Im Tirtzu is one of the most influential movements in Israel in recent years. It is also  a great example of the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,”as it appears to be leading the country down a dangerous path — all in the name of the seemingly admirable goal of “protecting the Zionist dream.”

Since its establishment, Im Tirtzu has built itself to be a prominent political organization whose key goal is to guide the public discourse and media in Israel by shaping public opinion and influencing policy. The movement’s main aspirations have been the reinvigoration of Zionist thought, discourse, and ideology in Israeli society, while building a Zionist elite that can lead the country. The organization believes that independence was only the beginning of the Zionist movement and that somewhere along the way Israel lost its faith in the “righteousness of its way” (Tzidkat Haderech – a commonly used idiom is Israel), the true Zionist way. In Im Tirtzu’s eyes, this faith should be restored based on the recognition of the Jewish people’s history.

For Im Tirtzu, the root of the problem is in the modern phenomenon of “Post-Zionism.” They explain this as “A phenomenon in which ideas and approaches that contradict the principles of Zionism have been adopted by people who identify themselves as Zionists but don’t see the contradiction.” According to Im Tirtzu, this “grave phenomenon” is “the most serious threat to the future of Zionism,” since it “is not clear and easy to distinguish, and therefore it succeeds in influencing public opinion and decision-making focal points.”

The group’s latest campaign was a huge protest against the appointment of Major General Yair Golan as the next chief of staff. The trigger for this attack was a speech Golan made back in 2016 at the National Holocaust Memorial Day Ceremony. The underlying theme of the speech was that the Holocaust Memorial Day is of course a day in which we remember the atrocities that have happened in Europe, but equally important, a vital and rare opportunity for soul-searching and self-reflection of our society. “It is scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe as a whole, and in Germany in particular, some 70, 80 and 90 years ago,” he noted, “and finding evidence of those trends here among us, today.” For Im Tirtzu, Golan committed the ultimate sin – comparing Israeli society to anything that has to do with Nazi Germany. These types of protests are exactly what the group would call “Post-Zionist behavior” and an example of working against the state.  Therefore, from Im Tirztu’s perspective, Golan is unworthy of the role and quite possibly a danger to the IDF if appointed.

But as is always the case with incitement, Golan’s statements were taken out of context. What Im Tirtzu failed to mention were Golan’s true intentions. He wasn’t comparing Israel to Nazi Germany but rather trying to bring awareness to the way in which we act toward each other as a society, reminding us that democracy is a fragile system that can slowly break down.  We should try and identify these trends while they are occurring. However, this misinterpretation was no accident on Im Tirtzu’s part. Rather, the willful misreading is the organization’s exact method of conduct, passing through society’s different domains while trying to mark people as “working against the state”.

This method was first used in Israel’s university campuses where most of Im Tirtzu’s work is focused. According to the organization, one can find an alarming amount of “anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli behavior” on campus. Their latest campaign was in the form of a letter sent to Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The letter included a list of professors who have been marked as working against the state, whether through the BDS movement and/or in so-called “radical” left-wing organizations. Im Tirtzu demanded the Council for Higher Education fire these professors and punish the universities that are in charge of hiring such scholars for allegedly brainwashing their students. By marking certain individuals in this way, Im Tirtzu seems to have succeeded in instantly damaging the unique autonomy and freedom of speech Israel’s universities so proudly maintain.

Im Tirtzu’s most controversial and most successful campaigns have aimed at shifting public discourse against the “other” in Israel and by this marking the enemy within. The group hased used full-length, prime-time television commercials that portray prominent Israeli left-wing and human rights activists, with their names and photographs, as “foreign agents;”“traitors,” who, according to the commercials, choose to advocate for and defend the lives of murderous terrorists over Israeli citizens. The objective is summed up in the slogan “when we fight against terrorism, they fight against us.” Claiming someone advocates for terrorism is a serious and dangerous accusation. Even nationalist right-wing Knesset members, such as Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party, said the campaign is “exactly the kind of dangerous and unhealthy exaggeration one should stray away from.”Nonetheless, Im Tirtzu’s message has steadily been penetrating Israel’s public discourse. Because of this, some Israelis see the mere suggestion that one should “self-reflect” on one’s own society as an act of treason, and could possibly lead to violence.  Incitement has resulted in real, physical harm in Israel, from the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 to an incident last week, when three young Israeli Arab men form Shfaram were assaulted while they were hanging out at the beach, simply for being Arab.

Golan’s speech seems to almost address Im Tirtzu directly. Just today Im Tirtzu activists felt the need to go down to Khan al-Ahmar to celebrate the High Court of Justice’s decision to allow the demolition of the West Bank Bedouin village. Im Tirtzu activists rejoiced in the midst of villagers mourning the loss of their homes, showing us again how easy it is lose all sense of compassion towards those different from us. Evidently, clear lines can be drawn between some of the “horrifying developments” Golan reminded us of and Im Tirtzu’s specific actions . The power that group possess stems from their genuine belief that they are saving the country, “building the Zionist dream” and bringing it back to its days of glory. The problem is that their methods leave Israelis without any real way to be self-critical or introspective without being accused of being pro-terrorism. Im Tirtzu has also led us to believe that Zionism is something that can be measured. Apparently, they hold the secret equation.

Such philosophical and complicated questions such as “what is Zionism?” and “who is a Zionist?” surely should not be left to one group of people alone to answer, especially one that takes such a blind and fundamentalist approach as Im Tirtzu does. That is not the way democracy works, and definitely not the way Zionism works. A democracy that truly believes in the “righteousness of its way” shouldn’t be afraid of self-criticism. As best put by Yair Golan himself, “there is nothing easier than simply hating the stranger; there is nothing easier than arousing anxiety and terrifying people. There is nothing easier than to simply become accustomed to dehumanizing, violating, and hypocrisy.” And finally, as if responding directly to Im Tirtzu themselves,- “we believe in the righteousness of our way, but not everything we do is right.”