Anti-assimilation group to protest honor for Arab-Israeli journalist

Lehava head Bentzi Gopshtain says Lucy Aharish, who is set to light a torch at an Independence Day event, is ‘not a Zionist’

Bentzi Gopstein, head of Lehava, in Jerusalem's Old City, October 30, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Bentzi Gopstein, head of Lehava, in Jerusalem's Old City, October 30, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The anti-assimilation Lehava organization will hold a protest on the sidelines of the annual Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl on Wednesday night, where Arab-Israeli TV presenter Lucy Aharish is set to light a torch.

The head of the Lehava organization, Bentzi Gopshtain, filed a request with police on Monday to hold the rally, stating that Aharish was “not a Zionist” and was therefore unfit to have a leading role in the annual ceremony. Police authorized the rally, but demanded that it take place in an area out of the ceremony’s view, the Ynet news site reported.

“It is regrettable fact [Aharish] was chosen to light a torch on Independence Day,” Gopshtain said. “If a representative of the Arab sector were chosen who accepts that the Land of Israel is the land of the Jewish people, I would understand.”

The far-right activist added that “once a woman whose flag is not the Star of David, the IDF is not her army, and her soul does not yearn for the two-thousand-year-old hope, is selected, then there is a huge missing of the point of lighting a torch and communicating a message, precisely on Independence Day.”

Aharish was Israel’s first Arab presenter on prime-time television. The 33-year-old media icon was described by the Ministerial Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies headed by former cultural affairs minister Limor Livnat as a “trailblazing Muslim journalist, who brings a discourse of tolerance and interdenominational openness to Israel’s public agenda,” in a statement explaining the decision to grant Aharish the torch-lighting role at the ceremony.

Arab Israeli TV presenter Lucy Aharish (photo credit: Facebook)
Arab Israeli TV presenter Lucy Aharish (photo credit: Facebook)

“We live in a democracy, and the police will decide whether or not to allow the demonstration to take place,” Aharish said Monday following the publication of Gopshtain’s request. “I am now on my way to the final rehearsals for the ceremony, and I don’t feel like dealing with the matter.”

The Lehava organization is a nationalist group with a prominent presence in Jerusalem and can often be seen handing out anti-assimilation literature to pedestrians on Ben Yehuda Street, a downtown area of bars, clubs and restaurants popular with tourists and young Israelis. Gopshtain was arrested in November along with nine other members of the organization for his involvement in the torching of an Arab-Israeli school in the capital. According to reports in January, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was weighing whether to designate the group a terror organization and ban it.

Last week, two of the three men charged with torching a bilingual school in November, all of them members of the Lehava organization, accepted plea deals offered by the Jerusalem district attorney. The accused, Yitzhak Gabai and brothers Nahman and Shlomo Twitto, were indicted in December for starting a fire on November 29 at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem and spray-painting on the school’s walls racist messages such as “There is no coexistence with cancer”; “Death to the Arabs”; and “Kahane was right,” a reference to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, a mentor of the Jewish ultra-nationalist movement.

The Shin Bet security service reported in December that the three had confessed to the crimes and added that the suspects had claimed they attacked the school in order to “raise the issue of objection to coexistence and intermarriage to the top of the public and media’s agenda.”

Gopshtain said in December that his organization does not act illegally and accused the Shin Bet in a statement of trying to frame Lehava to thwart its “holy work of saving the daughters of Israel.”

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