Im Tirtzu and the Proto-fascist Plot to Destroy Israeli Democracy

The group's video portraying human rights activists as terrorist-supporting traitors is a symptom of a rapidly spreading, potentially terminal disease.

A screenshot from the Im Tirzu video, 'outing' four leftists as defending terrorists. Caption reads: 'When we fight terrorism, they fight us.'
YouTube

This video by Im Tirtzu accuses four Israeli human rights activists of aiding and abetting terror. It names their names for all to hear and publishes their faces for all to see. It marks them as traitors to their own people. It brands them as accessories to your own upcoming murder. 

You should watch the video. Then you should watch it again. If you’re not appalled, if you think it’s a fair way to present a valid viewpoint, you can move on: there’s nothing for you here. If you’re horrified, however, be warned: this video is just one symptom of a rapidly spreading and dangerous disease, a harbinger, if you will, of things to come.

The four individuals who “star” in the film are Yishai Menuhin, who heads the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, a group dedicated to combating harsh interrogations and punishments by Israeli security authorities; Avner Gvaryahu, whose Breaking the Silence group features Israeli soldiers testifying in Israel and abroad about the malpractices and alleged crimes committed by IDF troops against Palestinians; Sigi Ben Ari, of the Center for Defense of the Individual, which represents Palestinians under Israeli occupation; and Hagai El-Ad of the more renowned B’Tselem, which documents human rights abuses in the territories.

The deftly edited video is about what Im Tirtzu has wrongly translated as “foreign agents.” In Hebrew, the word is “Shtulim,” which means implanted. Thus, the better word in English would be moles. Embedded, traitorous, terrorist-supporting moles.

The moniker “shtulim” is the rabid right wing’s new buzzword. It appears in a proposed anti-NGO law submitted this week by Likud MK Yoav Kish.  It also features in a recent Im Tirtzu report on Israeli human rights NGO’s that are funded by foreign, mostly European governments. The report created a stir by claiming that a Palestinian fund was also financing some of the leftist NGO’s, but that turned out to be false. Who cares? No one paid attention to the correction: The damage was done.

The video portrays Menuhin as a "shatul” working for Holland; Gvaryahu for Germany; Ben Ari for Norway and El-Ad for the European Union. So they are not only accessories to murder, they are foreign agents, as the video states, working for foreign governments. Hostile and evil foreign governments, of course.

Im Tirtzu’s campaign seems to be timed to coincide with the ongoing efforts led by Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to stifle foreign NGO’s and human rights groups. Last month, Shaked submitted to the Knesset a “Transparency Law” that would compel NGO’s whose budget relies on at least 50% funding by foreign governments to declare themselves publicly. The law stipulates that representatives of such NGO’s must mention their funding each and every time they make contact with civil servants. They must also wear special nametags when they are in the Knesset. 

“These NGO’s challenge the authority of the government that has been elected by the people,” Shaked told the Knesset on November 1. “They undermine the sovereignty and character of the State of Israel.” Vladimir Putin, who recently pushed through a similar though far tougher law against “undesirable” NGO’s in Moscow couldn’t have said it better. The foreign-funded, civil society NGO’s that have been decimated in recent years  “present a threat to the basic constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its defense capability or its state security,” as the law submitted to the Duma in August states.

Shaked’s Transparency Law only applies to NGO’s receiving funds from foreign governments, though these are only a pittance compared to the vast foreign-sourced funds that buttress many more, non-leftist NGO’s. That’s no coincidence, of course: European governments tend to fund groups that cater to their concern for Palestinian rights and a 2-state solution. The hundreds of millions of dollars coming from rich Jews and Evangelical churches, mainly in America, are earmarked for expanding settlements, evicting Palestinians from their East Jerusalem homes defending Jewish terrorists and making sure peace never comes.  

But these funders or their motives are A-OK in Shaked’s book; perhaps she doesn’t consider them “foreign”. Perhaps she knows them all too well. In any case, she doesn’t seem to be worried that the U.S. or other foreign governments might retaliate by revoking the tax exempt status that fuels the flow of right-wing and conservative contributions to groups, including Im Tirtzu, as well those directed at Jewish settlements, as detailed in Uri Blau’s recent Haaretz revelations. If they do, you can rest assured that Shaked and her cabinet colleagues will be the first to accuse such governments of being anti-Semitic.

Shaked, of course, is a colleague and confidante of Education Minister Naftali Bennett: both belong to the Habayit Hayehudi Party. On Monday, Bennett announced with much fanfare that he is henceforth prohibiting representatives of Breaking the Silence from entering Israeli high schools. It then turned out that his own campaign manager and public relations guru, Moshe Klughaft, had produced the incendiary foreign-agent, Im Tirtzu video. And that the spokesperson of the anti-“shtulim” campaign is reportedly Dana Mizrahi, who until recently was employed, you guessed it, by Naftali Bennett. Probably a coincidence, no?

Im Tirtzu, you will recall, are the perpetrators of the infamous smear campaign against the New Israel Fund, which in 2010 featured the vaguely anti-Semitic cartoon of then NIF president Naomi Chazan with a horn on her head. Im Tirtzu accused the NIF of supplying the damning testimonies to the Goldstone Commission that investigated the 2009 Cast Lead Operation in Gaza, even though it turned out that A. Goldstone had mainly relied on other evidence B. NIF hadn’t appeared before his inquiry and C. Im Tirtzu’s claims involved groups that may have been funded by NIF but over which it did not exert direct control.

Since then the NIF has tightened its guidelines for handing out funds but it has nonetheless been under constant attack by Im Tirtzu and its legions of fellow travelers, in Israel as well as the U.S. NIF is often depicted as traitorous, anti-Zionist, pro-BDS, Arab-loving and Jew-hating. Notwithstanding the possible claims of a conflict of interest stemming from the joint Haaretz Q with NIF conference held in New York this week, allow me to state for the record that as far as I’m concerned the connection between these defamations and reality lies somewhere between infinitesimal and non-existent, and that’s being generous.

In a 2013 verdict rendered by the Jerusalem District Court on a libel suit submitted by Im Tirtzu, Judge Rafael Yaakobi found that the group’s positions have “a certain common denominator with certain principles of fascism.” The verdict was subsequently annulled by mutual consent in an agreement brokered by the Supreme Court.  Not so Yaakobi’s words, however: they continue to plague the movement and ring even truer today.

For this is the ultimate purpose of Im Tirtzu and its proto-fascist allies in and out of government: to silence the opposition, to stifle dissent, to identify left wing ideologies with the nation’s enemies, to equate their criticism with a knife in the nation’s back, in the worst of time-tested, anti-democratic traditions. It’s a no-holds-barred, take no prisoners campaign: even Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has been tarred and feathered as a traitor in recent days for having dared to speak at the Haaretz conference to which representatives of Breaking the Silence had also been invited. 

And have no doubt: it is a campaign that enjoys wide and ever-growing public support, fanned and inflamed, unwittingly or not, by Prime Minister Netanyahu and many of his ministers. At the very least, it provides a convenient scapegoat for Israel’s frustrating inability to stem Palestinian violence or to reverse its international isolation.

And why am I telling you all this? So you should know. So you won’t be able to claim that you are surprised, that there was no prior warning or that the dark clouds weren’t on the horizon. Israeli democracy, as you would define it, is under siege. It hasn’t fallen yet, but it's not impregnable either; its defenses are already starting to crumble.  Strong, fanatic and dedicated forces are working to undermine democracy and civil society. They are encountering only feeble resistance en route to their target.  

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing, as Edward Burke famously said. Most of us are doing nothing, so malevolence is gaining ground. I have never been a great fan of Breaking the Silence, Public Committee Against Torture, the Center for the Defense of the Individual or even B’Tselem for that matter: they’ve been too one-sided for my taste. But I’m certainly going to look them over again in the next few days to decide which might enjoy my modest contribution. After coming for them, after all, someone closer to me will inevitably be next in line. Later, or perhaps sooner, it might even be me.