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Israel Has Two Pirate Parties That Hate Each Other

BY Lisa Goldman | Wednesday, January 30 2013

Screenshot from Pirate Party Israel website.

In a famous skit from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, set in Ancient Judea when it was under Roman rule, protagonist Brian asks fellow Judean Reg if he and his followers are the Judean People’s Front. “Fuck off!” snarls Reg. “We’re the People’s Front of Judea!” Brian pleads to join their group, vowing that he hates the Romans “more than anyone.” Reg relents and agrees to admit Brian. But remember, he admonishes: “The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People's Front.”

In a case of life echoing fiction, Israel, a country of just over 7 million, has two Pirate Parties. One is called Pirate Party Israel and the other the Israel Pirate Party. Neither party recognizes the legitimacy of the other; nor do their founders have anything positive to say about one another.

Ohad Shem-Tov is one of the founders of Pirate Party Israel. At 33 he is already an experienced politician of sorts, or at least an experienced publicity seeker: In the 2009 Israeli national elections, he headed a small, controversial party called the The Green Leaf-Holocaust Survivors. The platform called for the legalization of cannabis for recreational use and an increase in benefits to Israeli Holocaust survivors living in poverty. The campaign advertisements — amateur videos that were uploaded to YouTube — featured Shem-Tov, who wears his long hair in a ponytail, and an old man with a concentration camp number tattooed on his forearm. The party did not receive sufficient votes to sit in the Knesset and is now a relic of history.

Shem-Tov ran again in the 2013 elections, but this time as head of Pirate Party Israel, the local branch of Pirate Party International. He collected the required signatures and presented himself at the Central Election Committee, wearing a tie emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and a plastic hook on one arm, to register the newly founded party.

When the Israeli media reported the event, a minor storm ensued.

Yoav Lifshitz, 31, stepped forward to announce that he headed the Israel Pirate Party, which had been active for several years. In an interview with techPresident Lifshitz readily acknowledged that he had not registered his Pirate party to run in the elections.

“We are not quite ready for that,” he explained in a soft voice, adding that the party intended to run candidates in the local elections, to be held in October.

Lifshitz described his branch of the Pirate party as a socialist, humanist organization, adding that most of the people involved were artists. “We see our party as a type of creativity,” he said. On a more pragmatic level, he added, “We want to be the first to promote the use of the Internet as a means of ensuring freedom of information.” He said that Shem-Tov was a “self promoter” and a “populist.”

“He just wants to be in the Knesset,” said Lifshitz. “Besides registering for the elections he hasn’t done anything.”

Shem-Tov responded angrily, accusing Lifshitz of being a liar. “According to Pirate rules, you’re not allowed to call yourself a party unless you’re registered. Just opening a Facebook page and saying you’re a party is a lie. I don’t want to deal with liars. That’s not my cup of tea.”

He went on to accuse Lifshitz of pocketing donations to his pirate party and of trying to prevent Shem-Tov’s Pirate party from running in the elections. “I wanted to send this son of a bitch to jail,” he said, adding that his colleagues in Pirate Party Israel had convinced him not to take action against Lifshitz.

Shem-Tov also claimed that he had successfully lobbied Facebook to have Lifshitz’s Pirate party page removed, but a quick search showed that the page is still there.

For the record: The Facebook page of the Israel Pirate Party, under Lifshitz’s stewardship, has received 790 “likes” as of this writing, while Pirate Party Israel’s page has received 101.

The genesis of the Pirate Party phenomenon was in Sweden, where the Piratpartiet was founded in 2006. With its non-partisan agenda of protecting the right to privacy, both digital and non-digital, and increasing transparency in state administration, the Swedish Pirates soon surpassed the left-environmental Green Party. It is now the country’s third-largest political party.

Also founded in 2006, the German Pirate Party saw significant political success in its first years, but has, as reported by Jon Worth for techPresident, since been in decline. The party failed to pass the threshold in state elections that were held earlier this month.

Over the past couple of years, Pirate Parties have sprung up all over the world. The website of the Pirate Party International, an umbrella group founded in 2010, lists 68 branches worldwide. But several of the links lead to non-existent websites or Facebook pages that have been closed down and deleted.

While the Pirates have staked out a serious political presence in Sweden and, to a lesser extent, in Germany, it seems that overall the various branches of this global movement are de facto echo chambers for small groups of like-minded people who have neither the will nor the ability to make an impact on local politics and society.

This is particularly true of the two Israeli Pirate groups. Shem-Tov’s party showed up as a slightly reported media curiosity going into the recent elections; while Lifshitz’s seems to be an ad hoc group of perhaps 40 people (according to Lifshitz's estimate) who embrace a vague agenda of digital freedom, government transparency and democracy.

Shem-Tov says the Pirate Party Israel’s platform is “to legalize cannabis, legalize same sex marriage, reduce the power of the ultra-Orthodox [in government affairs] and be part of a young, liberal international community.” They also advocate free public transportation, free higher education and completely free medical care (Israel already has a socialized national health system).

This sounds a bit vague, not to mention a reprise of the existing progressive parties’ platforms, I commented. Not at all, responded Shem-Tov. He referred to Meretz, an established progressive party that espouses civil marriage, gay rights and separation of religion and state, as “a big fat man that cannot function.”

To prove that his pirate party was practical, too, Shem-Tov pointed out that the party’s website included a section for Liquid Feedback, or direct online voting. He added that Pirate Party Israel had been the first to hold its primaries, or internal elections, online.

“Unlike the pirate parties in the other countries,” he said, “We are serious.”

As long as we were talking about serious matters, I asked Shem-Tov to outline his position on a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He responded that everything could be worked out via direct communication online, but did not offer any concrete prescriptions beyond that statement.

Lifshitz, who said he plans to translate his Pirate site into Arabic, also believes that transparency and participatory interaction is the key to resolving the conflict.

“We have to have a conversation with the citizens — not just impose decisions made from above. We don’t have a strong opinion regarding [how to resolve the conflict]. Our belief is in a more transparent and participatory system.”

Both Shem-Tov and Lifshitz seemed uncomfortable discussing their respective parties’ position on the conflict, preferring to concentrate on domestic issues. Lifshitz spoke about the need to increase the availability of information in Arabic for Israel’s Arabic-speaking minority. Shem-Tov spoke at length about the many threats Israel faced from its hostile neighbors.

“When it comes to security issues,” he said. “Israel is a special case. We can’t ignore that. We do need protection from our enemies and I trust the people in the government who are monitoring our digital security. They are good guys. I know some of them.”

Shem-Tov added, “It’s the immigrants, especially Russians, who are not democratically oriented. And the Arabs. They love strong leaders and they love power. This is disturbing. I believe in democracy.”

One of the candidates listed on the Pirate Party Israel website is an artist and writer named Rafram Chaddad, who is also a prominent advocate of the local Slow Food movement. When I contacted him via Facebook's messenger he said that he did not really understand what the Pirates were all about and suggested speaking with Shem-Tov for more information. “They brought me on as decoration,” he typed in Hebrew. “I’m not really involved.”

According to the breakdown published on the Knesset website (Hebrew), the PPI received 2,326 ballots, or 0.06 percent. In order to pass the threshold, a party must receive 75,000 ballots, or 2 percent.

Shem-Tov is not concerned about his party’s poor showing in the elections. “The idea was to plant a seed, to start something,” he said. “We did not really have the illusion that we would make it into parliament on our first try.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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