For more than three years Ronen Shoval and Erez Tadmor, classmates at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, have been building Im Tirtzu into a nationwide student network with chapters at nine Israeli universities.
But it wasn’t until last week, when the group ran an advertisement in several Israeli papers claiming that the much-maligned Goldstone report on Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war last winter would have been impossible without the contributions of Israeli NGOs supported by the New Israel Fund, that the pair found themselves in the international spotlight.
Tadmor and Shoval describe themselves as bookish, entrepreneurial types who have identified a gap in the Israeli psyche.
“All my life, when my friends went to parties, I read Jabotinsky and Herzl,” Tadmor said. “This is my character, my nature.”
The controversy over the attacks against NIF has thrust Im Tirtzu into a long-simmering dispute over where criticism of the Jewish state crosses the line into treason and anti-Zionism, while making the organization vulnerable to charges it is merely part of a wider effort to intimidate and silence the Israeli left and its American Jewish backers.
On the latter point, Shoval and Tadmor, both 29, make no apologies. They say that some on the left end of the political spectrum have lost their commitment to the idea of a Jewish state.
NIF’s defenders have sought to portray the duo as ideologues advancing a right-wing political agenda, but both say that Im Tirtzu is a centrist organization aimed at boosting Zionist ideals across the political spectrum.
Tadmor volunteers for the Likud Party and once worked as a reporter for a nationalist newspaper. Im Tirtzu has previously received funding from John Hagee Ministries and supporters of the settlement movement. And both founders profess admiration for Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological father of the movement that espoused the concept of Greater Israel extending into what is now Jordan and eventually produced the Likud Party.
Shoval insists that Im Tirtzu has nothing to do with the tug of war between left and right nor the fight over land captured by Israel in 1967.
“We are fighting about the identity of the state,” he said, adding, “You can be a very good Zionist and say we must leave almost all the territories. And you can be a good Zionist and say we must stay in all the territories.”
In their bid to spark what they describe as a second Zionist revolution, the pair has demonstrated a willingness to play rough (see opposite page), but also to play for laughs (in a satirical YouTube video) and merchandising revenue (want a Herzl, Ben-Gurion, or Begin T-shirt?).
Shoval, a high-tech executive, is cagey about his future plans, a subject of speculation in the wake of the NIF incident. While he won’t rule out a future in politics, he maintains the moment is not yet ripe.