Neo-Zionism 101

If you ask Ronen Shoval, the second Zionist revolution is already here. Im Tirtzu, the student movement he helped found, has drawn thousands to demonstrations supporting soldiers and a unified Jerusalem, among other activities. Just don?t call them right-wing.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

Ronen Shoval wanders around the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem like a tour guide. "There is one place here that I really love. It has a tremendous view," he says, cutting his way through the flood of students in the endless corridors. Finally he stops at the iron railing that surrounds a broad balcony overlooking the Old City walls, visibly thrilled.

"Do you know about the Jerusalem Syndrome?" he asks with a half-smile. "Well, I experienced something like that - not exactly the same, but you can say it's approximately what happened to me. I understood that I am not alone, that I am part of a nation."

Shoval, a non-religious student of 28 from Ramat Hasharon, is the leader of a students' movement called "Im Tirtzu [If You Will It]: The Second Zionist Revolution." He established the ideological infrastructure of the movement two years ago, describing it as an extra-parliamentary movement whose goal is "to buttress the values of Zionism in Israel, to ensure the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and to advance Israeli society in the face of the challenges that lie ahead." The movement conducts activity that is unusual in scale and content against the backdrop of the somnolent student landscape.

Shoval was tense earlier this week, ahead of elections to the student council on the Jerusalem campus, scheduled to be held this past Tuesday. The movement's Internet site (Hebrew version) carried an emotional call: "We need every Jewish heart and Zionist soul. Coordinators and activists of Im Tirtzu are hereby called to the flag. On Tuesday we will turn the Hebrew University into a Zionist society, and continue the second Zionist revolution!"

"Regrettably," Shoval says with the clipped speech of a polished rhetorician (and quoting almost verbatim his movement's Web site), "in recent years, anti-Zionist trends have been proliferating in local universities and depriving Zionists of the right to make their voices heard. Im Tirtzu is the only entity that provides a response to the spread of post-Zionist and anti-Zionist undercurrents among the faculty and student body in Israeli universities. But this state of affairs is not unique to the universities. Israeli public discourse, as it has been conducted in recent years, has ceased to serve the aims of Zionism. At a time when sacred cows are being slaughtered, we want to breed them." His role model for success is, paradoxically, Peace Now.

Shoval: "Twenty-six years ago, they took ideas that were radically outside the consensus, and today these are the positions of Likud and Labor. They turned marginalized ideas into central currents. That is exactly our aim: to restore Zionism to the center - for poets to poetize Zionism, for the writers to write Zionism, for academia to support Zionism and for the Ari Folmans" - referring to the director of the animated film "Waltz with Bashir" - "to make films about our ethos. Just as there are movies about gladiators, we will have movies about Judah Maccabee. What's wrong with that?"

Some people think there's plenty wrong with it. Im Tirtzu's activities have sparked trenchant controversy, centering around the claim that it is terrorizing Arab students and lecturers. Recently the movement spoke out against calls to deny Col. Pnina Sharvit a position as a lecturer in the faculty of law at Tel Aviv University. (Sharvit, former head of the Israel Defense Forces international law division, is said to have justified strikes against civilians during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.) Movement activists demonstrated against Nizar Hassan, a lecturer on film at Sapir Academic College in Sderot, who refused to teach a student who had been called up for reserve duty and attended class in uniform.

Im Tirtzu also demanded that Tel Aviv University fire philosophy lecturer Dr. Anat Matar, who circulated a photo of a soldier taken at a demonstration against the separation fence in the West Bank village of Bil?in, to which she appended the caption: "The soldier in the photograph murdered Bassem Abu Rahmeh by firing a high-velocity gas canister in Bil?in on Friday, April 17. The army is allowing him to evade responsibility." During Operation Cast Lead, hundreds of activists from the movement demonstrated in support of the IDF, and they still regularly participate in demonstrations in the West Bank.

"The ideology of this organization is a cross between Greater Israel and the security activism of Mapai [the forerunner of Labor]," says Eli Osheroff, editor of the student newspaper at the Hebrew University. "But their tactics are borrowed from [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, which means sowing hatred, factionalism and violence. For example, during Operation Cast Lead there was a demonstration by Arab students at the university, and Im Tirtzu activists shouted things at them like 'We will burn your village,' and 'We will meet in reserve duty.' But it doesn?t stop there. Every lecturer who proposes a different way of thinking about the situation here is accused, not of being a post-Zionist - which is the usual allegation - but of engaging in 'anti-Zionist incitement.' The goal is to frighten and intimidate everyone who thinks differently from or dares to criticize them."

Inherent rights

At 5 P.M. one recent day, the movement activists who have gathered on the Mount Scopus campus look more like members of some youth movement. They are huddled around a shoddy cardboard booth to which two Israeli flags have been pinned. They are wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a portrait of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism and coiner of the phrase, "If you will it, it is no dream," from which the movement takes its name. This is just one of the shirts bearing likenesses of Zionist leaders that can be purchased via Im Tirtzu's sophisticated Internet site. The group is proudly distributing invitations to a talk that will be given an hour later by former chief of staff and current strategic affairs minister, Moshe Ya'alon.

"We invited him to talk to our students, but we could just as easily have invited [Labor MK] Shelly Yachimovich," Shoval explains. "Both of them are among those people who, even if you don't agree with them, you can only have high regard for what they say. Ya'alon will deliver a lecture on the subject of 'The challenges facing Israel.' But beyond a conversation about the Iranian threat, I am looking for the extra mile with him. Knowing him, he will undoubtedly lead the talk into a conversation about values, and that is exactly what I am after."

A newspaper distributed to passersby describes the vision of the movement, which claims to have 1,000 dues-paying student members and more than 6,000 participants in its symposia, demonstrations and community projects. Under the rubric of "strengthening the values of Zionism and Judaism within Israeli society," the movement declares: "As the current standard-bearers and followers of Zionism, the national movement of the Jewish people, we hold our right to an independent sovereign state in the Land of Israel, with unified Jerusalem as its capital, as a natural, inherent right that cannot be contested? [from English-language Web site:]."

Since when are the non-partition of Jerusalem and the holy places the essence of Zionism? Doesn't your declared ideology immediately place you on the right side of the political map?

Shoval: "Obviously we are patriots. The Jewish people aspired to return to Jerusalem, to the holy places in the city, not to the mall in Malha. Jerusalem is the most salient symbol of the idea of the return to Zion, and the most powerful ethos expressing the millennia-long aspirations of the Jewish people to return to its homeland. That is why the Land of Israel and Jerusalem at its heart are our core principle. But at the same time, we believe it is clear and legitimate to argue about the division of Jerusalem in the context of certain neighborhoods."

So are you political or not??

"We are not interested in politics. We draw a distinction between Zionism as a political ideology and party activity. We are not connected to Labor, Kadima or Likud. Each of those parties approached us, but we responded with an unequivocal 'no.' We will not become a party-political entity; we are simply unwilling to go that route, because Zionism belongs to everyone. It is not a matter of right or left."

What is your opinion of the citizenship law [a proposal to require anyone who receives Israeli citizenship to sign a loyalty oath and perform military service, or some form of public service]?

"On our site there is an article in favor and another against. We have no formal position; every member has his own."

But you can't ignore the fact that this pluralistic nationalism sometimes degenerates into crude militarism, such as in your demonstrations of support for Israel's soldiers.

"I am aware of the calls [that have been made by movement activists]. But they were made in the heat of passions against calls by Arabs such as ?Itbah al yahud? [slaughter the Jews]. But despite that, I think the calls [by activists] are in bad taste. I admit it. When calls like that, which are not legitimate, were made, my instruction was to stop them."

Who funds your extensive activity?

"I raise the funds for the movement and I have three sources: Israeli businessmen who support us and account for the majority of the funding; American Jews who help us; and the students themselves, who donate ... between NIS 100 and NIS 500 a year. Those sources are enough, because most of our activity is done on a voluntary basis."

"Big wars"

Shoval answers all the questions rapidly; he is clearly driven by a fire within. As he conducts another routine day of activity on campus, he explains that his work with the movement had a surprising origin, fomented by frustrating reserve-duty service and his studies in the Department of Political Science.

"A few things set me off. The first was the struggle by the students of the Hebrew University against the Gaza disengagement. That was very powerful. When I was young, I always thought I was missing the great things: the [pre-state] underground movements, the big wars. My feeling was that everything was behind me and that I had been born into a very material world. I always envied my grandfather, who fought in the Haganah, and my grandmother, who fought in the Irgun [referring to the official pre-state Jewish defense force, and to one of the breakaway groups]. I thought the big stories were over. But then came the disengagement and I suddenly understood that nothing was over yet ? that I was witnessing a tremendous event relevant to our collective history."

The disengagement was followed by the Second Lebanon War. "I had the feeling that the lives of the soldiers were being taken for granted. I was in the 'Pit' [refering to the subterranean headquarters of the General Staff in Tel Aviv] where you get a good picture of the way decisions are made about the lives of my friends. I felt like the cannon fodder of history, the way our generation was being told, 'Yallah, stick a flag in the ground at Bint Jbeil [in Lebanon] because we need a good photo.' It is clear that commanders, the defense minister and the prime minister have to make tough decisions, but my friends are not pawns on a chessboard that gets rearranged after they fall. These are matters of life and death."

For a few months, a group of friends under Shoval's leadership devoted themselves to thinking, without hesitation, about a "second Zionist revolution."

"We spent a lot of time on it," he says. "The feeling, which we gradually verbalized, was that the first Zionist revolution was stuck. There were many revolutions in the 19th century: socialism, fascism, communism and also Zionism. But those ideological movements simply ran out of steam. After 100 years they no longer had momentum. Zionism underwent a similar process: The great strength that characterized the founders ran out, and we understood that a renewal of values and ideology is obligatory. And that we are the ones charged with doing this."

During that period, Shoval came across a book that prompted a turning point in his life: "The Faith Revolution" (Hebrew), by Motti Karpel, the ideologue of the Jewish Leadership movement headed by ultranationalist Moshe Feiglin.

"I read there that Zionism had reached a crisis point and that the solution was to junk it and start a "revolution of faith." I'd never before come across thinking like that. I was stunned to discover the post-Zionist side of a person who lives in the Bat Ayin settler outpost and is editor of Nekuda, the settlers' journal. It made me very angry. I obtained Karpel's phone number and asked for a meeting with him."

Shoval conducted a two-hour conversation with Karpel that prompted him to undertake vigorous action. "In the course of talking to him I realized how far Zionism had disintegrated. The intensity of the post-Zionist renewal on both the right and the left became clear to me. I understood that the central current was not renewing itself, that it is apathetic, that there is great cultural ferment in the post-Zionist left - and, on the other hand, post-Zionist ferment also on the right. I was appalled to discover that one could argue that if the Zionist left is Meretz and left of them, then the post-Zionist right is Likud."

After meeting Karpel, Shoval set himself the tasks of formulating a neo-Zionist manifesto and creating a mass student movement.

"I was sitting with friends and we said: Just a minute, if we can persuade a whole company to follow us into battle at Ras Bayada in southern Lebanon, then we will be able to attract a few students at the university, too. It couldn't be that much more complicated. If we persuaded people to place their lives in our hands, we can persuade them to volunteer for an emergency civilian call-up. We started to consult with businessmen. We decided that, come what may, even if our dream ultimately fails, we will at least do the thing professionally."

Their aim, Shoval continues, was "to engage in information the way the Jewish Agency does on campuses abroad, but to do it here, on Israeli campuses. Ideologically, we were offering an alternative to right-wing post-Zionism, but very quickly we discovered that our confrontation on the ground was more with left-wing post-Zionism, with the ?celebrations? of Nakba Day at the university" - referring to the day on which the Palestinians mark the "catastrophe" of Israel's establishment - "or with the politically correct approach that was demonstrated when attempts were made to prevent Col. Sharvit from teaching at the university."

"Zionism is cool"

"What drives them is a highly developed and very profound sense of victimization. They always claim that they are being delegitimized," says Eli Osheroff. "They complain that we, the Jewish students, are victims of discrimination in the university because we serve three years in the army and the Arabs don't. As a solution to every problem, they always call for taking the law into their hands. For example, ahead of the campus elections, they were initiating the establishment of a student guard that will protect Jewish girls in the dorms near Mt. Scopus against Arabs. If there really is a problem of personal security there, the police or the Civil Guard can solve it, or it can be solved by peaceful means and dialogue. But not by a group of armed students. They are a historic reincarnation of Brit Habiryonim [an extremist Revisionist-Zionist group that was active in Palestine in 1932-1933]. They are Beginist types, gentlemen, intellectuals: They themselves will not lift a hand, but they encourage an atmosphere of violence."

"The damage they do," Osheroff continues, "is hard to assess, both that done to Zionism and to a minority like the Arabs. They weaken Zionism by making it factional. Anyone who doesn't agree with them is immediately marked as anti-Zionist. For example, they accused students from the Labor Party bloc at the university of being anti-Zionists, but if they consider Labor non-Zionist, then who is a Zionist? Only Elyakim Haetzni [a right-wing activist]?"

According to Yariv Oppenheimer, the director general of Peace Now, Shoval's movement is "nationalist and radical, under the guise of being Zionist-center. They launched their activity with such delicate statements to the effect that their goal is to restore Zionist pride to the Jewish people. But in practice they lean toward a right-wing political line, whose aim is to shatter every theory that does not advocate support of Greater Israel. What infuriates me most is their attempt to disguise themselves as a centrist movement and not to declare their approach overtly - in practice, it is not far from the extreme right."

"They are not talking about values of Zionism, but about fascism in the name of Zionism. The Zionism in this movement is simply a clean word for fascism. In their view, in the name of Zionism a Palestinian does not have the right to demonstrate when his land is plundered, and Arabs who live in Israel have no right to criticize the state. It is clear to me that they are operating very craftily, but at the end of the day, their approach is very harsh."

Shoval knows who his critics are and is not surprised at the intensity of their opposition to his movement.

"The allegations that we are fascists or racists are ridiculous," he responds, laughing. "Only recently we petitioned the High Court of Justice together with Druze and Circassians about an infringement of their rights. If we were a right-wing movement, as we are sometimes portrayed, we would have chosen Jabotinsky as a symbol, not Herzl. Im Tirtzu does not even have a position about the settler outposts, for example. If that was our cause, you would certainly have seen us at Amona [an outpost removed by the security forces] or at the disputed building in Hebron. Our definition of Zionism is lean and moderate from the outset, so that it will suit both right and left, so that everyone can be part of it."

In addition to its headquarters at the Hebrew University, the movement has eight other branches: Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Sapir College, Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa, the Ariel University Center of Samaria, the Academic College of Emek Yezreel and the Holon Institute of Technology.

"In Be'er Sheva movement activity represents a broad social field," says Yaara Winkler , a political science student and a central activist of Im Tirtzu at Ben-Gurion University. "Over the years we have organized talks about the battle heritage and about Israeli history, about the Second Lebanon War and about Jewish heroism. We have organized Hebrew dance parties and distributed Israeli flags on Independence Day. We started with one small booth and today we have a strong group which everyone is aware of."

The movement did exceptionally well with one particular student: MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) was involved in it when she was at Bar-Ilan University, and with her help it established a Knesset lobby to promote Zionism on the country's campuses.

"I met with Ronen when I was an M.A. student at Bar-Ilan," Hotovely recalls with obvious delight. "My meaningful connection with Im Tirtzu came in the wake of the Second Lebanon War and the protest of the reservists. The movement was a very dominant element in the protests, and we fought hard against the Olmert government. The feeling Ronen and I had was that our generation does not truly feel a commitment to be here and that our connection and commitment to the Zionist idea are diminishing. I very much believed then, as today, in the idea of restoring the values of Zionism to the Israeli society."

With all its fervor and an ideology that is somewhat heavy and outdated, Im Tirtzu also has a trendier side.

Shoval: "Two years ago, we started to produce Herzl T-shirts. Just as there were Che Guevara T-shirts, we have our own culture hero: Herzl. In the same way people are not cynical about the story of Che Guevara, even though his ideas were a little farfetched - he became a culture symbol with the idea of social justice. It's the same with Herzl: We love the cultural idea he represents and we decided to emblazon T-shirts with his portrait. They were an instant hit. We sold and gave away a few thousand T-shirts."

But it didn't stop with Herzl?

"No, we put out T-shirts with portraits of Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Rabbi Kook. We are offering a T-shirt with one sleeve carrying the portrait of Joseph Trumpeldor [the one-armed fighter who was killed by Arab marauders in 1920]. It's a real pop revolution."

"In the same way we have to renew Zionism ideologically, we also need renewal that speaks to our generation. There is no way we can use the language of Brenner [Yosef Haim Brenner, a writer killed by Arab rioters in Jaffa, 1921]. We need to do trendy things, it has to be cool. It's already cool: Zionism is cool."



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