Yesterday I had an interview with Amit Barak, one of the founders of Im Tirtzu, a student-led Zionist movement begun four years ago on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It has since spread to eight additional university and college campuses around the country and boasts an active membership committed to promoting public discussion of Zionism, Jewish cultural values, and their relevance to the political sphere.
Im Tirtzu identifies itself as a “centrist extra-parliamentary movement that strives to strengthen the values of Zionism in Israel and to renew and reinstate Zionist discourse, thinking and ideology in order to secure the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel and strengthen Israeli society in the challenges it faces.” Taking their name from Theodor Herzl’s famous phrase, “Im tirtzu ein zo agadah” (If you will it, it is no dream), they have a mission of renewing Israeli commitment to Zionism and challenging the state’s detractors both within Israeli society and academia.
As a basic political platform, Amit told me that they believe in taking from both the left and the right. The idea of Eretz Yisrael HaShleyma (the whole Land of Israel), he argues, was over in the 1990s with the Oslo Accords, but also the idea of withdrawing to the pre-1967 borders remains unthinkable. From the left, they recognize that Israel has a demographic problem and from the right they recognize that Israel also faces a security problem.
While these two principles shape their understanding of what Israel’s final borders should be, they too believe that Israel’s final borders must take into account Jewish history and identity in the land. First and foremost, they maintain that Jerusalem must remain the united, undivided capital of Israel as a basic tenant of Zionism. If Israel were to divide Jerusalem and give up those parts of the city which are central to Jewish history in the land, namely the Old City, Ir David, and the rest of the holy basin, Israel would lose its legitimacy to exist in the land. Amit argued that while the Arabs have always maintained that Israel is a colonial state, if it were to give up Jerusalem, the “heart of the Jewish people and Zionism”, it would only confirm these accusations.
I asked what my host and the organization in general believes are needed by Israel for a viable peace agreement. At the outset, I was given a very hard-hitting presentation of the critical security concerns expressed by Israel, which are familiar to most who have studied the conflict. Israel has always maintained that if there is to be a Palestinian state, it must be demilitarized. Moreover, Israel must maintain control of critical mountain ridges and the Jordan rift valley which provides a “natural wall” between Israel and Jordan for the country’s defense.
But, Amit argued, it is not all about security; also critically important is history. Im Tirtzu believes that Israel has rights “all over the country.” While Israel and the Jewish people will “have these rights forever,” the state cannot work by this right; it cannot maintain exclusive control of the whole of the land. This is not only because of the demographic problem so often cited by others I have interviewed, but because “there is another authority in Yehuda and Shomron,” the Palestinian Authority.
That said, Israel “needs to keep Jewish national and historical places in Yehuda and Shomron.” Including in this list are sites like the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, and Joseph’s Tomb. While he believes that it will be the army, geographers, demographers, and politicians who will ultimately draw the final map, he sincerely hopes that they will take such historic and religiously significant cites into account.
With regard to Jerusalem, the organization contends that neighborhoods like Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Ya’akov must remain as part of the State of Israel, despite their relative remoteness from the center of the city. Here Amit pointed out that these neighborhoods were Jewish before 1948 and they should remain so now. As for places like the Old City, Ir David, the Mount of Olives, and Shimon HaTzaddik/Sheikh Jarrah, these all the more so must remain under Israeli control because of their deep Jewish history. While this will certainly require giving full Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians who live there (originally offered and rejected by Arabs immediately following 1967), this is a small demographic price to pay for Israeli control over areas critical to its national heritage.
Im Tirtzu emphasizes actions over words and engagement with the public over meetings. As such, their membership regularly participates in rallies and protests, both in support of unpopular Israeli actions as in the Mavi Mamarra incident and against the activities of “radicals” on campus. More frequently, the organization hosts panel discussions and lectures by people across the political spectrum so that students can hear all sides of the political debate, rather than simply those of the radical left which they believe permeate Israeli academia.
Beyond their campus activities, Im Tirtzu reaches out to groups in the public at large. It is also particularly active in promoting co-existence and dialogue with Israel’s non-Jewish minorities. Through their regular contact and programs with Druze, Bedouin, and Arab Christian communities, they hope to educate Israelis that their are those in society here who are not Jewish but believe in and wish to be active citizens of a Jewish state.
The academic and political environment to which the organization is responding, they argue, is one in which Zionism is regularly portrayed as a negative force in society and politics which must be overcome or dismantled in favor of a non-Zionist state. Although some 80% of Israelis identify themselves as Zionist, relatively few courses are taught on university campuses which explore the positive elements of this identity. Rather, particularly in the departments of history, psychology, sociology, and political science, a hugely disproportionate number of courses are offered which are highly critical of or openly reject Zionism, the Israeli state, and Jewish national identity.
The organization has also made headlines recently for its examination of the New Israel Fund (NIF), a left-leaning US-based non-profit organization that sees its mission as promoting “social justice and equality for all Israelis.” Im Tirtzu charges that some 92% of the Goldstone report’s documentation which alleged that Israel engaged in war crimes during Operation Cast Lead came from 16 Israeli NGOs funded by the NIF. The report has been heavily criticized in Israel as unbalanced, based on shoddy evidence, and biased a priori against Israel’s operation.
Critics of Im Tirtzu, and there are many, charge that the organization is cultivating a kind of academic McCarthyism, seeking to shut down critical self-evaluation in Israel and abrogate academic freedom of speech on campus. Amit responds that they are hardly the side seeking to silence public discussion, rather they are seeking to open up what they see as a one-sided conversation on campus and in Israeli intellectual circles. He notes that Israeli students are often afraid to voice their opposition to the ideologies of their professors and are under tremendous institutional and social pressure to conform.
This, Im Tirtzu argues, is hardly conducive to academic freedom of speech nor is it particularly democratic itself. Indeed, they believe this to be the organization’s greatest success: that it has helped create a space in Israeli academia where students can voice their beliefs without fear of retaliation. These effects have been felt across Israel. At Ben Gurion University, Im Tirtzu has urged students to leave and donors to withdraw in response to calls by a professor there for an academic boycott of Israel. At Haifa University where students have circulated petitions calling for the boycott of some 20 anti-Israel professors.
While opinions vary widely as to the legitimacy or illegitimacy of these moves and countermoves, Im Tirtzu has succeeded in breeching a long-mute discussion about politics in academia in Israel. This may be an ideal opportunity for both sides to move beyond mutual accusations of McCarthyism and toward a deeply needed self-reflection about the place of academic power, freedom of speech, and national identity.