Will arrest of Lehava leader extinguish anti-assimilation activists’ fervor?
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Will arrest of Lehava leader extinguish anti-assimilation activists’ fervor?

Opponents of extreme right-wing group believe police action against Bentzi Gopshtain may have come too late

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Lehava head Bentzi Gopstein at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court in Jerusalem on December 18, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Lehava head Bentzi Gopstein at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court in Jerusalem on December 18, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israelis opposed to the extreme Jewish anti-assimilation group Lehava are cautiously optimistic that the arrest by police on Tuesday of its leader Benzi Gopshtain, along with nine others, will put an end to its racist and segregationist activities. They are waiting to see whether criminal charges will be brought and will stick, snuffing out the organization, whose name is a Hebrew acronym meaning “flame.”

According to a police statement, the arrests came after a complex and extensive undercover investigation into the activities of Lehava, which has acted to prevent not only intermarriage, but also general coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Gopshtain and the others are suspected of inciting to violence and acts of terror motivated by racism.

Additionally, three young Lehava members were formally charged on Monday for an arson and vandalism attack last month on Jerusalem’s Max Rayne Hand in Hand bilingual (Hebrew-Arabic) School, after having confessed to committing the crime during questioning.

While some Israelis may have only paid attention to Lehava after the torching of the school on November 29, others, such as the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, have been working for years to stop Lehava, whose full name in Hebrew translates as “Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land.”

“We have lodged 40 to 50 complaints with the attorney general against Lehava and its leaders since 2010, and we only got one serious answer to any of them,” IRAC executive director Anat Hoffman told The Times of Israel.

‘This government has demonstrated that it does not consider racism an important issue’

“Laws exist against publishing and disseminating material that incites. There’s a punishment of five years in prison for doing it, but there has been a lack of determination on the part of the attorney general and the police to enforce the law,” she said.

Fed up with the lack of response to its complaints, IRAC, together with a number of other organizations, filed a petition with the High Court of Justice against the attorney general this past October. The petition, demanding that the attorney general investigate Lehava, lists dozens of examples of allegedly illegal activity by the group, from creating a hotline for reporting on individuals who sell or rent their apartments to Arabs, to harassing businesses that employ Arabs, to setting up patrols of young men to “protect” Jewish girls from Arab men. The petition is pending, with the court having given the state an extension to file its response until early January.

Three members of the anti-assimilation  Lehava organization, suspects in an arson attack on a Jewish-Arab school, are brought to a hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on December 15, 2014.  (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Three members of the anti-assimilation Lehava organization, suspects in an arson attack on a Jewish-Arab school, are brought to a hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on December 15, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This government has demonstrated that it does not consider racism an important issue,” said Hoffman, who believes Gopshtain’s arrest is too little too late.

“If his arrest had taken place four years ago, then maybe it could have prevented some of the horrifying incidents we have seen, like the murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir,” she said, referring to the immolation killing of a teenage boy from East Jerusalem’s Shuafat neighborhood on July 2, allegedly by Israeli Jew Joseph Ben-David and two accomplices in retaliation for the murder by Palestinian terrorists of kidnapped Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-ad Shaer.

Lehava is believed to have formed around 2009 when a few different groups working to “save” Jewish girls from seduction by non-Jews (namely Arabs) joined forces.

‘The problems is that Arabs also treat it as a war. Part of their struggle, pardon the expression, is to fuck Jewish girls, to fuck the Jews, to humiliate us’

In an interview for a documentary aired this fall on Australian television, Gopshtain is seen whipping up his young followers, primarily from Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements, and explaining why he believes Arab men are not interested in Jewish women for purely romantic reasons.

“The problem is that Arabs also treat it as a war. Part of their struggle, pardon the expression, is to f*ck Jewish girls, to f*ck the Jews, to humiliate us,” he said.

Gopshtain also didn’t mince words when the interviewer asked about what seems to be his vision of sealing off the 20 percent of the Israeli population that is Arab from the majority Jewish population.

“Maybe they need to go to Australia. We want here just people who think this is a Jewish state. If someone doesn’t think it’s a Jewish state then you can take him to Australia or the United States, I don’t care,” he said with a smirk.

In May 2011, Haaretz published an investigative report indicating that while Lehava is not a registered NGO, Gopshtain and others involved with Lehava are closely associated with a non-profit organization called Hemla (Mercy), which purportedly assists poor families and rehabilitates girls from broken homes or in danger of conversion or becoming involved in crime. Haaretz reported that Hemla received at the time NIS 600,000-700,000 per year in state funding, amounting to approximately half of its annual operating budget.

Israelis deeply disturbed by Lehava’s activities are pleased about the arrests and hope Gopshtain and the other Lehava activists will be convicted.

“I hope they get put away for a long time,” said Emanuel Miller, a 27-year-old student from Jerusalem, who stood up to some Lehava “thugs” who confronted him and some of his friends from a Zionist student group as they staged a peaceful sit-in against revenge attacks in Zion Square on July 2. The prior evening, Lehava members were part of a mob that attacked Arabs and police officers, resulting in the arrest of 47 people for disorderly conduct.

“I’m a religious Jew. However, for me their approach is totally in contravention of the peaceful ways of the Torah. My religious friends and I utterly and unanimously condemn these extremists,” he said.

‘Their approach is totally in contravention of the peaceful ways of the Torah. My religious friends and I utterly and unanimously condemn these extremists.’

Beruria Steinmetz-Silber, also a 27-year-old student in Jerusalem, said she had friends who had glass bottles thrown at them by Lehava activists as they were similarly demonstrating peacefully against revenge attacks in the city center this summer.

She personally witnessed a group of children ages eight to 14 wearing t-shirts with Kahanist slogans beating up a young man presumed to be Arab. (Meir Kahane was an ultranationalist Jewish leader assassinated in 1990, and whose Kach party is banned in Israel.)

“There was a couple sitting on a bench in the center of town. I saw the kids go up to them and I heard them ask the woman if she was a Jew and the man if he was an Arab. I couldn’t hear the couple’s responses, but then the kids started hitting the guy. He got up and tried to walk away, but the group circled him and one of the kids got on the phone to someone,” said Steinmetz-Silber, who reported what she had observed to a nearby police officer.

“I am pretty sure that this was a case of Lehava sending kids to do its dirty work,” she said.

Lehava protesters hold signs reading "assimilation is a Holocaust" and shout anti-coexistence slogans near Tel Aviv on August 17, 2014. (Photo credit: Flash 90)
Lehava protesters hold signs reading “assimilation is a Holocaust” and shout anti-coexistence slogans near Tel Aviv on August 17, 2014. (Photo credit: Flash 90)

Meanwhile, parents sending their children to Jewish-Arab integrated schools are not going to let Gopshtain and his followers deter them from raising their children in an atmosphere where coexistence is normative.

Maya Norton, who works at the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, believes that her sending her two children to the integrated Hagar School in Beersheba makes an important statement at a time when right-wing extremists are working to inject hatred and racism in to Israeli society.

“It just makes what we are doing even more urgent and important,” she said. “I only wish there were more than just a handful of schools like ours around the country.”

Norton is firm in her conviction that life in Israel must be about shared living and cultural and social diversity. She wants her children to be fluent in Arabic, as well as Hebrew, and to consider their being Jewish as a factor of their identity, but not the defining characteristic of who they are — and especially not as something that separates them from the Arabs that live in Israel.

‘How would I even explain something like this to him? I didn’t want to bring it in to his frame of reference.’

The Hagar School was the target of anti-Arab stickering by Lehava activists (Gopshtain claimed in the documentary that he prints stickers and gives them to people, but doesn’t have responsibility for they do with them), but Norton did not talk to her six-year-old son about this. She also didn’t tell him about the arson attack at the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem.

“How would I even explain something like this to him? I didn’t want to bring it in to his frame of reference,” she said. “He doesn’t know people dislike other people based on various criteria.”

Last week Gopshtain issued a statement that he refused to condemn the Lehava activists accused of torching the Hand in Hand school, and that he was instructing Lehava activists not to speak to the media.

Gopshtain failed to respond (prior to his arrest) for a request for comment for this article, as did Gopshtain’s associate, former extreme right-wing Member of Knesset Michael Ben-Ari. In addition, supporters of Lehava contacted by The Times of Israel refused to go on record with their statements about the group.

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