The weak spot in the recent decision to dismiss most of the libel claims by Im Tirtzu against five left-wing activists who called the right-wing organization fascist is that it confuses judicial truth with historical truth. The main purpose of the ruling was to eliminate the grounds for libel in order not to restrict the limits of public discourse or, to be more precise, to enable the left and right to continue to quarrel. But the main takeaway from the verdict lies in the judge’s determination that there are “certain similarities” between Im Tirtzu and fascism. Indeed, there are some similarities. However, they are largely rooted in an expansive and slightly childish interpretation of the concept of conceptual similarity.
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Despite the ease with which the left employs the “fascist” label, fascism is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon. It’s no accident that the finest historians and political scientists are still studying it.
The court adopted the clearest, most salient definition of fascism – favoring the national over the universal – and used it to find a certain similarity between the concept that is associated with Mussolini and Franco and Im Tirtzu, which sees itself as a nationalist movement in the original spirit of Zionism.
While it is not preposterous to compare nationalism with fascism, the similarity is rather superficial. In the world of sports, it’s like asserting the Brazilian and Israeli national teams have something in common because they both play soccer. By this logic, a court could find “certain similarities” between the biblical figures of Ezra and Nehemiah - who in commanding the Jews returning to Palestine from Persia to banish their non-Jewish wives laid the foundations for sectarian Judaism - and racist theories; or, alternatively, between Zionist thinkers on both the right and the left and racist ideas.
Moses Hess, for example, whose “Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question” (1862), is regarded as one of Zionism’s foundation texts, used a claim of Jewish racial “specialness” and self-definition throughout history to justify the Jews’ national demand. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, too, in early articles rejecting religion as the defining criterion of the Jewish people, argued that the Jews were a unique race that was shaped in its original geographical setting. (Sigmund Freud also believed that the psychology of Judaism was hereditary.)
These examples do not, of course, indicate racist views as we understand racism today, after Hitler. They are reflections of their historical and intellectual zeitgeist, and even contradict other statements made by their proponents. For that reason it is rash, even dangerous, to refer to them outside of their historical context.
Public discourse in Israel tended toward the overheated long before the era of Facebook, the arena that sparked Im Tirtzu’s suit. Politicians and ordinary citizens may, of course, use whatever yardsticks they want, however imprecise. But judges must be more circumspect. They must only rule on the nature of ideologies when they threaten to do damage to the law or to their opponents, like when they declared Meir Kahane’s Kach movement illegal.
Judging from its texts and modus operandi, Im Tirtzu comes off as a rather childish movement that uses populist means to fight anyone whose understanding of Zionism differs from theirs. I find it hard to believe that it is grounded in close readings of fascist writings, as claimed. Much more likely is that its leaders are motivated by intuition and public opinion. So there is something ridiculous about the cries of joy from the left over the finding of “proof” that the right is heard in leftist circles over what they see as conclusive proof that the right is grounded in fascist ideology. Moreover, and I hope not to be tempting libel charges, herd mentality - including that of the left - is a defining characteristic of fascism.