Im Tirtzu, an Israeli student organization, recently made waves when it accused the New Israel Fund (NIF) of granting millions of dollars to 16 NGOs, whose condemnations of the IDF helped build the case against Israel in the UN’s Goldstone Report. According to a controversial Im Tirtzu ad in Israeli newspapers, “Without the New Israel Fund, there could be no Goldstone Report, and Israel would not be facing international accusations of war crimes.”
In response to Im Tirtzu’s campaign, the Knesset promised to investigate the matter and the Jerusalem Post fired NIF president Naomi Chazan as a columnist for the paper. Meanwhile, prominent left-wing personalities slammed Im Tirtzu for McCarthyism and right-wing extremism.
Last week, The Jewish Press spoke with Ronen Shoval, the 29-year-old chairman and co-founder of Im Tirtzu.
The Jewish Press: Are there any new developments in your organization’s campaign against the NIF?
Shoval: We’re learning that the connection between the NIF and the Goldstone Report was only the tip of the iceberg. A lot of information is coming to us showing that the NIF is working so that Israel ultimately won’t be a Jewish state.
What do you mean by that?
For example, the words of Hatikvah speak of the “soul of a Jew yearning.” In the flag we have the Star of David. In 1947 the UN called for the establishment of a Jewish state. The NIF is trying to flip it over. They want Israel to be a country for all its residents. And that’s a big difference.
Your critics argue that Im Tirtzu’s claims regarding the NIF’s connection to the Goldstone Report are exaggerated. What is your response?
Well, it’s really hard to argue with footnotes. There are more than 199 footnotes [in our 120-page report] related to NIF organizations. The power of the Goldstone Report comes from the fact that Israeli organizations are blaming Israel of committing war crimes. It’s not interesting if Hamas says it. It’s interesting when Israelis say it. So I was looking: Who are the Israeli organizations blaming me and my friends of committing war crimes? And I found 16 organizations – all of them getting money from the NIF.
You know, just yesterday I went to the Friends of the IDF dinner and in front of the building there was a demonstration of several organizations calling to put [IDF Chief of Staff] Gabi Ashkenazi in jail. A couple of them were organizations sponsored by the NIF. If the NIF doesn’t think they are right, I will be more than happy if they stop sponsoring them.
What is Im Tirtzu’s goal? Why did you found it in 2006?
People in my generation try to kill sacred cows. We are trying to protect them. That’s our mission. So if some people don’t see the IDF as a sacred cow anymore, we are trying to protect it. If some people don’t see Jerusalem as a sacred cow anymore, we are trying to protect it. If people think the Holocaust can be denied, we are trying to protect it.
You bill your organization as “the second Zionist revolution.” What does that mean?
Every big revolution in the last century – socialism, communism, fascism, etc. – had energy for the first generation and then started going down. So we are trying to give spirit to the Zionist revolution and make a second one. Let’s give hope again to the people, to let them feel that they’re part of a great idea and can make a change.
Look at Israeli society today. It’s just inertia. My generation doesn’t have any clear answer for why they should risk their lives in order to ensure the existence of the Jewish state. We are trying to give answers.
How do you do that?
We are working inside campuses, advocating for Israel and Zionism on three levels: Zionism through the legs – tour the land; through the heart – celebrate Independence Day, Chanukah, etc.; and through the mind – explaining, lecturing, showing movies, etc.
We have branches right now in ten different universities with more than 25,000 members in the movement.
What do you tell Israelis who ask: Why should I live a precarious life in Israel when I can move to America and enjoy a comfortable existence?
Well, it depends on who’s asking. But generally I would say that we have the ability to be connected to a story of 3,500 years. We’re part of a nation living in a land where, every place you touch, you feel that you are part of a big, big chain. We have the opportunity to be part of a nation, and to see the chain all the way back and all the way to the future.
[Most] people in this world don’t have an opportunity of meaning. Lots of people don’t have meaning in life because they are not part of a community. This is what’s happening here in Western civilization; we are losing the inspiration of life. So when you’re part of a nation with such a beautiful history and such a beautiful future, this is an opportunity that we should [grasp].
We have the responsibility to make Israel and the world a better place. This is what our goal is, to be an ohr lagoyim. We’re lucky that we were born to a people with a great heritage and, potentially, a great future. But it’s all in our hands. This is the reason why Im Tirtzu is called Im Tirtzu [which means “If you will it”]. If we want, we can have it all, but if we don’t want
Some people argue that Zionism cannot exist without Judaism and to the extent that Judaism’s hold on the Jewish masses is weak, Zionism’s hold will also be weak. What’s your opinion?
I agree 100 percent. And I think one of the issues that we are dealing with in Israel is how to bring young secular kids closer to their heritage.
But you yourself are not ritually observant.
No, I grew up in Ramat HaSharon, which is a suburb of Tel Aviv, in a secular family.
But the Torah sees Judaism as the nation first, and then religion. How do we know? We are called the Jewish people before we got the Torah. Pharaoh called us a nation – “hinei am ratzu mi’menu.” When God asked the different nations to accept the Torah, we were one of them. In the book of Shoftim the people were not keeping the law, but they didn’t stop being a people.
This is how the Torah, God – not me – defines Judaism: first national, then religion. I have very strong feelings about, and an understanding of, the religion, but the question about what I do when I wake up in the morning is a whole different aspect.
Im Tirtzu claims to be neither left wing nor right wing. Which Zionist personalities, then, inspire Im Tirtzu’s ideology?
We have a couple of them. I would say Moshe Rabbeinu, Herzl, Jabotinsky, Berl Katznelson .
Don’t the writings of these leaders contradict one another?
No. They may have had their differences, but they were all committed Zionists.
You also have to understand that we’re not copying. We’re creating something new. I’m coming out soon with a book called Herzl’s Vision 2.0. I think it’s unique because most books about Zionism are not about Zionism; they’re about the archeology of Zionism – what Berl Katznelson or Jabotinsky thought 100 years ago. It’s too old; we need to have new ideological blood in the system.
My book tries to answer all the hard questions – Why stay in Israel? What does it mean to be a Zionist? etc. – for our generation.