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Did rightist NGO leader admit to being inspired by fascist thinkers?

As Im Tirzu takes its opponents to court, a troubling picture of the inspiration of its leader emerges

Yesterday, the defense in the trial of Im Tirzu vs. the Facebook group “Im Tirzu – a fascist movement” presented its depositions. The plaintiff is the infamous right-wing group, the defendants are a group of leftist activists, the issue is libel. It began in 2010 when Ronen Shoval, chairman of Im Tirzu, sent the following email to Roy Yellin, who started the group:

Hello Roy,

From perusal of the Facebook page “Im Tirzu – a Fascist movement” it seems you created it.

Im Tirzu is not a fascist movement, and will not suffer being defamed. I wish to inform you that if you won’t delete this Facebook group within 72 hours, we intend to contact a law firm the following Sunday and sue you personally for defamation and libel.

Just to make this clear: turning the “Im Tirzu – a fascist movement” Facebook page over to another person will not diminish your personal responsibility.

I ask you to consider the issue carefully, before we are forced to turn to legal measures.


Ronen Shoval

 Yellin did not fold, and the trial commenced. Im Tirzu demands NIS 2.6 million (about USD 702,000) from the eight administrators of the group (full disclosure: I know some of them personally) for defaming it.

Im Tirzu always used goon tactics. For a long time, there was no page about Im Tirzu in the Hebrew Wikipedia, because Shoval threatened to sue if it was described as a right-wing movement. It demonstrates classic hypocrisy: Im Tirzu whines about being silenced while silencing others. Its lawyer claimed the Facebook group was “an attempt to publicly assassinate Im Tirzu.” I guess a lawsuit for 2.6 million is just a nicety.

Im Tirzu is using foreign funds, particularly from the American right wing – much of its money came from John Hagee, so I guess we can term it “rabid right wing” – and is copying the oh-so-American system of SLAPP lawsuits and bringing it to Israel.

In order for the SLAPP tactic – i.e., a suit that is intended not to win in court but to make the opponent cower and remove an annoying truth he or she published – to work, you need a scared opponent and a malfunctioning legal system. The Israeli one fits the bill: trials last for years, and and even if you do win, as a rule the courts awards you just a fraction of your expenses. So, if you are forced to go to court, you have already lost, even if you win. How convenient for NGOs (or, in Im Tirzu’s case, GONGOs) who are backed by shadowy donors from abroad; how unfortunate for political activists who try to speak truth to power.

Is Im Tirzu a fascist movement? I think so. So does the world-renowned expert on fascism (and victim of Jewish terrorism) Prof. Ze’ev Sternhall (see the legal opinion he provided to the court here, in Hebrew). Comparing Im Tirzu to the 14 points of fascism is instructive, but there’s more.

Among the depositions by the defense is one by Tomer Persico, who is a researcher of religions and the writer of one of the most important blogs on the issue in Israel (and, full disclosure, is a friend). Persico himself was once the victim of a SLAPP lawsuit after he described the court of a new-age guru who dubbed himself “the Buddha from Orion” (I kid you not), which made him a cause celebre in the Israeli blogosphere.

Im Tirzu leader, Ronen Shoval (Photo: Yossi Gurvitz)

Im Tirzu leader, Ronen Shoval (Photo: Yossi Gurvitz)

In his deposition, Persico described a conversation with Shoval that took place a few months ago, as they were being interviewed by the paper Makor Rishon. In the recorded conversation, Persico told Shoval that he was surprised to see clear romantic German influences in a book by Shoval, and was surprised when the latter freely admitted it. Shoval said that “in my thesis, I dealt a lot with Ficthe, Schelling, Herder and George Sorel.” The latter is considered to be one of the inspirations of Italian fascism, and was fascinated by political violence: he praised Action Francaise, the nationalist movement which was a precursor  of French fascism, he praised Mussolini – and Lenin, too. He was also an anti-Semite who spread the blood libel (though he was on the side of the angels in the Dreyfus Affair). This is, to say the least, a rather strange inspiration for the leader of a so-called neo-Zionist revival movement. Persico said he was “stunned.”

Shoval, says Persico, claimed Persico was unkind in his review of his book, since when he used the ideas of Herder and Fichte about the organic nature of the volk, he was speaking metaphorically. Shoval said he didn’t put it quite that way in his book, since the purpose of the book “is to express ideas simplistically – I say, simplistically – ideas which are very deep… to make it clear to the multitude… the meaning of the word ‘Zionism’ today.” Persico claimed that such simplicity is dangerous and that it is typical of Im Tirzu’s activity; Shoval replied that “this is an issue of marketing strategies.”

So, in the name of marketing strategies, Shoval is injecting volkist concepts into the Israeli mindset, concepts which originally – and he claims to know the original very well – have caused untold suffering both to the people they were injected into, to the minorities living among them, and to nearby nations. Ronen Shoval is exposed as a political charlatan, who knows precisely which poisoned wells he is using, knows precisely what his goals are, but is unwilling to be stamped with the proper title – volkist fascism – because of “marketing strategies.” He and his movement do all that by getting large sums of money from abroad, which they try to conceal to the extent of the law, and when someone points out their true nature, that is calls them a fascist movement, they sue him for NIS 2.6 million.

The intimidation works: Persico, who already went through the nightmare of a SLAPP suit (which ended very quickly, and in a victory for him) decided not to publish the conversation he had with Shoval, just not to risk another lawsuit. Now this conversation is a part of a legal deposition, and hence protected.

So if you believe you should support a small group of young activists fighting for freedom of expression in Israel and for the ability to speak the truth even in the face of fascist groups with plenty of money from unknown sources, and if you think people are entitled to legal representation even if their father, unlike Shoval’s, is not a multi-millionaire, go here and donate. I already did.

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    1. Passerby

      Thanks for the link to the Sternhall analysis. After reading it and reading your link to the 14 points of Fascism, I found myself unconvinced on either count. First and foremost, it seems to me that Sternhall himself is unconvinced. The best he can say is that Im Tirzu is showing some signs of the initial stages of Fascism. So is my son’s kindergarten class. I mean, come on. It either is or isn’t Fascist. It’s like those stupid debates with Palestianian advocates who have no shame in saying that Israel is not a Nazi state yet but it resembles 1933 Germany. I’ve been hearing that for over a decade.
      If Stenhall’s analysis, including his assertion that Im Tirzu is a showing signs of becoming Fascist, on the basis of his criteria, I have to ask whether BDS is a Fascist movement because it seeks to eliminate joint research with Israeli universities? Is BDS a Fascist movement because it seeks to stifle the voices of opposition? Is BDS a Fascist movement because it identifies enemies and treats them as such as the PennBDS conference just did by disallowing the town’s main Jewish paper from attending? Are elements of pro-Palestinian advocacy Fascist because they seek to undermine Jewish historical links to Israel while playing up Palestinian historic links (often ones that are seriously in dispute) to this land?

      Im Tirzu is a movement that has its positives and negatives. There is no question they want to play hardball and there is no question that they are an organization that openly attacks many groups and individuals on the Israeli Left. That doesn’t make them Fascists.
      Calling for someone to be fired because he takes a state salary from the very state he encourages other countries to boycott is not Fascism, even though this is a key claim in Sternhall’s commentary.
      You and he may disagree with the premise, but it’s not illogical. That bold, liberal academic is not told not to encourage a boycott, he is told not to do it while on the payroll of the country or organization he wants boycotted. It seems to me that Im Tirzu is saying that he can go ahead and open his own university, get funders to pay his salary and then encourage them to boycott him and his university. If he isn’t willing to do that, he shouldn’t be doing it with state resources and a state salary.
      There is a legitimate and legitimately angry debate going on in Israel about what is fair criticism of Israel and when that criticism becomes a tool that aids Israel’s very real enemies. Perhaps it would be best for all if people focused on the debate and stopped calling each other names. Calling someone a Fascist, especially in Israel, is not a trifling insult.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jazzy

      If he knows exactly which poisoned wells he is using with admiration, wouldn’t he have the good sense not to name them? Attempts to tease outright fascism out of the phrase ‘dealt with’ seem a bit absurd when many Palestinians openly admit admiration for Adolf Hitler. Strategic lawsuits are dirty – fair enough. But everything else here (‘hypocrisy’ etc.) seems a little desperate.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Piotr Berman

      This is totally weird.

      The notions like “radical leftist” and “fascists” are clearly not particularly precise, there is a continuum of positions to which they can be applied. Moreover, not all people would regard them as negative.

      Reasonable people disagree if Jobbik is a fascist party.

      I think that Plato was a fascist, more precisely, a state run according to his recommendations would be fascist. Im Tirtzu recommendations are no better. I dread Plato’s estate digging out this comment and suing me. Or some neo-cons, because they love Plato, and typically hate Kant. Following Kant philosophy is responsible, according to them, for a number of major calamities. Should Kantists sue?

      One person may think that Ronen Shoval looks like an intelligent young man, another, that he looks like “a brainless hunk of meat”, “hunk of meat” being a male equivalent of “bimbo”. It would be a strange country where court could decide which opinion is correct and which is libelous.

      Reply to Comment
    4. I am a big fan of 972, and usually of Yossi Gurwitz’s writing, and I deplore Im Tirtzu, but…. I think Yossi Gurwitz may regret sacrificing journalistic principles for the defense of his friends in this case. To claim that Shoval has admitted to being inspired by fascist leaders is a ridiculous twisting of the truth – even when you are the one presenting the facts. As Jazzy pointed out – Gurvitz gave a complete non-sequitur in his argument. From Shoval’s admission that he “dealt with” George Sorel, Gurvitz has jumped to “This is, to say the least, a rather strange inspiration…” etc. Except he never admitted it was an inspiration. You (Gurvitz) may have been better off claiming that Herder and Fichte were inspirations based on Persico’s analysis – but that would not be clear-cut enough – so you have twisted the truth you did have. I hope that Im Tirtzu loses the case and is crushed and we never hear from them again as a political organisation, but this article only adds to their claims – by using shoddy journalism to make them look bad, they can rightly claim that they are being defamed. Truth be told I think it is ridiculous to sue someone for calling you a fascist (especially when you are one, in my opinion), but if the legal system says that’s not ok and has allowed the case to come this far – it seems like they have a case. Given the background – with the version of a cease and desist notice – it seems like it is the founders of the facebook group who are the ones who wanted the court-case. Hopefully it will end in their favour, but they can’t complain if it doesn’t.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Piotr Berman

      “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

      “It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity.”

      I think that this is the real inspiration of Im Tirzu. Forget Romantic poets. Zionism is a project to weave all Jews into a single tapestry of the Jewish State, an organic and harmonious structure, with threads of different hues but none sticking out in wrong directions.

      Note that educators play a central role here, their role is not to propagate doubt, under the guise of “critical thinking” or, even worse, outright criticism of the state, but to lead the citizens on the path of civic virtue and weld them to unity.

      Does the Department of Political Science at BGU lead the students on the path of civic virtue? Does it weld them to unity? These people sow doubt instead of pride, have temerity of accusing the State of crimes, undermine solidarity by discussing the fate of the enemies as if they were human beings. And yet, they are inside the State, traitorous 5th column.

      Reply to Comment