Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Are Israeli campuses vulnerable to what has happened at American universities?

Are Israeli campuses vulnerable to what has happened at American universities?

A conversation with Douglas Altabef, of "Im Tirtzu," on what he believes can, and should, be done.
Douglas Altabef (Courtesy)

Yes, President Biden has visited, and yes, there are elections coming up. Yes, relations with Saudi Arabia may be warming up. Turkey, too. But it’s so far been a relatively quiet summer in Israel, and we’re going to use that gift of quiet as a time to reflect broadly and to focus on a series of fascinating educational projects being conducted across Israel, all of them committed to deepening the Jewishness of Israel and Israelis’ commitment to the Jewish State.

Given how toxic American and European campuses have become for those openly committed to Israel’s security and flourishing, we begin this series of conversations by looking at Israeli campuses. Our conversation is about Im Tirtzu (“If you will it,” as Herzl said), a Zionist non-governmental organization based in Israel, that is working to ensure that what is happening abroad does not unfold on Israel’s campuses.

Our conversation is with Douglas Altabef, Chairman of the Board at Im Tirtzu. Doug immigrated to Israel after a very successful career in the US, is a resident of both Rosh Pinah and Jerusalem, he has been involved with Im Tirtzu for quite some time, and is now at the helm of its board. What’s happening on Israel’s campuses? Is intervention needed in Israel as it is in the US and Europe? That, and more, is what Doug and I discussed when we met up recently.

If you would like to learn more about Im Tirtzu, please visit their homepage.

I'm a native New Yorker, spent my whole life in New York, other than three- four years in the Boston area for school. My wife and I have been together for 24 years and we grew more Jewish together, we grew more Zionistic together. When we started coming to Israel, we were taken to this sleepy little town called Rosh Pina up north. My wife fell in love with it, and we kept going back. One year, we saw a house for sale, and we bought it on the spot. We don't know why, but it turned out to be where we planted our flag, and now we're here. I was working in New York, I co-owned a money management firm and retired in 2014 and right when I retired, I was asked to join the board of Im Tirtzu. I'd been a donor, I'd been a strategic advisor, and so I was able to very seamlessly transition from the business world to the Im Tirtzu NGO World.

Im Tirtzu was started in 2007 in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. When soldiers who were returning to their university classrooms, specifically at the Hebrew University, were told that the army that they had just fought in had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity and that the country that they were defending was a colonialist occupying power. So Im Tirtzu was self- generated by these students. And we have a dual mission. The dual mission comes from the Tanach- distance yourself from evil and do good. All of our activities are in Israel.  We try education on Zionist values, to make sure that our citizens understand implicitly how wonderful a place this is.

People should be scratching their heads right now and saying, “Wow, an organization to promote Zionism in the Jewish state. When I first heard about this phenomenon in Israel, I said, “Isn't this like telling someone that they should love their grandmother?”

Well, the answer is no. One of the things that we have done on campuses, and this goes back now three or four years, is we've assembled a course guide. It's called Know Your Professor. And when I was at Columbia, they were just starting to do course guides. It's all caveat emptor. And this is caveat emptor about professors who you can reasonably expect to be sitting in their class and to be harangued with a narrative that is similar to the one that I mentioned, that was formative in getting us started. “Israel is illegitimate. Israel is doing unspeakable things.” And it's not to say the professor should be fired, there is academic freedom, but it's caveat emptor. Buyer beware.

In a perfect world, you'd like to shine a light so that people would say, “I really don't want to be part of this.” I told this to a friend of mine who was at Tel Hai. Tel Hai is a college all the way up north, close to the Lebanon border. And she said, “You know, I had a professor who was so browbeating of us about the narrative, and if you didn't subscribe to the narrative, you flunk the course.” She said, “I only wish there was an Im Tirtzu chapter, a place to go, where I could have talked about what happened.”

So, people who are listening ought to at least be aware of the painful irony of this because Tel Hai is the place where Joseph Trumpeldor, according to Zionist legend at least, said “It's good to die for our land.” What else is Im Tirtzu doing on campuses to help students?

We do rallies. We had until COVID, what the Jerusalem Post called the “largest extracurricular academic initiative in Israel”, which was the Seminars for Zionists Thought. So, at Hebrew University, and at that five of the leading campuses, we would have every other week a free lecture by what I would call an A-list speaker from academia or media, government, culture, whatever, talking about issues pertaining to our society and Zionist history. And it was very popular. Typically 200 students would come.

COVID ended that, of course, but we took some spare change and made a little studio in our offices, which define modest, by the way, and now we do the Zionist Salon. So, we're now able to reach hundreds of thousands of people. We have a citizen's army, so we have a reciprocal deal with our soldiers. They protect us, and in our way, we seek to protect them. So, we protect them in two ways. One was we created a wonderful initiative that I call filming the filmers. If you go to sensitive checkpoints or guard posts in Judea and Samaria, you will often see European visitors, some are Israelis, standing literally two inches away from a soldier with a camera. And what they do is they hold a smartphone up to the soldier right in his face, and they start screaming at him, “How can you do this? You must be ashamed of yourself. This is an embarrassment. You are disgusting”. And what they're really hoping to get is a reaction so they can upload the reaction. So, what we started to do was send what I call our video commandos to the same place. And we hold a phone up to the people holding the phones up to the soldiers, and we're saying, “Why are you here? This is disgusting. Go home. Why are you harassing our soldiers?” And it’s proven to be very effective.

A few years ago, two soldiers independently came into our offices and said, “You're not going to believe this, but I was denied service in a restaurant because I showed up in a uniform.” And we didn’t believe it. So, we went back with them in uniform to the two restaurants. One was an Arab restaurant in Haifa, one was a Jewish restaurant in Tel Aviv. Sure enough, the same thing happened. So, we went to some friends in the Knesset, told them what happened, and a few weeks later, legislation was overwhelmingly passed that said, you cannot deny service in a public accommodation to a soldier uniform.

Is that earth shattering? No, but it is it makes a difference. It's walking the walk. It's saying, if you believe in a Zionist society, if you believe that your soldiers are doing important work, then you should be there to protect them.

Another thing that we did dealt with this issue of foreign funding, or foreign governmental funding, of what I would call anti-Zionist, Israeli NGOs, particularly organizations like Breaking the Silence, B'Tselem, Machsom Watch, Adala.

The funding for these organizations comes from the EU or NGOs tied to the EU or the government of Scotland, the government of Germany and very close to all of the funding is coming from foreign governments or NGOs associated with foreign governments.

Now, look, the real damage that's done by Breaking the Silence or B'Tselem  is when they show up at the European Parliament to, quote, unquote, testify about war crimes being committed by Israel. Now, imagine yourself, you are a delegate from Latvia that doesn't necessarily know Israel all that well. You're hearing someone coming all the way from Israel to talk about how unspeakable Israel is. The natural reaction is, “I better pay attention because this guy is really upset and he must be speaking some kind of a truth or else why the hell would he be coming here?” Well, he's coming there because his plane ticket is paid for, his budget is paid for. And the very cynical thing is, this is what I would call backdoor foreign policy. The Europeans know that if they go sit down with the Israelis, their counterparts, they're not going to get very far. So, it's easier to sort of espouse those same positions through Israeli organizations that have the credibility of being Israeli. Now, at one time in this country, these organizations were thought of as, quote, unquote, human rights organizations. But when we really made it very clear that they were getting this kind of funding from European governments, there was a real profound shift in the public's mindset about what these organizations were really about, which is not human rights.

So we were involved with what became known as the Transparency Law. There is now, and it's a much weaker law than, say, the Foreign Agent Act in the United States, but there is a law that says you have to disclose if you get more than 50% of your funding from a foreign government, you have to tell the people in the Knesset. So that is something that is on the books now. It's being evaded somewhat because the foreign governments have basically set up Israeli straw companies to disperse the money to other Israeli NGOs.

So, let's talk about something that is not campus related. It is societally related. We’re still extremely active on campuses, but we now realize that we are basically the voice or the mirror of the values of middle Israel, what I would call Middle Israel, regular people. And how do I know this? Because we are now, and this may be unique among Israeli NGOs, we will this year get a majority of our funding from grassroots sources in Israel. Regular Israeli people. We also get from private donors. We get no government money, and we don't want government money because we have no attachments to any political parties, and we don't want to be seen to be beholden to any government entities. But we're very proud of the fact that more and more of our funding is grassroots funded.

So, what is the issue that we are trying to instill in our citizens? And that is the issues concerning Israel's assertion of its sovereignty, Israel’s assertion of its control. So, I’ll give you a very high-profile example. The recent flag in Jerusalem. There were voices saying that we shouldn't do the parade this year. They said, “Don't be provocative. Don't do the flag parade”. And in fact, the route was changed a little bit this year. We were intent on doing the flag parade precisely because we were getting statements from Hamas saying, “Don't you dare mess with our Jerusalem.” And “We will not abide by this thuggery, Zionist and Talmudic thuggery in the streets of Jerusalem.” So, the real provocation, of course, is coming from them. And the greater sin is to say, “Okay, we don't want to make up trouble.” Now, as you know, the ramifications for the Jerusalem Day parade were nigh on to zero. There was no rocket fire. There were a handful of hotheads who said, “Death to Arabs”, all of whom, by the way, were told by people around them, “Shut up, you don't know what you're talking about.”

I was going to ask you about that. Obviously, you and I do not think that Jews being in the Old City is thuggery, but some of our listeners might say, “Well, I actually saw clips of thuggery.” So, you're saying is that Im Tirtzu has nothing to do with that stuff?

No, of course not. Look, we are very supportive of non-Jewish minorities who support the Jewish state. So, we have an annual Zionist Human Rights Conference, and we honor Bedouins who are doing well in the army, as well as Druzim. It really is a very powerful day and a very powerful event. So absolutely we are not exclusionists at all. But we do worry that we don't live in the 51st state. Okay? And your listeners need to know this. Israel lives in a very tough neighborhood, and this may sound very politically incorrect, but the Palestinians have two speeds, either their foot is on your neck, or your foot is on their neck. And they are very sensitive to power. They understand power very well. They respect power and they understand the absence of power is not accommodation, it's not being reasonable, it's not a dose of nuance. It is weakness. And guess what? Weakness is meant to be exploited, it's to be taken advantage of. We're not the neighborhood bullies, or we are, as Bob Dylan said, but it's not because we want to strut our stuff, it's because we don't have a choice.

So, I just want to give people a little bit of context. Some people are listening and nodding their heads, and some people are listening and shaking their heads. They're going to say, that can't possibly be right. That's very not nuanced. I'm not taking a slide one way or the other, but I would say that it's worth people to go back and read Zeev Jabotinsky’s classic essay from the 1920s called Iron Wall in which Jabotinsky himself said the only chance for peace eventually is for them to recognize that there's no dislodging us. So, the first thing we have to do in order to get peace is an iron wall. So just for people that are listening to this and saying “Wow, this attitude to power, do I buy that? Do I not buy that?” There's been different views. But I think people should know that this new. For 100 years there's been a major voice in Zionism talking about the need for power.

I know that Im Tirtzu sees the New Israel Fund in a particularly problematic light. And I just want to understand from your perspective, so our listeners can just understand what does Im Tirtzu see as problematic about the NIF?

I have no problem with the New Israel Fund giving money to Hadassah Hospital and I suspect a fair amount of their donations are parve in that sense. But I do have a problem with them underwriting these same kinds of organizations and that's where we have taken them to test. The other thing about the New Israel Fund, and they don't make many bones about this, is they're not interested in keeping Israel as a Jewish state as opposed to a state of its citizens. That was a stated position of one of the presidents of the New Israel Fund. The former president once said some public forum, “if Israel stopped being a Jewish state, I wouldn't be upset.” I don't really know [if this is still a stated position]. It wouldn't surprise me if it is. But when you hear something like that if that's the context that's fairly telling. And you ask what we're about, we're not political, we're agnostic about two states, three states, twelve states.

No position on two state solution?

No, we don't have a position. We have a position that we do not want to divide Jerusalem. And we have a position that Israel must remain a Jewish and democratic state.

That's a widespread Israeli consensus. No position on the annexation?


So, Im Tirtzu has a position on Jerusalem, that it should remain the undivided capital of the state of Israel. Israel should remain a Jewish state. The legitimacy of Zionism, which you mentioned in our conversation. Anything else that I could say?

And that anti-Zionism needs to be called out. The legitimacy of Israel from within needs to be called out.

So, let's come back to grassroots. You said that Im Tirtzu is the largest grassroots organization in Israel. And the reason I wanted to come back to it is when we started our conversation, you were talking about the kinds of things that could make a person hearing them want to hang themselves. Kids are going to universities, and the professors are haranguing them. People are going into restaurants, and restaurants won't serve them in an IDF uniform. And one could say to himself, listening to you, “My God, what's happening in this country?” But the good news is, of course, is that you said that you're the largest grassroots organization. So, in a lot of ways, I think it's fair to say that the groundswell of Israeli population, left, right, religious, secular are not where these professors are and are not where these restaurants are?

Absolutely. Listen, I am so confident about the future of this country, and I say this as an old guy mentoring the young people who really make Im Tirtzu work, because they have a sense of responsibility, they have a sense of commitment. They have a sense of passion and love of this country that you cannot make up. You're either that way or you're not. And the other thing is we have a dysfunctional government, but we have a very strong polity. We have a very strong citizenry. And maybe it's because more than half of our citizens have seen a movie that they do not want to see the sequel to. Meaning they are Jews from Arab countries who lived under Arab control, or they're Russians from the Soviet Union who lived under Communism, and they've been inoculated against a lot of stuff that they have an easy time saying, “Don't even go there.”

Im Tirtzu is growing. We often survey our citizens about positions that we take. And the idea that we're mirroring the values of middle Israel is not born out of my wishful thinking. It's born out of responses that we're getting from people. But the most important thing, and we talked about this a minute ago, is I'm very optimistic for the future of this country. I really think, to paraphrase Churchill, Israel is the worst country there is, except for all the others. And we do a lot of things really well. We are highly adept at screwing up many things. But the really important stuff, I think we get on a very deep level.

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Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:

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