Jewish extremist Bentzi Gopstein found guilty of incitement to anti-Arab racism

Lehava chair cleared of incitement to violence and to terror, convicted over 2014 remark casting Arabs as ‘cancer’; he says Oct. 7 proved he was right: ‘I’m proud of what I said’

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Lehava chairman Benzi Gopstein seen after a court hearing at Jerusalem District Court, on January 14, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Lehava chairman Benzi Gopstein seen after a court hearing at Jerusalem District Court, on January 14, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bentzi Goptstein, the leader of a Jewish extremist group, was convicted Sunday of incitement to racism, while being found not guilty on charges of incitement to violence and to terrorism.

The charges leveled against the head of the Lehava anti-miscegenation group, Bentzi Gopstein, related to numerous inflammatory public statements he made about Arabs between 2012 and 2017.

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court found him guilty over comments he made in a 2014 speech at a memorial ceremony for slain extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, in which Gopstein railed against “enemies within” the country, though it cleared him on charges relating to other accusations.

“The enemies within us are a cancer, and if we don’t get rid of this cancer, we won’t be able to continue existing here as Jews,” he said. “The Temple Mount has the largest cancer growth of them all… as long as the Israeli government fails to remove that growth from the Temple Mount, Israel will never be fully redeemed.”

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is Judaism’s holiest site, but Jews are barred from praying there and access is severely limited as it also houses the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, and many Muslims deny the compound has any significance to Jews and view any Jewish presence there as a provocation.

In their ruling, judges stated that “all Arab Israelis were enemies in his eyes,” and that in his view, “there is no place to employ Arabs in senior positions in the country.”

Judges cited an interview given by Gopstein on Channel 2 (now Channel 12) with Arab Israeli journalist Lucy Aharish, in which the activist told the host that as an Arab citizen, “you’re not supposed to be here” in the Jewish state. When Aharish replied that she wasn’t going anywhere, he retorted, “We shall see.”

File: Leader of the far-right Israeli group Lehava, Benzi Gopstein (R), seen at a press conference with his lawyer Itamar Ben Gvir, in Jerusalem on August 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

When justices proposed community service as a possible sentence, Gopstein replied, “I’d proudly prefer to go to jail.”

Following the trial, Gopstein told the press that he believed people would be more understanding of his views after the Hamas terror group’s October 7 massacres, in which terrorists massacred 1,200 people in southern communities, mostly civilians, and kidnapped some 240 people to Gaza.

“I warned that the Arabs want to exterminate us, they are our biggest danger, and if we don’t fight them they will come and kill Jews, and this is what happened. This is what you are convicting me for?” he said,

“I am proud of what I said and don’t regret it. If the State of Israel decides to put me in jail, I will go happily,” he said.

“On October 7, thousands of ‘uninvolved’ Gazans entered alongside Hamas terrorists to massacre, to rape and loot, shattering the illusion of coexistence, which I warned against,” he continued, pledging to continue to work against “coexistence with the Arab enemy” and to “save the daughters of Israel.”

Gopstein’s far-right group Lehava opposes intermarriage and the assimilation of Jews with Arabs and tries to stifle many public activities by non-Jews in Israel. Lehava, which some lawmakers have tried to designate a terrorist group, has frequently called for action to be taken against non-Jews in order to “save the daughters of Israel.”

Extremist, far-right rabbi Bentzi Gopstein shouts ‘it’s not pride it’s an abomination’ at a protest against the Jerusalem Pride Parade, June 1, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)

In the charge sheet, prosecutors also noted a 2012 interview with Israel National News in which Gopstein praised a group of Jewish youths for beating Arab teens at Zion Square in Jerusalem, stating that they “lifted Jewish dignity from the floor and did what the police should have done.”

“They brought justice to Arab rioters who harassed Jewish girls. A shame that they let those boys do it and the police didn’t take care of it,” he said.

Also cited by prosecutors was a 2012 TV interview in which Gopstein boasted that he refused to hire or work with Arab employees. When asked what would happen if he had an Arab server at a wedding, Gopstein responded that the caterer would “have to look for the nearest hospital.”

In a separate interview on Channel 2 at the time, Gopstein asserted that “there’s no shortage of Arabs who deserved to be beaten up,” particularly ones who flirt with Jewish women.

The indictment also cited Gopstein’s 2017 praise for Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish terrorist who murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.

“This is an influential person who expressed a series of racist and violent remarks on different occasions,” prosecutor Amichai Marx said following the ruling, which he said sent a clear message to those who wanted to “incite racism in Israeli society.”

As for the charges of which Gopstein was cleared, Marx said: “We will study the ruling and consider our positions.”

File: Bentzi Gopstein (R) and Baruch Marzel seen during a press conference held by the Otzma Yehudit party in Jerusalem, August 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) civil rights group hailed the decision after its decade of efforts to indict Gopstein for racism. IRAC’s petition in November 2019 led to the attorney general’s indictment, for which he was convicted.

“The Court put an end to the egregious racist incitement of Lehava’s leader, Bentzi Gopstein. Gopstein is a disciple of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane and his successor,” Orly Erez Likhovski, IRAC’s Executive Director and Attorney Ori Narov, Director of IRAC’s Legal Department said in a statement.

“Now, during these especially tense and complex times, amid visible and palpable tensions, due to the war, running high between Jewish and Arab citizens, this conviction delivers a clear statement against racism and incitement against Arabs. Its importance cannot be understated. At IRAC, we will continue to act against anyone who uses Judaism to incite and spread hatred because racism is not our Judaism,” they added.

In its response to the ruling, the coexistence group Tag Meir noted that Gopstein is “the best friend of National Security Minister [Itamar Ben Gvir],” who in the past represented him in court.

Ben Gvir is a former political ally of Gopstein who has somewhat moderated his rhetoric in recent years — some say for tactical reasons only — and been elevated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be police minister and a crucial part of the hard-right coalition.

“There is no difference between Baruch Goldstein, whom Gopstein admires, and Muslim suicide bombers. Benzi Gopstein’s stupid attempt to hitchhike on the October 7 attack and tell us that all Arabs — including those who serve in the army, the police, the Shin Bet, the health systems, the judiciary, and in construction, high-tech and agriculture — are all Hamas, is racist and repulsive,” Tag Meir’s statement said.

Gopstein has previously been arrested on a number of occasions and investigated for statements he made against non-Jews, including for an article in which he called Christians living in Israel “bloodsuckers.” He was also arrested shortly after members of his group tried to burn down an Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem in November 2014. Gopstein was not charged over the attack, for which three Lehava members were eventually convicted.

Gopstein attempted to launch a political career in 2019, serving in a top post in the Otzma Yehudit party, but was barred by the Supreme Court from running in the elections. The party failed to win Knesset seats for its members in 2019 and 2020, but went on to win seats in 2021 under Ben Gvir’s leadership, then again in 2022 under a partnership with the Religious Zionism party.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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