Im Tirtzu’s Zionism Without Democracy

Zionist group Im Tirtzu, now aiming to influence the U.S. Jewish community, should ponder its similarities to Putin’s cultish, anti-democratic Nashi movement.

Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen
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Im Tirtzu protest against former NIF head Naomi Chazan.
Im Tirtzu protest against former NIF head Naomi Chazan. Credit: Dan Keinan
Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen

A few Sunday mornings ago, I found myself turning on the television, intending to watch a bit of whatever happened to be on as I lurched toward wakefulness. Five minutes later, I was riveted, and against my best intentions, spent the next hour and a half watching a film called “Putin’s Kiss.”

A documentary by Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen that won the world cinematography award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it tells the story of a young woman’s meteoric rise in Nashi, the Russian cult-like pro-Putin self-described “anti-fascist democratic youth movement.” The film also chronicles her growing friendships with liberal dissident journalists despised by Nashi – one of whom is brutally beaten after publishing an article critical of a Putin business associate - and her eventual disenchantment with the movement. "Putin's Kiss" portrays a Kremlin-supported organization created to counter a democratic awakening (aroused by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2005) and designed to nurture – through summer camp sessions, government internships and job opportunities, and other incentives - a loyal cadre of young Russians ready and willing to push back, forcefully, against those perceived as threatening Putin’s vision of nationalism and patriotism.

The film would have captured my attention absent any other resonances, but, as it turned out, another youth movement was also on my mind. Im Tirtzu, described on its website as an “extra-governmental movement” established in 2006 “to educate about the values of Zionism,” operates thirteen branches at universities and colleges throughout Israel. The organization gained notoriety in early 2010 when it launched an all-out assault on the New Israel Fund for allegedly funding organizations that had provided information for the United Nations’ Goldstone Report that criticized Israeli Defense Forces tactics during the 2008-2009 Gaza war. Their unabashed attack on this U.S.-based non-profit funding organization – dedicated to “social justice and equality for all Israelis” - was highlighted by a billboard campaign depicting NIF President Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, with a horn sprouting from her forehead.

Since then, Im Tirtzu has, among other campaigns, taken aim at Ben-Gurion University, insisting that it "to put an end to the anti-Zionist tilt" in its Politics and Government Department, claiming that the department's faculty "works deliberately and energetically to promote fiercely anti-Zionist messages." This stratagem apparently found favor with Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who addressed Im Tirtzu’s annual conference in 2010, gushing praise and admiration for the organization. Two years later, the Council for Higher Education, headed by Sa’ar, decided not to permit new students to enroll in the Department, effectively imposing a death sentence. A recent Haaretz editorial called the Council’s action “unprecedented in its severity,” raising concerns “that the body entrusted with developing and preserving the country's higher education system is being influenced by decidedly non-academic pressures and considerations that threaten academic freedom.”

It’s in this context that a few weeks ago my attention was drawn to a full-page ad taken out by Im Tirtzu in Boston’s Jewish Advocate newspaper, and in several other Jewish newspapers around the country, including in New York (the Jewish Week and The Forward), Philadelphia, Atlanta, Florida, Washington, San Francisco and Phoenix. Once again, the target was the New Israel Fund. The ad claims that a handful of human rights organizations, partially funded by NIF, have charged IDF soldiers who fought in the recent conflict with Gaza as war criminals. In response, the NIF vehemently denied the charges as being simply false, while defending the crucial but often unpopular role human rights organizations play in demanding adherence to international norms by all parties – especially their own countries - and even when they’re at war. Meanwhile, Im Tirtzu’s website asks readers of the ad to “hold the New Israel Fund accountable for the accusations it is making against the Jewish State.”

All of which brings me back to “Putin’s Kiss.” In one of its most chilling scenes, thousands of young people are bused in from near and far to take part in a pro-regime demonstration. Hundreds of them carry signs identifying - by name and photograph – liberal journalists, opposition leaders, and human rights activists targeted as critical of Putin, and viewed as "enemies" of the state. On command, row after row of marchers throw these signs to the ground, and leave them, to be trampled by other fresh-faced, scowling acolytes.

Maybe we should expect to find Nashi in Putin’s Russia. Russia can't claim a proud history of open debate and respect for perspectives that challenge the group in power. But Israel can. It's one of its greatest treasures.

Im Tirtzu is not Nashi. But the Nashi story is a cautionary tale. Democracy can’t flourish when voices of dissent are stifled and human rights advocates silenced. And Zionism without democracy is a failed ideal. These are truisms that Im Tirtzu and its supporters would do well to ponder.

Michael Felsen is an attorney and is president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a multi-generational community organization dedicated to Jewish education, culture, and social justice. He also serves as a trustee of the Interreligious Center for Public Life in Newton, Massachusetts.



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