We Need to Stop Playing Defense Against Israel's Right-wing Inciters

Im Tirtzu is a warning sign for what desperation, failure and fear look like when they combine with right-wing ultra-nationalism and extremism.

Im Tirtzu activists clashing with students at Tel Aviv University while calling for closure of left-leaning Political Science Department at Ben-Gurion University.
Oren Ziv

There is a wonderful Hebrew expression that doesn’t translate directly to English: “leshanot diskette.” The literal translation is to “switch the hard drive” on a computer, but the actual meaning is to completely reboot one’s thinking.

We, the progressive movement in Israel and its supporters, need to change our hard-drive about what has happened these last weeks. It is not business as usual, and we must reboot in two key ways.

First: while we recognize that the violent video produced by senior adviser to the Habayit Hayehudi party, Moshe Klughaft, and released by proto-fascist organization Im Tirtzu against Israeli human rights defenders, is an escalation of an ongoing campaign, we must see clearly that it represents a real threat. Like an avalanche that begins with a snowball and ends in a lethal mass that threatens lives, so is the incitement campaign targeting individual human rights defenders.

Second: we have to get past the unpleasantness of our friends and allies being targeted and see that this vicious campaign is fueled by the fear and failure of the right – not by strength. And that like other attempts, it will not succeed. Without changing our own hard drives – our longstanding assumptions about winners and losers – the progressive movement could miss the real threat but also lose the opportunity it presents.

The de-legitimization campaign carried out by all parts of Israel’s right-wing ecosystem is nothing new. But the video is. Over the past 10 years we at NIF, our donors in the U.S. and the organizations we support in Israel have been the target of legislative attacks aimed at shutting down NGOs with dissenting points of view from the government’s party line. We’ve worn the horns attributed to us in smear campaigns. We’ve watched the media report misinformation about us. But this week’s video is an escalation that raises the stakes by personalizing the message and essentially drawing a bullseye on the backs of four activists.

After being personally targeted in Im Tirtzu’s video, the director of Israel’s most prominent human rights organization, B’Tselem, wrote in Haaretz: “I’m not afraid of Im Tirtzu. I’m afraid of the occupation, of indifference to injustice, sanctimoniousness and passing shock.”

Personally, I am scared of both. This video should not be just another link in a chain of attacks, it should remind us of the pre-Rabin era and frighten us with its echoes.

It is a warning sign for what desperation, failure and fear look like when they combine with right-wing ultra-nationalism and extremism. As Knesset Member Michal Rozin said on Israeli television to Im Tirtzu’s director, the next political murder in Israel will be in their name unless they stop this campaign.

But these attacks are and always have been desperate attempts to silence human rights defenders, organizations whose work relates directly to the fact that Israel’s present and its future is defined by the almost-50 year occupation. They will not go away until that reality ends. No spin campaign in the world can hide this from the Israeli public or from the world’s view – when soldier after soldier is drafted into the IDF to continue to implement these harsh policies of occupation. This week saw a spontaneous peak in regular Israeli citizens breaking their silence online. People simply posting photographs of themselves in their IDF uniform along with their stories of serving in the occupied territories.

Despite the brutal attempts to stop them, apparently groups like Breaking the Silence are still needed. And growing.

In fact, this week we also saw just how much the years-long attack campaign has failed to harm the NIF. Last Sunday was the HaaretzQ with New Israel Fund conference in New York. President Reuven Rivlin spoke on our stage about freedom of speech as a cornerstone of Israeli democracy. President Barack Obama’s welcome video ended with a statement that we will always have an ally and friend in him and in the United States. 

Less than 24 hours after President Rivlin stood on a stage with the NIF logo behind him, moments after Board President Talia Sasson and CEO Daniel Sokatch stepped down from that stage, Im Tirtzu launched their video. The video was timed to disrupt the outcome of the conference.

But they overshot. Rather than fan the flames of their campaign, their attempt at strategic escalation caused an unexpected backlash.

Israel’s mainstream media have savaged the video. Even Im Tirtzu’s former allies in the media turned on them. The hawkish Ben Caspit, who originally broke the first Im Tirtzu report against the New Israel Fund as an exclusive in 2010, wrote that “now and forever, Im Tirtzu has become a wild mutant, extremist, inciting and instigating. Really vile. Including the ultimate demand to tag all those who receive funding from foreign governments (in Europe, not in Afghanistan), but to hide the identity of their own anonymous donors, whose level of craziness competes with ISIS.”

Our progressive movement requires that we understand where our adversaries are coming from, that we stop playing defense, and that we reboot our own mental maps so that we can channel our actions. We need to focus on protecting the individuals and organizations targeted by the radical right. We do not want to wake up too late to that real threat.

But we also need to unite our American progressives with their Israeli counterparts as we did in New York. We need to continue to create broad platforms for the important work of ending the occupation and promoting a democratic Israel – particularly in continuing to link this movement with progressives worldwide. And we must continue to find ways to challenge Im Tirtzu and the ecosystem it is a part of to ensure our personal, political and national safety.

Libby Lenkinski is Vice President of Strategy for the New Israel Fund.