Libel Zionism

The 'Defenders of Zionism' Lose Their Case

Im Tirtzu, the rightist organization known for painting the New Israel Fund and Israeli human rights groups as enemies of the state, just got a lesson in the risks of suing for libel. Before Rosh Hashanah, the Jerusalem District Court mostly dismissed Im Tirtzu's suit against a Facebook group that labeled it a "fascist movement." That wasn't libel, the court said, nor was saying that Im Tirtzu's caricature of the NIF's former president, with a horn sprouting from her forehead, was in the "style of [the infamous Nazi tabloid] Der Stürmer."

The judge did rule that one respondent crossed the line by implying that Im Tirtzu espouses Nazi race theory. This shouldn't comfort the movement or its leader, Ronen Shoval. A libel suit reverses the roles of plaintiff and defendant; the former must defend itself against the latter's charges. Shoval's movement failed. The judge said the defendants could reasonably argue that calling Im Tirtzu "fascist" was a "truthful public statement."

In its suit, Im Tirtzu said the movement's aim was to warn the public about anti-Zionist activity, especially when carried out by groups falsely presenting themselves as Zionist. Criticizing the judgment, the movement's lawyer, Nadav Haetzni, said it allowed "proclaiming every Zionist a fascist." In other words, every real Zionist is in Im Tirtzu's corner.

So here's a second, wider lesson of the case. It's a reminder that many of the rightists who claim to defend Zionism have a very narrow definition of that word, a definition that is a windfall for those who really, unabashedly think Zionism is intrinsically quasi-fascist, or racist, or both.

Im Tirtzu made headlines in 2010 with its conspiracy theory of the NIF as an octopus-like organization whose tentacles were Israeli NGOs. Shoval told me then that the NIF "instigates and directs" those groups to "incite against IDF soldiers and Israel" in order to weaken the army, help Hamas, and "dismantle Israel as a Jewish state." The human-rights terminology of NIF grantees, he said, "serves Communistic interests." (Listening, I guessed that Shoval had bought a rather dated guide to conspiracies.) It apparently did not occur to him that raucous debate could be a cardinal Israeli value, or that revealing and opposing human-rights violations might just be a patriotic way to hold the army and state to their own high standards.

Nor did it occur to Im Tirtzu that using libel law to silence political dissent is a classic authoritarian tactic - that the suit itself, along with the movement's ultra-nationalism, hints that the defendants had a point. Meanwhile, Im Tirtzu claims to represent the "centrist stream in Zionism" dating back to Theodor Herzl. Were he alive, Herzl might have grounds to sue—but the open-minded journalist would know better.

In claiming support from those who lie in their graves, though, Im Tirtzu has been outdone by Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso. Upper Nazareth was built as a Jewish town next the Arab city of Nazareth. Now a sixth of the residents are Arabs, drawn from Nazareth and other communities by better housing and living conditions. Gapso, running for reelection while under indictment, has sought refuge in chauvinism: Under the slogan, "Upper Nazareth Forever Jewish" his campaign banners promise "no more clinging to the law that allows every citizen to live where he likes." Responding to national criticism, Gapso wrote an oped in Haaretz saying, "If I'm a 'racist,' I'm the proud scion of a glorious dynasty of 'racists,'" including Herzl and David Ben-Gurion. To recruit B-G, Gapso adopts one of the two hyper-simplistic national narratives of 1948 - the Palestinian one, in which Ben-Gurion acted, top down, to bring about "the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs." Never mind that the real story of '48 is entirely more complex; Gapso somehow thinks he is showing that he has the true path to Zionism.

The Knesset also has advocates of protecting Israel from too much equality. Likud Knesset Member Yariv Levin and Ayelet Shaked of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) have resubmitted the so-called Jewish State Law, after it was blocked in parliament last term. The bill would define Israel as a Jewish state "with a democratic regime" - wording designed to force courts to give primacy to Israel's Jewishness over its democracy. The law would be a catastrophe for civil rights, and for foreign relations. It would also enshrine one constricted vision of "Jewish state." It would delegitimize every conception of Israel in which democracy is absolutely fundamental.

Here's the point: Zionism isn't one idea. It's a large set of competing ideas, which share enough family resemblance for one word to be used for all, and which have some deep family disagreements. The set includes the idea that the right of Jews to self-determination is a derivative of universal rights, and cannot exist without them. Trying to define Zionism down to a narrow authoritarian nationalism besmirches the family. But don't worry, Mr. Shoval. I won't take you to court over it.