Some of Israel’s most prominent artists have been described as “leftwing moles”by a far-right group at the forefront of a growing campaign targeting activists and cultural figures perceived as being disloyal.
The billboard campaign by Im Tirtzu denounces figures – including two of Israel’s most internationally recognisable writers, Amoz Oz and David Grossman – as “infiltrators inside [Israeli] culture”.
It follows the recent release of a video by the group that accused leftwing NGO workers of being foreign agents.
The move – denounced as reminiscent of the US senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch-hunt in the 1950s – comes amid a wider campaign of pressure, including by government ministers, against groups and individuals regarded as critical of Israel.
A bill backed by Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, aims to compel Israeli human rights groups critical of Israel to disclose foreign government funding. The legislation, which would not apply to rightwing NGOs, has already been condemned by EU officials as potentially threatening to free speech.
Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, is seeking to limit government funding of the arts only to groups “loyal to the state”. Regev was booed while outlining the bill at Israel’s national theatre on Wednesday.
Im Tirtzu director Matan Peleg echoed some of Regev’s sentiments. “We’re sick of funding ‘artists’ who support mole organisations. This is disregard for the state of Israeland its values,” he said.
“Every time publicly elected officials in the state of Israel try to undertake the task they were given in the most democratic and legitimate way by the people, we encounter an automatic smear campaign by ‘people of culture’ who try to paint themselves as enlightened, as progressive and as ‘knowing better’ than the public.”
Cultural figures and politicians, including some from the political right, have criticised Im Tirtzu’s billboard initiative.
Israel’s opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, said: “The creative treasure of Israel’s artists and writers will survive forever. This Israeli McCarthyism and the losers spearheading it will disappear just like it did in the US. The question is when, and what will it cost us.”
Actor Sarit Vino-Elad, one of those on Im Tirtzu’s list, told Israeli television she feared the consequences of the campaign. “I’m sure that all of this will end in violence somehow – we are not far away from that at all,” she said.
The Im Tirtzu camapign coincides with moves backed by the justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, the education minister, Naftali Bennett, and Regev. The timing has raised suspicions among some Israelis that the moves may be connected, and one Israeli MP has written to the attorney general asking him to investigate any links.
Benny Begin, son of the former Israeli PM Menachim Begin and a prominent MP in Netanyahu’s party, denounced Im Tirtzu’s campaign as “fascist”.
He said: “This new activity of the Im Tirtzu denouncing ‘moles in culture’ marks a new record for ugliness, surpassing the film about moles in leftwing organisations. This is an attempt to plant the word ‘mole’ in the public’s mind as a synonym for traitor.
As the row grew on Thursday, Netanyahu felt compelled to intervene, saying: “I object to the use of the term ‘traitor’ for those who don’t agree with me.”
Im Tirtzu is no stranger to allegations of fascism. In 2013 a Jerusalem court ruled in favour of leftwing activists who had been sued for calling the group fascist, adding that they could use defences of freedom of speech and “spoken truth”.
“Seeking out, locating and labelling ostensible traitors is an ancient fascist symptom. It is both ugly and dangerous.”