A 61-year-old resident of Netanya was detained on Tuesday on suspicion of offending religious sensibilities after holding a set of tefillin, or phylacteries used in Jewish prayers, against his crotch.
The incident took place outside a school in Netanya where voters were casting ballots as part of Israel’s general elections.
In a video of the incident posted online, the elderly man is seen holding a set of tefillin at a Chabad booth set up to encourage people to lay tefillin — a Jewish ritual that includes binding a set of scroll-including leather boxes and straps to one’s head and arms.
The person filming the video can be heard shouting, “No, put it down!” several times, to which the 61-year-old responds “I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish,” while holding and rubbing the tefillin near his crotch.
The man is seen wearing a shirt bearing the logo of the Meretz left-wing party, although party officials have suggested he may have been an impostor seeking to harm the party during the election.
It is unclear why the suspect had approached the Chabad booth in the first place. Passersby are heard asking in confusion: “Why did you do that?”
In general, Israeli law refrains from criminalizing harm to feelings and sensitivities as those are hard to define in an objective manner. The Israeli legal system includes exceptions to this, however, and acknowledges offenses to religious feelings.
מזעזע! פעיל של מפלגת מרצ ניגש לדוכן של חב"ד בנתניה ומבזה את התפילין הקדושות בצורה מחרידה. כמה שנאה!!! pic.twitter.com/av7HQWgTLg
— אריאל אלחרר (@ariel_elharar_) November 1, 2022
Police officers from the Netanya station “opened an investigation upon receiving reports of a suspected felony that included offending religious sensibilities in public,” police said.
Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir condemned the incident.
“It’s shocking and painful to see what happened in Netanya, when a Meretz activist publicly desecrated a set of tefillin at a Chabad booth. As public security minister I will address such actions,” he said in a statement, urging people to vote for the Religious Zionism party “so such incidents are put to rest.”
MK Michal Rozin of Meretz was quick to condemn the incident as well, but suggested it may have been someone pretending to be a Meretz activist.
“Let me be clear. I condemn this twisted behavior, which goes against everything we believe in. We are investigating the incident,” she said, noting that “so far, no Meretz activist has recognized the person,” and that “suspicion has risen that this may have been an imposter.”
A statement issued by the Meretz party called on the Central Elections Committee “to exert its full authority to investigate the incident in Netanya” and said it was “likely a case of an imposter trying to hurt the party.”