in its annual report, which states: “the climate of suspicion that our work is motivated by a political agenda continued in 2020.”

Though its members would like to present Nisa-Nashim as an “independent entity,” as stated by Ahmereen Reza at the March meeting, the group’s ties and its members’ profiles point to a more complicated alignment with pro-Israel funders and even the propaganda strategies developed by the Israeli government.

These are facts that the group struggles to conceal.

David Miller is a broadcaster, journalist and academic. He produces and regularly appears on the weekly show Palestine Declassified.