Borderline Views: Hijacking Zionism

Im Tirtzu should undertake some serious soul searching following the court ruling and rethink the damage it is causing to Israeli society.

Im Tirzu logo 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Im Tirzu logo 390
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The court got it right when it recently ruled against the libel suit brought by the Im Tirtzu movement against its detractors, effectively arguing that the term “fascism” could be used in association with the movement and some of its activities.
While the ruling stated that one cannot conclude that Im Tirtzu is a fascist movement as such and that a full correlation does not exist between the movement and fascism in its entirety, it does imply that certain equivalencies exist.
During the trial, various expert witnesses were called upon by the defense. These included Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell, emeritus professor of political science at the Hebrew University and who himself has been the subject of violent attacks by right-wing groups, including a letter bomb posted to his house.
Sternhell, an undisputed expert on European history, argued that while Im Tirtzu was not a fascist group of the type associated with 20th century Europe, in Germany and Italy, several similarities do exist between Im Tirtzu and the Fascist movement in its infancy.
The case also included testimony from Tomer Persico, a noted scholar of religion and theology. He testified that in a public talk in which he had participated, Im Tirtzu’s founder Ronen Shoval admitted to drawing inspiration and ideas from thinkers such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the German romantic ideologue regarded as among the precursors of European fascism.
The Israeli court ruling follows another ruling, this time by the European Court of Justice, against the case brought by NGO Monitor which, while not as extreme and demagogic in its views as Im Tirtzu has hidden itself behind a veil of pseudo-academics in its attempt to delegitimize left-wing NGOs and cut off their funding – especially from the EU – in attempt to break down the legitimate voice of opposition.
The European Court of Justice ruled against NGO Monitor, stating that the case lacked any basis in law, and ordered the organization to pay considerable costs for having brought the action in the first place.
It is to be assumed that in both cases, Im Tirtzu and NGO Monitor will have turned to their right-wing financial donors – a partial list of whom can be found on the Website of the non-profit organizations in Israel – to fund their legal costs. Needless to say, most of these donors are not resident in Israel and could have used their philanthropy to much better effect inside Israel instead of attempting to intervene and influence the democratic debate which takes place inside the country by bona-fide Israeli citizens, regardless of their left- or right-wing political persuasion.
THE USE of the term “fascism,” even by detractors and opponents of the movement, is not a pleasant one and reflects much of the public discourse in Israel relating to extremist political positions. Hebrew language expert Rubik Rosenthal, who also testified in the Im Tirtzu libel case, spoke about the usage of the term in current Israeli discourse.
The right wing, such as Im Tirtzu and similar organizations, are often termed “fascist,” while they in turn define the left-wing, pro-peace and pro-human rights groups as “traitors,” “self-hating Jews” and “quislings” in an ongoing attempt to delegitimize and silence the voice of anyone who thinks differently than they do.
The past decade, in particular, has witnessed exponential growth in the radicalization of the language used in Israel’s public discourse, similar only to the extreme terms which were used during the early years of the state as the Ben-Gurion and Mapai governments clashed with the revisionist movement and fledgling Herut party of Menachem Begin.
But while historically that can be put down to the birth pangs of a democracy which didn’t yet know how to incorporate and include opposing voices, something the hegemonic Labor governments of the time cannot be proud of, the recent growth in extremist rhetoric 65 years down the road, following the stabilization of the country’s system of parliamentary democracy, is much more disturbing.
The radicalization of the debate, even among students at the country’s universities, is telling us that a generation of young adults and leaders who were born into and have grown up in a democratic system of government are unable to recognize legitimate differences of opinion. They are constantly resorting to attempts to silence and delegitimize the “other,” using verbal (and sometimes even physical) threats in an attempt to exclude them from the public discourse altogether.
There was no better example of this than the attempt by right-wing Education Minister Gidon Sa’ar and his even more right-wing colleague, chairperson of the former Knesset Education Committee Alex Miller, along with testimony from none other than Im Tirtzu (and other right wing NGOs such as Israel Academic Monitor) to attempt to close down the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University.
Appointing right-wing members to the Council of Higher Education – a form of political intervention in the country’s higher education system which had never previously taken place – they did their utmost to silence voices with which they did not agree, using pseudoacademic arguments to justify their actions. Fortunately, the attempt proved unsuccessful, as the same department now reports some of the fastest-growing student enrollment numbers at the university for the coming academic year – in a period when overall student numbers at the country’s universities are declining.
What is even more disturbing is that in recent years, much of the right-wing radicalization has been spurred on by ex-Soviet members of the Knesset, such as Avigdor Liberman, Alex Miller or Ze’ev Elkin, all of whom have come from a society where there has never been any tradition of true democratic discourse. And looking at the list of donors to movements such as Im Tirtzu, NGO Monitor and Israel Academic Monitor, it is clear that their activities are largely funded by organizations and individuals who do not reside in Israel and who seek to radicalize the public discourse from afar – in a way that they would not dare to do in their own countries such as the US or the UK.
Im Tirtzu is also guilty of having taken a famous phrase, attributed to Theodor Herzl (“if you wish it, it is no a dream”) and having hijacked it for narrow political purposes. Much the same was done by former Minister Rehavam (Ghandi) Ze’evi when he hijacked the term “moledet” (loosely meaning “homeland” and the name given to curriculum studies in Israeli schools) for his right-wing political party.
Recently, there has been a critique of a new textbook for school children, rewritten under the directives of the Sa’ar Education Ministry, on the subject known as “ezrahut” (loosely translated as “citizenship studies” and which replaced moledet after that term became tainted with political connotations) to reflect an exclusive right-wing understanding of what Israel is about – to the exclusion of alternative views, and to the exclusion of the 20 percent Arab minority population of the country. This is what our future generations of Israeli children will learn about democracy and respecting the views of those who think and behave differently.
All of this is in direct contrast to the very essence of what a democracy is really about and raises difficult questions concerning the future of democratic debate in Israel, a country in which opinions are divided between Left and Right, religious and secular, Jewish and Arab. If we start excluding and delegitimizing any of these opinions, we do indeed approach a form of fascism, of forcefully silencing all of those with whom we do not agree.
Im Tirtzu should undertake some serious soul searching following the court ruling and rethink the damage it is causing to Israeli society.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.