Monday, December 21, 2015

Why Im Tirzu Sees The West As Israel's Enemy

Im Tirzu's accusations that leaders of Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem are "foreign agents" is a strange move. Lashing out against left-wing organizations is not a new phenomenon in Israel. However, the accusation that these groups are made up of foreign agents answering to the European Union and its member states is puzzling given that Israel's biggest foreign adversaries are Arab and Persian, not European. Ultimately, Im Tirzu's focus on "foreign European agents" is designed to manipulate Israeli anxiety over strained ties with Europe, and control the Zionist discourse in Israel.

Accusations that someone is a "foreign agent" are popular in the Middle East. Shi'a are labeled "Iranian agents," Liberals are labeled "Western agents," and almost anything else (including sharks and pigeons) are labeled "Zionist agents." While such conspiracies also exist in the West (ie Jews as Israeli agents, Muslims as ISIS agents) the lack of government transparency and accountability in the Middle East can exacerbate the traction of these ideas. They are usually directed toward entire communities in the political opposition as a way of undermining the legitimacy of their participation in political debate.

Israel and its supporters usually point out that Israel's Arab minority would rather live in Israel than a Palestinian state. However, Im Tirzu targets not Arabs but rather Ashkenazic Jewish individuals and the NGOs they lead. In 2010, Im Tirzu blamed the New Israel Fund for the controversial UN Goldstone Report against Israel and mentioned that NIF was registered in the United States. They later published an ad featuring a caricature of NIF President Naomi Chazan sporting a horn. In light of the discourse around leftist NGOs, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has come under fire for submitting a bill earlier this year that would cut off foreign funding to NGOs that, in the opinion of the state, undermine Israel. 

Given that Israel's biggest international threats come from Arab states and Iran, it is odd that Im Tirzu would construct Europe and the US as enemies planting foreign agents. Especially given that until 2009, Im Tirzu itself received funding from American Pastor John Hagee ($100,000 to be exact). What explains this puzzling (and, one might say, hypocritical) criticism?

One reason is that Israel has faced increasing pressure from European states, generating domestic resentment. These include Germany's support for labeling settlement products, Sweden's declared intention to recognize Palestine, the election of pro-Palestinian MP Jeremy Corbyn as head of Britain's Labor Party, a British academic boycott of Israel, and an EU ban on funding Israeli activity beyond the Green Line. Israelis consider these actions unfair and unnecessary, and react with fear over the extent to which Israel-Europe ties have been harmed (though Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's reactionary policies hardly helped). The idea that Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem are exacerbating the crumbling of this vital relationship plays upon these fears while also absolving Israel of any responsibility for the diplomatic mess in which it finds itself.

The other reason is that Im Tirzu seeks to advance its own particular version of Zionism, and left wing Ashkenazic Israelis threaten this ability. Im Tirzu is unapologetic about its desire to suffocate the debate that has been at the core of Zionism since 1897 and led to the creation of Israel's modern democratic political system. It intends to police the Zionist debate and have authority over which forms of Zionism are "acceptable" in Israel. In May 2010, for example, Im Tirzu demanded that Ben Gurion University shut down it's political science department for representing "the radical Left." Framing liberal Zionist leaders as "foreign agents" is an easy way to undermine opponents of Im Tirzu's version of Zionism while constructing the group as a "gate keeper" of Zionist discourse.

While Israel's reaction to these accusations has been representative of its strong democratic discourse, analysts should not underestimate the danger of radical populism in Israel. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem, but they are nonetheless a part of Israel's civil society and play an important role in the discourse over what Israel represents and for what it should strive in the future.


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