The head of an extreme right-wing Israeli group opposed to Jewish-Arab integration on Tuesday advocated the burning of mosques and churches in Israel at a public forum.
Lehava chairman Bentzi Gopshtain took part in a panel debating Jewish religious law Tuesday night alongside Rabbi Moshe Klein, rabbi of the Hadassah Hospitals; Tsuriel Krispal, deputy mayor of Elad; and Benny Rabinovitch, a writer for the ultra-Orthodox paper Yated Ne’eman.
Gopshtain’s remarks came against the backdrop an arson incident at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in June. Police arrested three Jewish suspects believed involved in the attack, some of whom were implicated in previous attacks on Christian sites in Israel.
During the debate, Rabinovitch asked Gopshtain 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.
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 in the attack on the school.
Earlier this week, an internal Shin Bet security service 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.
Lehava opposes homosexuality and the assimilation of Jews, and activists regularly rally against personal or business relationships between Jews and non-Jews, including outside weddings between Jews and Arabs.
“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 a year-old baby was killed and his parents and brother were critically wounded. 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.
On Monday, Ya’alon vowed to lead an “uncompromising” fight against Jewish terrorism, after the firebombing of the Dawabsheh home near Nablus and the stabbing by an ultra-Orthodox extremist at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade which left one dead and five others injured.
Later in the panel conversation, Klein, the head rabbi of Hadassah, addressed Gopshtain, saying, “Benzi, 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 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.”