The Jerusalem District Court is set to consider later this month whether a Facebook page dubbing the Im Tirtzu movement “fascist” is defamatory.
Im Tirtzu filed the NIS 2.6 million defamation suit in 2010 after a request by movement chairman Ronen Shoval to take down the page was refused. The lawsuit names the seven individuals who serve as administrators of the Facebook page, which is titled “Im Tirtzu –Fascists” and currently has over 2,900 members. The page accuses the movement of “strangling public discourse with empty slogans.”
On Sunday, the defendants launched a fundraising campaign for legal fees via the Human Rights Defenders Fund. They also launched a website, called freespeechisrael.org, which they said provides information about the ongoing lawsuit.
One of the defendants, who asked not to be named, told The Jerusalem Post later on Sunday that Im Tirtzu’s lawsuit was intended as a scare tactic.
“This is a NIS 2.6 million lawsuit against private individuals,” the defendant said. “We have no organization behind us. It’s actually very frightening, also because our legal costs are very high.”
The controversial Facebook page was launched in 2010, in response to a campaign by Im Tirtzu against the Goldstone Report, in which the organization published a report criticizing Israeli human rights groups, specifically the New Israel Fund.
According to Im Tirtzu, which describes itself as “centrist” and says its goals involve ensuring Israel’s Jewish future via a renewal of classical Zionist ideology, thought and dialog, activists have been using the Facebook page to try to shut them down by delegitimizing them.
In the lawsuit, served by attorney Nadav Haetzni, Im Tirtzu argues the Facebook page is a “public assassination attempt, literally, conducted with malice, cynicism, defiance, while distorting and misrepresenting a wide range of demands, ideas and actions.”
The Facebook page is an “unusual case” the lawsuit says, in which “a group of people organized to discredit and silence a social movement, by means of a title, logo and motto which defame the plaintiffs.”
Attorney Michael Sfard, representing the seven defendants, told the Post the defense has filed affidavits with expert opinions, including on the issue of Fascist ideologies, and will argue that the Facebook page is telling the truth.
In one of the affidavits, Israeli historian and expert on fascism Professor Zeev Sternhell says that Im Tirtzu “shows initial and concerning signs of fascist potential,” considering the movement is “new and operating in a society that condemns the denial of fundamental liberal values.”
Fascism “sees the nation as an organic entity, with its own character and unique culture that is above any other culture,” Sternhell argues, adding that he believes “these principles provide a basis for Im Tirtzu's operations.”
In another expert opinion, Hebrew slang expert Rubik Rozental discusses the use of the word “fascist” in everyday speech, and argues that now the word includes the definition of “a person who is dictatorial or has extreme Right-wing views.” Rozental provides a list of examples from recent newspaper articles in which he says the word is used in that manner.
The defense also argues that Im Tirtzu’s lawsuit is an example of SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation – that aims to have a “chilling effect” on public discourse.
Attorney Haetzni, representing Im Tirtzu, told the Post Sunday that by dubbing Im Tirtzu a fascist movement, the activists were trying to delegitimize it by placing the organization “beyond the pale” of legitimate social, public and political discourse.
Haetzni said the Facebook page also linked Im Tirtzu with the Nazi movement, by asking the question “if my grandfather was not Jewish, could I stand with you?”
“These are a group of people who simply could not deal with the fact that Im Tirtzu spoke out against the anti-Zionist activities of the New Israel Fund. If they thought that what Im Tirtzu wrote [in its report about the Goldstone Report] was untrue, then why did they not simply take that up with Im Tirtzu?” the lawyer said, saying the Facebook campaign was “organized.”
According to Haetzni, Im Tirtzu decided to sue for NIS 2.6 million in order that the suit would be heard in the district court, which requires a minimum of NIS 2.5 million compensation, rather than the magistrate’s court.
“We think the suit is so important that it deserves to be heard at district court level,” Haetzni said, adding that the case will set a precedent. “The ruling will determine whether it’s permitted to call someone a fascist without proof.”
While Judge Refael Yacobi of the Jerusalem District Court is set to convene the next hearing in the case February 27, Haetzni said it will likely be months or more before a final ruling is made.
“And of course whatever that ruling, the losing party will appeal to the Supreme Court,” he said.