Leaders of the Catholic Church in Israel filed an incitement complaint against the head of an extreme right-wing group opposed to Jewish-Arab integration, who on Tuesday advocated the burning of mosques and churches in Israel at a public forum.
The complaint against Lehava chairman Bentzi Gopshtain was filed in coordination with the Vatican, according to a Haaretz report Friday, and was formulated by a committee that included over 20 bishops and archbishops across Israel.
Gopshtain’s remarks during a panel debating Jewish religious law came against the backdrop of an arson incident at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in June. During the session, Benny Rabinovitch, a writer for the ultra-Orthodox paper Yated Ne’eman, asked Gopstein point-blank whether he advocated the burning of churches, according to a recording of the debate published Wednesday by the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabat.
“Maimonides…,” Gopshtain started, apparently alluding to the rulings of the 12th-century Jewish sage, “you must burn [churches], are you against Maimonides or in favor of Maimonides?”
“Don’t tell me about Maimonides, I asked you what you say,” Rabinovitch replied.
“Of course I am,” Gopshtain said.
Later in the panel conversation, Rabbi Moshe Klein, the head rabbi of Hadassah Hospitals, addressed Gopshtain, saying, “Bentzi, just now they filmed and recorded you, and [if] that reaches the police you’ll be arrested.”
“That’s the last thing that bothers me,” Gopshtain can be heard saying. “If that’s the truth, then I’m prepared to sit 50 years in prison for it.”
Gopshtain later responded to reports that he advocated burning churches by saying, “The law is straightforward: Maimonides’ interpretation is that one must burn idolatry. There’s not a single rabbi that would deliberate that fact. I expect the government of Israel to carry that out.”
He told Kikar Hashabat, “I said that for speaking the truth, I am prepared to sit in prison. And I emphasized that I don’t burn and won’t go and burn churches.”
Lehava opposes homosexuality and the assimilation of Jews, and activists regularly rally against personal or business relationships between Jews and non-Jews, including outside wedding celebrations between Jews and Arabs.
In December, following the torching of a Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem and his arrest on suspicion of inciting terrorism, Gopshtain said his organization does not act illegally and accused the Shin Bet security service of trying to frame Lehava to thwart its “holy work of saving the daughters of Israel.” In July, members of Lehava were convicted of the attack on the school.
Earlier this week, an internal Shin Bet report concluded there was insufficient evidence to blacklist Lehava. The report came as a blow to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s efforts, with the security agency and legal experts, to build a case for banning the organization.
“The conclusion at this stage is that there is insufficient evidence to declare the organization illegal,” the Shin Bet told Haaretz in a statement Tuesday. According to the report, the security agency said it would reconsider its assessment if new evidence against the nationalist group emerges.
The Shin Bet’s report came out amid a crackdown on Jewish extremist groups following last week’s firebombing of a Palestinian home near Nablus, in which an 18-month-old baby was killed and his parents and brother were critically wounded, and a stabbing attack by an ultra-Orthodox extremist at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, which left one dead and five others injured.
Three extremists suspected of involvement in Jewish terrorist activity targeting Palestinians were placed under administrative detention — imprisonment without trial — in the wake of the attack near Nablus.
Times of Israel Staff contributed to the report.