Police summoned right-wing Jewish extremist Bentzi Gopstein for questioning on Tuesday, days after he said he was in favor of burning churches in Israel and that he expects the government to implement such a policy.
Gopstein’s remarks were made during a panel debate on Jewish religious law, and come against the backdrop of an arson attack, apparently carried out by Jewish extremists, that burned large sections of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in June.
During the panel session, Benny Rabinovitch, editor of the ultra-Orthodox paper Yated Neeman, asked Gopstein point-blank whether he advocated that churches should be burned, according to a recording of the debate published last Wednesday by the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabat.
“Maimonides…,” Gopstein 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,” Gopstein said.
Gopstein later responded to reports that he supported burning churches by saying, “the [religious] law is straightforward: Maimonides’ interpretation is that one must burn idolatry. There’s not a single rabbi that would question that fact. I expect the government of Israel to carry that out.”
The comments prompted the leaders of the Catholic Church in Israel to file an incitement complaint against Gopstein, who heads the Lehava organization, which has campaigned against gay rights and denounces social contact between Arabs and Jews.
Lehava activists regularly rally against personal or business relationships between Jews and non-Jews, including protesting outside interfaith wedding celebrations.
In December, following the torching of a Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem and his arrest on suspicion of inciting terrorism, Gopstein said his organization does not act illegally and accused the Shin Bet security service of trying to frame Lehava for the crime in a bid to thwart its “holy work of saving the daughters of Israel” from marrying Arabs. In July, two members of Lehava, brothers Shlomo and Nachman Twitto, were convicted of setting the Max Rayne Hand-in-Hand School ablaze.
Last week, an internal Shin Bet report concluded there was insufficient evidence to blacklist Lehava as an illegal organization, though incitement to racism is illegal under Israeli law. The report came as a blow to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s efforts to build a case for banning the organization.
The Shin Bet’s report came amid a crackdown on Jewish extremist groups following the July 31 firebombing of a Palestinian home near Nablus that killed 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsha and his father Saad and wounded his mother and brother, as well as a stabbing attack by an ultra-Orthodox extremist at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade that left 18-year-old Shira Banki dead and five others injured.
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