The legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement on Thursday called upon Israeli officials to designate the Lehava Jewish extremist group as a terrorist organization.
The letter, sent to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and the chief of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman, detailed the actions of Lehava and its director, Bentzi Gopstein, since the organization was founded, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) said in a statement.
Gopstein’s Lehava group opposes intermarriage and assimilation of Jews, as well as LGBT rights, and tries to stifle any public activity by non-Jews in Israel, including coexistence events. Lawmakers across the political spectrum have also attempted to designate it as a terrorist group.
“Lehava has been run like a terrorist organization for years, which is seen in their actions on the streets of Israel in recent weeks,” Anat Hoffman, director of IRAC said.
In the early days of the recent intercommunal rioting, Lehava organized an ultranationalist march to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, which was a hotspot of violent clashes between East Jerusalem Palestinians and police.
Some 300 extreme-right Jewish activists who marched chanted “Death to Arabs” and “Arabs get out!” as police tried to keep the two sides apart while also clashing with the Palestinian protestors.
“Lehava’s use of Judaism distorts the values of Jewish morality to incite violence against Arabs just because they are Arabs,” Hoffman said.
IRAC said Lehava’s activists and leaders played a significant role in the recent wave of violence that swept Israeli society.
The police chief also blamed the rioting on the group and on MK Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party.
The letter to officials also includes evidence of Lehava members detailing their goal to “hunt” Arabs, and published materials to “deter” Arabs in Haifa, calling them “Haifa terrorists,” IRAC said.
“We expect the Defense Minister to join us in saying ‘Racism is not my Judaism’ and declare Lehava a racist organization,” Hoffman concluded.
Tensions between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities spiraled into mob violence in recent weeks, as police appeared unequipped to handle the most serious internal unrest to grip the country in years.
Several people, Jewish and Arab, have been assaulted and seriously wounded in shooting incidents, arson attacks and beatings during the unrest, and two people have been killed.
At the same time as the local clashes, Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas terror group engaged in an 11-day conflict. Palestinian terror groups tied the rocket fire from Gaza to the unrest in Jerusalem, connected to both prayer on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and the pending eviction of a number of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
Lehava leader 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.
More recently, Gopstein attempted to launch a political career in Otzma Yehudit but was barred by the Supreme Court from running in 2019 over remarks that “unequivocally” proved that he “systematically incites racism against the Arab public.”