Israeli court to rule: fascism or free speech?

A Jerusalem court is set to rule this month on a bizarre free-speech case that speaks to the current political climate in Israel: is it libel to call the extra-parliamentary Zionist group Im Tirtzu fascist?

Im Tirtzu filed the civil suit in 2010 against the seven people behind a Facebook page called “Im Tirtzu – Fascists”: Roy Yellin, Yuval Yellin, Edan Ring, David Remez, Noam Livne, Tal Niv and Ari Remez. In the lawsuit, Im Tirtzu argued that the seven aimed to stop Im Tirtzu’s activities by de-legitimizing it. The organization is demanding NIS 2.6 million from the activists who administrated the page.

Im Tirtzu claims to be an “extra-parliamentary movement that works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel,” viewing itself as neo-Zionist organization that works to renew a “lost” Zionist impetus in Israeli society.

Im Tirtzu gets its funding from private donors in Israel and the United States as well as from Christian Zionists in North America. Im Tirtzu’s income increased fourfold last year. Major financial groups such as the Azrieli group and Leo Schachter Diamond Company were among the donors.

The activists’ defense argues that Im Tirtzu’s activities in general—and its campaigns against the New Israel Fund and human rights organizations, in particular—are characterized by both nationalist and fascist elements. To prove their claim, the defense team asked Professor Zeev Sternhell to provide the court with an expert opinion.

According to a paper presented by Professor Sternhell there is no single definition of fascism and no historical fascist movement, including the fascists in Italy, meets all of the criteria of the models political scientists created to define fascism.

However, Sternhell also states that Im Tirtzu has major things in common with historical fascist movements including the rejection of the universal ideals, such as human rights and citizenship, that define liberalism as well as radical nationalism that puts the nation above the sum of its citizens. Sternhell also claims that Im Tirtzu shares the concept of  “The Decline of the West,” referring to the early twentieth-century work of German philosopher Oswald Spengler, which was embraced by German revolutionary conservatives including some members of the Nazi party.

Regarding the immediate political agenda of Im Tirtzu, Sternhell claims that, like a number of historical fascist movements, Im Tirtzu works to create a “state of emergency” atmosphere that aims to silence dissent and that views critical voices as enemies of the state.

Sternhell claims that Im Tirtzu strips democracy of its essential content, transforming it into an institutional procedure, and is attempting to impose a single mindset upon Israeli society.

To prove Sternhell’s analysis right, perhaps, Matan Peleg, director of Im Tirzu’s human resources, wrote in a recent op-ed that Knesset members (MKs) must “promote laws intended to restrict visits, actions and statements by Arab MKs in the Knesset.”

According to Peleg,  the intellectuals, religious figures, and politicians who shape the opinion of Palestinian citizens of the state identify with and support the enemies of Israel. Peleg concludes, “we don’t need to allow this phenomenon to happen. It is not beneficial to the society, the state and democracy.”

The activists who are being sued by Im Tirtzu are facing major financial trouble as they owe their legal team more than 90,000 NIS. In order to cover the expenses, they started a fundraising campaign asking people to donate NIS 15.  (https://hrd.org.il/?donate-im-tirzu)

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