Israeli Fascism-lite: Good for Im Tirtzu, Bad for Startup Nation

The ideal of everyone united, conforming to the Zionist idea and distrusting the outside world is the antithesis of the open attitudes that startup culture needs to thrive.

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

When you slash your way through the hysterical rhetoric of the left, there isn’t really much of a case to be made that Israeli democracy is being crushed by a neo-fascist assault.

The legislation requiring nongovernmental organizations to disclose foreign funding sources puts no restriction on funding by foreign governments. It only demands they be more upfront about it. The odious clause that would have required their activists to wear tags in the Knesset was dropped. Dorit Rabinyan’s novel "Borderlife" about an Israeli-Palestinian romance wasn’t banned from schools: it was simply not added to the list of required readings. When the far-right organization Im Tirtzu launched an ugly campaign accusing many of Israel’s leading artists and entertainers of being “foreign moles,” even the establishment right blanched. Im Tirtzu sort of apologized and its director took a leave of atonement for his errors.

With its goal of denying government funding to artists and institutions that aren’t sufficiently respectful of the state and its symbols, Culture Minister Miri Regev’s cultural loyalty legislation is a more serious assault of democratic values. But if history is any judge, it will end up being watered down to meaningless symbolism.

The danger to Israeli democracy isn’t from these acts of microaggression per se, but the worldview that stands behind them – which makes it all but inevitable that they will continue and grow nastier as times goes on.

The "F" word

Among other insults, Regev, Im Tirtzu and the like have been labelled fascists, which may sound over the top and just part of the left’s overwrought reaction. But deep down, there is some truth to it.

Israel doesn’t have fascists of the kind that flourished in Europe in the last century. There are no mass organizations whose members don black or brown shirts, stage parades and harass their enemies. But the fascist worldview is very much alive in Israel in an updated form that you could call fascism-lite.

Like 20th century fascism, fascism-lite believes the nation (whichever one it happens to belong to, it's a very relative ideology) isn’t just a matter of shared language, culture and values, that arose by historical accident but that has attained a deeper, almost mystical existence and unity.

Take this from the Im Tirtzu website (which interestingly enough appears in Hebrew but not in English, presumably not to distress foreign donors): “The State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish nation, which is different from all other nations in its unique identity, values and goals. Independence is only the beginning: We must now fill the framework of the state with content drawn from our heritage as we constantly strive at strengthening faith in the justice of our path.”

Zionism, Judaism, love of the land, mutual help and truth are its credo. Democracy, freedom, justice, equality don’t make it to the A list.

Hostile intent?

Facism likes to have enemies, both abroad but especially at home. Abroad, fascists feel anyone who doesn’t belong to the sacred “nation” is suspect, so that when Sweden or the Netherlands gives money to an Israeli human rights organization, it can only be with hostile intent. Never mind that Israel has perfectly cordial diplomatic relations with them: deep down they hate us.  

But the real enemies are the ones at home, who shouldn’t exist at all. These alien elements, such as minorities and fellow (leftist) nationals who don’t get it, need to be exposed and rooted out, hence the perpetual Im Tirtzu campaigns against leftist human rights groups.

While the fascism-lite philosophy hasn’t gotten much mileage in Israeli law or public opinion, elements of it are certainly shared by large numbers of people. Regev may just be playing politics, but she is playing them knowing there is a ready constituency who distrusts the supposedly leftist elite of the media, the universities and the arts.  Not a few Israelis believe the country would be stronger if groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem weren’t informing (or misinforming) the world of the dirty secrets of the occupation or Operation Cast Lead.

How to drive BDS crazy

They couldn’t be more wrong.  One of Israel’s biggest strengths in the battle for world public opinion is its free-wheeling democracy, which softens the hard edges of the occupation and correctly makes Israel so look good compared to its enemies. “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East” is true and wins us more friends that Im Tirtzu and its ilk can imagine. It’s what keeps American Jews on our side as much as Israel’s Jewish character.

Conversely, Israeli democracy and freedom drives the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement crazy, because it weakens the case that Israel is the devil. The result is travesties like the “pinkwashing” campaign that tries to cast Israel’s tolerant attitude toward gays as nothing but propaganda designed to divert attention from its oppression of Palestinians. Israel is wicked through and through and if you think otherwise, don’t be fooled, is BDS’ desperate, underlying message.

Democracy and freedom is also a source of strength at home. Israel is a potentially combustible mixture of Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, secular, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, rich and poor, leftists and rightists. But every bastard is a king in the Israeli system. There is a political party for almost everyone, the media and the social media are free to serve as an outlet for grievances of any sort, everyone has their own culture heroes, languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish) and schools. Politics are always on a rolling boil, but after nearly 70 years they have never boiled over, and that is certainly one good reason. Im Tirtzu and the like find this cacophony distasteful, but the rest of us should be defending it to the last.

That “we” defending Israeli democracy and freedom should include Israeli business, especially the high-tech sector.

It’s not just that democracy and freedom are bad for BDS and good for exports and foreign investment. Freedom –especially the Israeli kind that has little respect for authority and norms, and treasures the right to say what whatever is on your mind – is the energy drink that gives Startup Nation its strength. The fascist-lite ideal of everyone united, rallying around the flag, conforming to the Zionist idea and distrusting the outside world is the antithesis of open, tolerant and critical attitudes that startup culture needs to thrive.