The trial of the leader of a Jewish extremist group charged with incitement to violence, racism, and terrorism began Monday at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.
The charges leveled against Lehava head Bentzi Gopstein relate to numerous inflammatory public statements he made about Arabs between 2012 and 2017.
Before entering the courthouse Gopstein gave a statement to media.
“The state, instead of giving a prize for the war against assimilation, chose to file an indictment against me for speaking,” Gopstein said. “This is not democracy. This is democracy only for the Arabs who want to fight against Israel.”
Gopstein’s lawyer, Itamar Ben Gvir of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, said his client was “the Israeli Dreyfus,” referring to a French-Jewish officer who was accused of spying and sent into exile following an anti-Semitic show trial in the late 19th century.
“This is persecution, this is the silencing of voices,” Ben Gvir continued. “This trial is a trial of freedom of speech.”
Ben Gvir is considering calling on Transportation Minister Miri Regev to testify for the defense, the Ynet website reported.
In 2012, Regev, then a lawmaker for the Likud party, called Sudanese asylum-seekers “a cancer in our body,” during a protest against them in south Tel Aviv. She later apologized and said her remarks were misconstrued, explaining that she was talking about the phenomena of illegal migration and not about the migrants themselves.
The Israel Religious Action Center, which had petitioned the courts for charges to be brought against Gopstein, welcomed the development.
“With the start of his trial the time has come for Gopstein to not plaster organizations and other people with false accusations but to contemplate the seriousness of his actions,” IRAC attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski said in a statement.
Gopstein’s far-right group Lehava opposes intermarriage and the assimilation of Jews and tries to stifle any public activity 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.”
The indictment cited Gopstein’s praise for Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish terrorist who killed 29 Palestinian worshipers at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.
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 (now Channel 12), Gopstein asserted that “there’s no shortage of Arabs who deserved to be beaten up,” particularly ones who flirt with Jewish women.
The charge sheet also noted a 2014 speech at a memorial ceremony for slain extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, in which he railed against “enemies within” the country.
“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.”
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 launched a political career, serving in a top post in Otzma Yehudit, but was barred by the Supreme Court from running in the 2019 elections. The party failed to win Knesset seats for its members in 2019 and 2020.
During that hearing, the panel of nine justices noted that Gopstein’s anti-Arab rhetoric “revealed a new low point in the racial discourse that we have not known before.”
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut explained in the court’s decision that Gopstein’s remarks “unequivocally” proved that he “systematically incites racism against the Arab public.”