Im Tirzu founder’s strange fruit: Israeli democracy

Shoval's "different viewpoint" targets human rights groups as the source of evil in Israel and calls to smother the voices of Israel's dissenting community, including academics. His new perspective seems mainly about wiping out other people's perspectives.

Ronen, I am the person who was talking to a friend of yours at the human rights rally a few weeks ago. Your Im Tirzu group was hanging out behind the other demonstrators, calling for human rights for Israelis too, said the young man, for settlers and the people of Sderot. He was a nice kid, I was rapping with him, trying to understand him. We had a good rapport. Then you suddenly noticed us. You walked over with a tense look on your face and asked him who he was talking to – then asked me if I was a journalist. No, I said, but I write and blog. You asked where, then looked at both of us and after a pause you said OK and left. Your young pal looked worried, then relieved.

That’s your free democracy, I guess.


Ronen Shoval’s op ed in Haaretz yesterday (January 10) was a bizarre negative-image of reality. Most astoundingly, nearly all of it – from the basic premise to the details, is wrong.
Shoval, who founded Im Tirzu, calls 2010 the year of democracy, lauding the vibrant, emotional debates and the pluralistic sounding of arguments over the last year. But Israel, famously, was always like that.

Which definition of democracy does he consider to be new or revived in 2010? Since its founding, Israel has held free and fair elections at regular intervals. Israel is definitely a society of majority rule. There has always been riotous interaction between multiple competing political forces. Every transition of power has been peaceful and there have been many. None of that is new.

Shoval cites NGO reports, newspaper advertisements, articles and interviews and demonstrations as democratic novelties of 2010. What planet was he living on before 2010? Israel’s vibrant press has always displayed endless bickering. I can’t remember a year (or even a few months) here without strikes and demonstrations. Political advertisements go back for decades, as do protracted sticker-and-sign wars – none of these represent a democratic revival. They are a continuation – with some renewed energy in protest against anti-democratic developments in 2010.

But Mr. Shoval has so many other things wrong in this article that it’s hard to follow the logic. He writes:

“A revolution took place in Israel this year, after many years in which only those attacking Israel (a small percentage of the population) were represented in the public discourse, including in the media and among the intelligentsia.”

The internal contradiction is staggering. Even Shoval writes that the critical elements are a minority of society.

The mainstream Zionism his organization claims to represent has always been the reigning hegemony in Israel. The male combat soldiers who feature so prominently on their website are the real elite of Israel whose narrative holds sway over the public mind; just look at the photos of youngsters with signs saying “I ‘heart’ our security forces.” This is no underdog.

The dominant narrative in Israel holds that Israel is right (as I imagine most countries would think of themselves). The dissenting voice is almost by definition a marginalized minority, especially in a nation perpetually in conflict. How can the dissenting critics have a hegemony? If they did, they wouldn’t be criticizing it.

Here are some more absurd claims that project Shoval’s deep misunderstanding. I assume these are just mistakes, because I really don’t believe he would deliberately reverse the truth.

Human rights organizations, he writes, “cynically exploited the human rights discourse as a propaganda tool for defaming the Israel Defense Forces and isolating Israel.” “Other organizations,” presumably his own, view the human rights groups as part of a “mendacious campaign aimed at accusing [Israel] of crimes it did not perpetrate, and thus at justifying a policy that would negate its right and ability to protect itself.”

No. Human rights groups wield the language of universal human rights to expose the violation of those rights. Israel, like all democracies, is indeed capable of violating rights. The difference between democracies and dictatorships is that democracies cultivate and take pride in their independent internal critics, instead of persecuting them. The campaign against internal critics in 2010 makes this the year of the erosion of democracy.

Shoval writes that in 2010 most Israelis finally realized that the human rights organizations are radical leftists who want to use foreign funds to “to force their radical values on others.”

This is an embarrassingly ignorant statement. Unfortunately, the majority of Israelis have disliked or distrusted the human rights organizations for years, and Israelis are suspicious of human rights, with their universalism, in general; that’s why it’s so hard to write a constitution here. “We have been witness to a systematic attempt by the state to slander and delegitimize human rights organizations,” said former Meretz MK and human rights leader Zehava Gal-On in 2009. “One government after another has viewed any criticism as treasonous and subversive.” In 2010 this devaluation of human rights just came home to roost in legislation and what feels like more public hostility against human rights NGOs than ever.

It’s terribly scary that human rights, universal liberal values, and the sanctity of human life – the values these organizations espouse – are considered “radical.” If Shoval thinks the organizations apply those values selectively to Palestinians, he should say so – that’s a legitimate critique. But be honest about it.

To label human rights “radical values,” really calls into question whether Shoval understands any of the terms he employs. I suggest he go back and read John Locke.

But here is what I found to be the most surreal statement of Shoval’s article:

“This was the first year in which Israeli democracy succeeded in creating two camps and two voices – two ideologies, as is customary in a democracy, and in Judaism. Not a single viewpoint, as is customary in communist countries. Two interpretations of the term “liberalism,” not just one…”

Huh?  If the “two ideologies” refer to Israel’s ideology – namely Zionism – it’s amazing that the founder of Im Tirzu ignores over a century of Zionist argument. How many thousands of different viewpoints about Israel’s “ideology” did he have to ignore to write that sentence with a straight face?  Even Wikipedia says:

Zionism does not have a uniform ideology, but has evolved in a dialogue among a plethora of ideologies: General Zionism, Religious Zionism, Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Green Zionism, etc.

And if he was referring to different views of liberalism – well, that’s always been a vibrant debate everywhere. But it is very hard to imagine using liberalism to persecute human rights defenders, in any interpretation.

Reading Shoval’s weird argument, I couldn’t help thinking of ignoble figures in history who use the language of encouraging new perspectives, when what they really want is to encourage terribly damaging perspectives. Holocaust deniers have called for ‘different perspectives on the Holocaust,” when they want to rewrite historical fact. Shoval’s “different viewpoint” targets human rights groups as the source of evil in Israel and calls to smother the voices of Israel’s dissenting community, including academics. His new perspective seems mainly about wiping out other people’s perspectives.

Here’s the truth: 2010 was the year when Israel officially, openly, legally tried to shut down other viewpoints. The al-Naqba bill (actually from 2009)  tries to outlaw “a second viewpoint” on Israel’s history. In 2010, the Knesset proposed a bill banning contact between NGOs and foreign organizations involved in prosecuting Israelis abroad, and has now approved selective funding investigations against human rights organization. The bill to prohibit funding filmmakers (“directors, actors and all participants…”) who don’t swear a loyalty oath to “the State of Israel, its symbols and its Jewish and democratic values” is an honest attempt to silence those with a different viewpoint. The government is not lying about its persecution of human rights defenders and free expression. Why is Shoval?