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Dubbing Political Foe ”Fascist” May Prove Costly to Facebook Defendants

President of the Jerusalem District Court, Moussia Arad.

President of the Jerusalem District Court, Moussia Arad.
Photo Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90

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Can one cry “Fascism” in a crowded internet? A Jerusalem district court begins hearing testimonies on this issue today, with a plethora of unintended consequences paving its path. Is this a typical case of Left vs. Right, and if so, will a court decision necessarily benefit either of the sides? As of this morning, the relatively small but insanely vociferous world of Israeli online activists should start holding its collective breath .

Im Tirtzu (a reference to Zionist visionary Theodore Hertzle’s immortal slogan, Im tirtzu ein zu agada, roughly translated as ‘If only you want it, it won’t remain a dream’), describes itself as “an extra-parliamentary movement that works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel.” Established by Israeli intellectuals, students and IDF reservists after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, its objectives are the renewal of the Zionist discourse, thinking and ideology, “to ensure the future of the Jewish nation and of the State of Israel and to advance Israeli society in coping with the challenges it faces.”

Im Tirtzu is mostly devoted to “combating the campaign of de-legitimization against the State of Israel and to providing responses to Post-Zionist and Anti-Zionist phenomena.”

With thirteen branches at universities and colleges throughout Israel, Im Tirtzu has become an influential organization in the Israeli public arena, with strong ties to Israeli politicians on the right, and “access to decision makers and high-ranking government officials in Israel.” They influence public opinion and can certainly be considered a factor in moving Israel’s popular public opinion to the right.

A year ago, Im Tirtzu filed a NIS 2.6 million suit against seven people who created a Facebook page called “Im Tirtzu – Fascists,” and the defendants are about to present their depositions today. The Facebook Seven are represented by Attorney Michael Sphard, Yishai Shindor and Shlomi Zacharia. The seven admit that the financial burden of the lawsuit could destroy them, and are planning to start a fund raising drive.

But perhaps a sincere apology would do them better, because, on the face of it, they’re not in good shape. The Facebook Seven’s defense boils down to the “if the shoe fits” argument, which may be hard to prove.

The defense is also expected to argue that presenting Im Tirtzu as fascists is protected by the principle of freedom of expression – it’s their opinion and they’re entitled to voice it. That argument, too, can be tricky in a country with tough libel laws like Israel.

One deposition comes from Professor Ze’ev Sternhell, who is presented as “an internationally-recognized expert on fascism.” According to Sternhell, Im Tirtzu’s ideology and actions contain elements of fascism.

The problem is that Professor Sternhell in one article openly called on terrorists to aim their weapons at settlements, and in another declared that only those willing to march on the settlement of Ofra with tanks would be able to stop the fascist wave threatening to drown Israeli democracy. As impassioned as his defense of the Facebook Seven may be, he can hardly be considered an unbiased expert.

A more useful argument is expected to be made by journalist and spoken Hebrew expert Rubik Rosenthal, in whose opinion the term “fascist” has lost its historic bite in the current Israeli discourse, being used by opinion-mongers on the left and on the right as a generalized insult, rather than the original characterization by Benitto Mussolini et al.

But journalist Tomer Persico’s testimony will include a conversation he had with one of Im Tirtzu’s leaders, Ronen Shuval, in which the latter admitted to being influenced by “German romanticism’s ideologues,” those 19th-Century dreamers who gave life to the monstrous European fascism. If you note a contradiction between the former paragraph’s main point and this one, do read it once more and note that, indeed, this could be a case of having the cake while munching on it vigorously.

Incidentally, perfectly mainstream Zionist movements such as Beitar took pride in calling themselves Fascist, in the days before the term went gargoyle. Calling Shuval a fascist for identifying with the same sentiments that Likud’s ancient founding father Ze’ev Jabotinsky embraced before WWII may be just a case of unfairness, in which journalists of Tomer Persico’s ilk are known to dabble on occasion.

Professor Ze’ev Sternhell reads into texts written by Shuval “a clear expression of fascist thinking.” These include “references to the nation as an organic body.” But, of course, this would dub most hasidic and kabalistic writing equally fascist. Because, in history, thinking your nation is special is not a problem – thinking your nation is special so you should kill everybody else is usually where troubles start.

Other signs of fascist thought, according to Sternhell, include the view of an atrophied West and the sense that the situation in Israel is an emergency requiring extremist action and struggle against the “traitors.” This inclusive approach would probably dub as fascist both houses of the US Congress and a majority of publications on the shelf today in the areas of sociology, economics, poli sci, and religion, to name just a few thousand.

Attorney Nadav Ha’Etzni, who represents Im Tirtzu, says the slanderous attack on his clients was an attempt by leftist extremists to assassinate a democratic, Zionist movement, using libel to kick it outside the fence of the public arena. “We hope the court will mark a red line before this character assassination attempt by the defendants.”

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About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.


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