A strange kind of mercy
The right-wing organization Lehava is noted for its vehement anti-assimilation views, and many of its members are disciples of Meir Kahane. Yet Hemla (Mercy), a group closely linked to Lehava, receives state funding for its rehabilitation work with Jewish women. Is Hemla a good cause or a cause for concern?
"To my dear Jewish sister, I wanted to ask of you, my sister, not to make my mistake, don't let some minority member bring you down and cause you to be impure. You're a king's daughter! The King of Kings! You have the privilege of being holy and pure, you're a Jewish woman! He wants you and the moment he gets his way you'll see what Hell is." (Letter on the Lehava website).
The posters recently placed on bulletin boards in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods were directed against Yesh supermarkets (the Haredi brand name of the Supersol chain ). Under the heading "Do you want your grandson to be called Ahmed ben Sarah?", the poster attacked Yesh for employing Arabs, claiming that this encourages assimilation.
The organization responsible for the posters is Lehava (a word meaning flame and a Hebrew acronym for "Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land" ), whose name has emerged repeatedly in recent months. The organization is responsible for disseminating the so-called rabbis' wives letter, which called on Jewish girls not to date Arabs. It helped organize a demonstration in Bat Yam in which people held signs stating "Jewish girls for the Jewish people." And it operates an initiative providing kosher seals of approval for businesses that don't employ Arabs.
So what exactly is this organization? An investigation by Haaretz Magazine reveals that, although Lehava is not registered as a non-profit organization or as another type of statutory body, its leading and prominent activists are connected to an NPO called Hemla (Mercy ), which receives funding from the state.
Relationships with Arabs
On a quiet street in Jerusalem's Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, behind a fence covered with green canvas, sits the hostel operated by Hemla. In conversations with us and from other reports, the members of the association say there are 20 women staying there. But when we arrived before Passover, the yard and the hostel were empty. In the street we met one of the women who lives there. "I'm a disciple of Rabbanit Baranes," she says, referring to the director of the hostel, Rachel Baranes. "All the girls here come from a history of relationships with Arabs," she adds. When we want to ask additional questions, the girl contacts Baranes, who instructs her not to talk to us.
Hemla was registered in 1999 as an NPO that operates for the purpose of "distributing food items to needy families, funds for the needy for Passover, help for bridegrooms, a fund for orphans, hospitality, loans for those who need them, a charity that distributes dishes, a charity that distributes clothing." In 2002 the following goals were added: "To help girls from broken homes who are in danger of forced conversion and of becoming involved in crime, by rehabilitating them in a residence, and providing social and psychological treatment and integrating them into Jewish society." And also "assistance for the hilltop people in Judea and Samaria." Adding those goals improved Hemla's financial situation, and since 2005 it has been receiving regular funding of NIS 600,000-700,000 a year - about half its annual budget of about NIS 1.2 million - from the government, through the Social Affairs Ministry. According to the ministry, the money is transferred specifically for "treatment, support and personal and social rehabilitation" of at-risk girls who are cared for in the hostel.
The heads of the association are outright Kahanists. Hemla's public relations director is Bentzi Gopstein, who in publications and interviews has also identified himself as the director of Lehava. Gopstein is a sworn disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, and on YouTube he is even identified as the director of the memorial channel dedicated to the rabbi. Gopstein receives a salary of about NIS 40,000 a year from Hemla.
In 1990, when he was 21, Gopstein was arrested on suspicion of the murder of an Arab couple, who were shot to death shortly after the assassination of Kahane. Their murder has never been solved. In 1994 he was placed under administrative detention because of his activity in Kahane's organization, which was declared illegal at the time. (The late Rabbi Meir Kahane was the founder of Kach, a political movement of the extreme right which was banned by the government in 1988 for its racist practices, and outlawed outright in 1994 following the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, perpetrated by a kahanist. )
Hemla's public relations director abroad is another Kach member, Levy Hazan, who was imprisoned for his part in the shooting of a bus north of Ramallah in which six Palestinians were wounded, in 1984. A member of the Hemla monitoring committee, Yaron Adler, was arrested during the disengagement from Gaza along with his wife after the couple violated an administrative order forbidding them from leaving Kiryat Arba.
The president of Hemla is Rabbi Yehuda Kroizer, the rabbi of Mitzpe Yeriho, who also heads the Haraayon Hayehudi (The Jewish Idea ) Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which was established in 1987 by Rabbi Kahane. Elyakim Naiman, the chairman and treasurer of Hemla, and Matilda Harutz, the secretary, are connected to the yeshiva. Even the mailbox to which Hemla donors are directed is the same as the one for donors to the yeshiva.
Hostel director Rachel Baranes receives an annual salary from the NPO that has ranged from NIS 100,000 to NIS 160,000 in recent years. She is also in close contact with Lehava: She signed the rabbis' wives letter initiated by the organization, and on one of its posters it says that she "devotes her life to rescuing Jewish girls from the claws of the Ishmaelites." In an interview last October with the religious TV channel Hidabrut, she said "Hemla was established for the purpose of building a warm home in order to help girls - saving Jewish girls from assimilation, whether it's foreign workers, Arabs, [or] people with no connection to our religion." In the interview she spoke of rescuing a girl who was allegedly kidnapped to a remote location in the south and "experienced physical abuse, was given drugs, beaten, very heavy abuse."
Baranes said that "all the rabbis in Israel" are familiar with the association and put girls in contact with her. In the same program there was also an interview with Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who praised Baranes' work.
There's a plague here
A girl recently contacted Baranes in order to report a friend who was dating an Arab, and was sent to Hemla activist Aryeh Lerr. Their conversation offers a glimpse into the NPO's methods. "I need as many details as possible in advance in order to know how to operate," Lerr tells the girl. "I can't tell you everything over the phone but I have excellent ways of helping. You can go to her, talk about the subject as though you don't know it's her."
The girl then asks about the ethics of going behind her friend's back. "Excuse me, but if you care you do everything possible to save her," Lerr responds. "If it were possible to rescue Gilad Shalit would you say 'It's behind his back, so let's not help him?' It's a matter of saving lives. There are no games here. You're allowed to travel on Shabbat in order to rescue her, you're allowed to turn on a phone on Shabbat in order to rescue her. You can try to convince her, but it won't help - the moment she's touched a goy she's tied to him like a dog. So if you go to tell her, will that help? It may help by a millimeter. I doubt whether she'll leave him after your conversation with her. If she hears me talk I believe it will shock her. It's an initial activity." Lerr is then asked how many girls Hemla has rescued. "Girls doing National Service... unfortunately, there's a plague in Israel." Lerr didn't explain what he would say to the girl that would shock her so greatly. When asked about the difference between Hemla and Lehava on the one hand and similar NPOs such as Yad L'Achim, he replied: "We're not Yad L'Achim, we're Hemla. I suggest that you stay with us and don't go to another organization. Don't confuse things now - Lehava works with Hemla. Hemla and Lehava are together. You've come to the best possible place."
Additional evidence of the connection between Lehava and Hemla comes from a phone call to the Lehava hotline where, for example, you can report Jews who rent apartments to Arabs or Jewish women who go out with minority group members. Speaking to a potential Lehava donor, a spokeswoman said: "The basis here is entirely voluntary, not financial. When I have a specific girl I transfer her to Hemla, which is the rehabilitation place, and that's it. There they really need money - it's a place where they bring girls who have dated Arabs - and the money really goes for good and positive purposes."
A real problem
Last February, a month after the publication of the rabbis' wives letter, the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women convened for a discussion on assimilation. Committee chairwoman MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud ) presented the statistics from the Knesset Research Committee: "We're talking about 92,000 families in Israel in which one of the partners is not Jewish - we have a real problem that we have to deal with."
Alina Tzanani, the representative of Yad L'Achim, noted the dangers inherent in changing women's identities from Jewish to Muslim. "They are unaware of the later consequences for the children, who up to the age of 18 are considered Muslim," she said, adding her organization received many requests from such women. "We're seeing a constant upward trend. In 2008 there were 500 cases, now we already have over 1,000 cases a year, which is something like an average of seven requests per day." Justice Ministry attorney Yossi Hershler, who is in charge of religious changes that are not conversions, noted that the country has no precise numbers regarding the number of Jews who converted to another religion in the past year - "but of course I didn't have a thousand coming to me, there were fewer," he said at the end of the proceedings. "I can say that it involves all socioeconomic groups in the State of Israel." Shahar Ilan, vice-president of Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality and a commentator on ultra-Orthodox issues, says the subject of relationships between Jewish women and Arabs receives extensive coverage in the Haredi press and is regarded as a serious problem by the community. "Because life in Arab villages often becomes unpleasant for the Jewish partner, rescuing Jewish women from Arab villages has become popular for the associations fighting assimilation. It's the easiest way to attract publicity," Ilan says. "For the Haredi newspapers, Yad L'Achim's rescue stories are the equivalent of heroism stories about elite commando units. However, the rescues only involve dozens of families, while they create the impression that there are hundreds of cases. I don't know if there's any way to check the extent of the phenomenon." Gad Barzilai, a professor of law, political science and international studies at the University of Washington, says there is no legal problem with government support for organizations like Hemla. "The main point is ethical, that the State of Israel supports groups that cause an unacceptable separation of the Arab minority. If someone tries to petition the High Court of Justice against financial support of a body that actually wants to prevent the possibility of social connections between Jews and Arabs, I'm not certain that the petition won't be granted and the support won't be rejected," he says. "As long as this behavior is limited to a small number of voluntary, non-government organizations, it's not important. But if it should spread like wildfire, then the State of Israel will have to decide if organizations involved in systematically discriminating between Jews and Arabs don't receive the support of the Israeli taxpayer. What is on the public agenda here is the question: What are the limits to promoting Jewish ideology in the context of a democratic regime?"
An ethnic republic
Barzilai warns that international developments are liable to exacerbate the battle over the identity of the state as Jewish and democratic, "which may be Israeli society's main battle. The world is likely to recognize a Palestinian state, and that will strengthen xenophobia against the Palestinian minority in Israel. Very strong chauvinistic tendencies are liable to lead to Israel's international isolation, which is why the story of Lehava is important rather than esoteric. Lehava heralds the desire to turn Israel into an ethnic republic that encourages a type of regime that is already unconstitutional in the Western world, to encourage Jews to distance themselves socially from Arabs. It's very problematic."
The use of an "informer" network for reporting on the rental of apartments to Arabs, and Lehava posters claiming that "Arabs are harassing Jewish girls and violating their honor for nationalistic reasons," led Gush Shalom to submit complaints to the attorney general against Lehava for incitement to racism and murder. There has not yet been a decision to launch an investigation, and the Justice Ministry said that "recently complaints of a similar nature have been transmitted to the Justice Ministry after the publication in the media of the 'Rabbis' wives letter.' The State Prosecutor's Office is investigating all the complaints, and after they decide on a basic policy, suitable decisions can be made in individual cases as well."
Moshe Negbi, Israel Radio's legal commentator, says it's clear that "activity of this type ostensibly constitutes a crime of incitement to racism. To advocate non-employment of Arabs is classic incitement to racism. It's a crime that carries a five-year prison term, and it's also incitement to violate the Equal Employment Opportunities Law. The problem is that there is terrible weakness in enforcement against incitement to racism. For months there has been no action taken against Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and others who called on people to refuse to rent apartments to Arabs in Safed. The real danger is when it's done by people who are influential, whether because of their personality and their spiritual authority as rabbis, or because they speak in the name of religion, which for the believer is absolute truth. That's why this incitement is much more dangerous. I think that one of the universal lessons of what happened in Europe in the 1930s is that it's dangerous to remain silent regarding racist incitement, ostensibly in the name of freedom of expression."
And Hemla presents itself as helping girls in distress.
"The fact that a particular group presents itself in a certain way doesn't grant it immunity. The question is whether there's evidence of incitement. There's no question that opposition to assimilation is a legitimate religious and even Zionist viewpoint, in the context of freedom of expression. But if you carry it out by means of incitement to racism, by violent means or threats, then it crosses the criminal line. I think, for example, that the rabbis' wives letter is legitimate, because you can tell people that their religion forbids them from marrying, and that the interest in preserving the Jewish people requires lobbying in favor of marriage to Jews. But if it goes over to threats against those girls - 'If you do that then we'll condemn you, we'll exclude and ostracize you' - then it becomes non-legitimate."
The village girls
A woman named Sarit from Be'er Sheva, who is being helped by Yad L'Achim, participated in the same discussion in the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women. Sarit said she had a relationship with a Muslim man, during which she distanced herself from her Jewish identity and went to live with him in an Arab village. "There my suffering increased," she recalled. "I became involved in a tremendous identity conflict. The children and I were, in effect, the dirty Jews." After Sarit spoke, MK Hotovely asked Gopstein - who participated in the discussion as a representative of Lehava - how the government could help women in her situation. Gopstein said he had discussed the issue with Rabbi Kahane, "and we came to the conclusion that we have to get to those girls beforehand. We have to get to these girls before they arrive at the Arab village and then it's much easier. After they come to the Arab village they can pick up a phone and the police get them out. But how do we get to the girls before they arrive in the village? And that's the objective of Lehava. That's why we go everywhere we can, we go to schools, we go to places of entertainment where the girls are, and we talk to the girls and explain to them what it means to be a Jew." Gopstein complained during the Knesset proceedings about a lack of cooperation between the educational institutions and the government on the one hand, and organization activists on the other. "We go into schools by all kinds of other means, because the Education Ministry doesn't allow us to enter schools," he said. "The Jewish Agency invests millions in the war against assimilation abroad - in Israel they don't invest. Not only don't they invest, it's seen as legitimate. I'm not talking only about Arabs. Today every girl wants to be Bar Refaeli. Did anyone even mention the fact that she's going to marry a non-Jew? [She recently broke up with Leonardo DiCaprio.] Everyone will tell me, why are you talking about that? It's racist... We're not racists. Racism is the theory of race - that's why the Knesset has to pass the Racism Law to exclude this issue of religion. We have to strengthen Jewish identity. To bring more talk about Judaism, more talk against assimilation, into the schools." In the discussion MK Michael Ben Ari (National Union ) said he supported the activity of Lehava and Hemla. "In the name of proper disclosure I often have joint activities with them, Lehava and Hemla and Rabbanit Baranes, who is being modest here and has rescued over 700 girls to date. She doesn't give up. I have brought girls to her and, from the moment she receives them, she pampers them, gives them psychological treatment, takes them shopping and in the end also marries them off according to Jewish law." Hotovely added she was favorably impressed by a visit to Baranes' Hemla hostel. "I saw girls there who came from very surprising backgrounds - from the center, the north, the south, Bnei Brak, not only mixed cities," she told Haaretz this week. She says she is not familiar with Lehava, even though its members participated in her Knesset discussion. The girls, she says, had a "background of emotional family problems - not ordinary girls - who had been subject to harsh violence, humiliations and scorn on the part of their partners. The place really rehabilitates the girls, there's an entire protective system that takes care of them."
What is your opinion of the fact that Rabbanit Baranes signed the rabbis' wives letter?
"I didn't know that, but it sounds logical to me. She deals with all the damage of assimilation. For years we fought against assimilation abroad and there's no reason why we should be separated from it when it happens here, inside Israel. The greatest Zionist danger was that the nation was being decimated abroad because of assimilation, so in my opinion it's a very important battle on the national level."
Should the state, via the Social Affairs Ministry, be paying for this battle, not to mention the fact that activists in Hemla are declared Kahanists?
"Unfortunately, it's always girls with a classic welfare background. Some of them are rescued from life-threatening situations, so it's legitimate for the state to fund that. You don't have to be a Kahanist in order to oppose assimilation. There's a Zionist viewpoint that says Jews should marry Jews. You have to note that it always happens between Jewish women and Arab men, there are almost no opposite cases. It happens because in large part these are girls who begin relationships without knowing that the men aren't Jews, and when they find out, it's already too late. Often there is generosity and giving that suddenly turns into serious violence."
Not good for the girls
Although in almost every interview and publication the members of Hemla and Lehava don't conceal their opposition to relationships with Arabs, in a conversation with Haaretz they preferred not to refer to the subject and didn't sanction a meeting with the girls. In a phone conversation, Gopstein - speaking as head of Hemla's PR and the director of Lehava - claimed that relations between Arab men and Jewish women are no longer the organization's top priority. "A few years ago it was more the issue of girls with Arabs but today that's less important - it's more a concern for Haredi girls with all kinds of problems. For Haredi girls [the Hemla hostel] is the only place there is. They don't get along with the family, there's incest, things like that... not necessarily Arabs and not assimilation. This is the place for Haredi girls who can't remain at home." In a conversation with Baranes, she also said she wasn't involved in the assimilation issue any more: "Most of my cases are from Haredi homes that have failed, [girls] from ordinary homes that got into trouble." When pressed about assimilation she says, "I used to be more involved, today I'm involved in something else."
Yet six months ago you were interviewed on Hidabrut about the subject...
"True, I'm very knowledgeable about the subject because of my experience over 20 years. Here and there a girl like that falls and I help her, but in general it's not only that."
Haaretz turned to the Social Affairs Ministry with a list of questions about Hemla's funding and ideological stance. The ministry did not reply to most of the queries, but claimed it simply funds rehabilitation and not the NPO's other objectives. "The ministry funds and supervises the framework designed for girls at risk [which is operated by Hemla] in order to guarantee them treatment, support and personal and social rehabilitation. The ministry, by means of the supervisors, keeps track of the therapeutic plan for each girl and the professional content, such as individual and group therapy, enrichment, etc.
"Since 2005 hundreds of girls have been cared for in the hostel, and most have succeeded in bringing about a significant change in their lives and escaping the cycle of distress. We would like to emphasize that the ministry's connection with the association is to implement a targeted and specific program in this framework, to which the ministry allocates a budget. The Social Affairs Ministry has no authority to supervise and to examine other activities of the association that are not related to this specific framework. It is not the Social Affairs Ministry that sends patients to the therapeutic frameworks that it funds, but social workers, workers in various organizations, and independent requests."
The Social Affairs Ministry did not permit Haaretz to talk to the woman responsible for the hostel on its behalf, and did not answer questions about support for associations that try to prevent relationships between Jewish women and Arab men, and the question of Baranes' signing of the rabbis' wives letter.
However, ministry spokeswoman Ronnie Malkai said: "We don't examine whether or not the girls go out with Arabs, we have no agenda that says 'Don't go out with Arabs.' We have no way of checking it, and no authority to look for ways of checking it. The people who have to enter the picture here and examine complaints about the association are the state comptroller or the State Prosecutors' Office. We can't say that we won't fund the association because the director wrote a racist letter or disseminates hatred, because we're not the ones who decide on that - our hands are tied and I can't intervene, it's the job of the attorney general. We don't have the authority to decide that is what the hostel and the association are doing, and before you turned to us we were unaware of it. [Otherwise] we might have taken steps to investigate it."
He’s an Arab, she’s a Jew, and they’ve been married for 25 years. So why are they hesitant to recommend their experience to others?
Right wing organizations are always raising the subject of violence against the Jewish partner, but a mixed couple we spoke to describe violence of another kind − social ostracism and incessant attempts at persuasion, involving an invasion of privacy − because their personal romantic choice does not suit the desired social identity.
Salah the Muslim and Sima the Jew (not their real names) have been married for 25 years, have two children and live in a mixed city in the center of the country. Sima recalls being uncomfortable with her experiences with Kahane’s disciples in the 1980s: “At the age of 16 I fled from home [because of her relationship with Salah]. The police brought me back because I was a minor and for a year, until the age of 18, they shut me up at home. I couldn’t go out by myself, only with a chaperone and to certain places. During this period there were two Kahane guys who simply became part of the family. I would ignore them, I kept away from them as much as possible.”
What is your opinion on calls against relationships between Jews and Arabs?
“These organizations see it incorrectly. In our surroundings there are many mixed couples, and there are many others who are opposed to it. Everyone protects his own. I would also like to keep my daughter close to me, to protect her from an incorrect choice, but it’s still her choice. I can try to guide her but I can’t undermine her. There’s a limit. At a certain point you have to let go, not make her life miserable or to punish her − as used to be the case, where they shaved the girls’ hair off so they wouldn’t leave the house.”
Sima says her family ostracized her because of her decision to marry Salah. “My grandfather was a rabbi,” she says. “Today I’m in slight contact with my mother, without the knowledge of my brothers and the other men in the family. Salah went through a lot with me. I was a lone woman, who became involved in an unfamiliar culture, and he received all the ricochets from my family. It’s very hard.” Salah says that all the mixed couples he knows suffer “from many problems. I love my wife and the children but I don’t suggest to anyone to marry a Jewish girl,” he sighs. “It’s a serious problem.”
Hemla’s roots lie in an association called the Fund for Saving Souls, providing a direct link with Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.
Relationships between Jews and Arabs always preoccupied Kach, which claimed in its political platform: “There is no possibility of coexistence between Jews and Arabs except through separation: Arabs to Arab countries and Jews to Zion!” In 1984, the year when Rabbi Meir Kahane won a Knesset seat, the members of the movement established a fund to handle cases of young Jewish women who went out with Arabs, which was headed by the secretary general of Kach, Eli Adir.
In 1985 Kach established the hostel Yad La’ahayot in Kiryat Arba. According to posters distributed by the movement, the hostel was meant to “rescue Jewish girls with their children from Arab villages.” The hostel was run by an association called the Fund for Saving Souls. Viewing the association’s file reveals its goals and modus operandi as being almost identical to those of Hemla, and in addition some of the people active in Hemla − such as Matilda Harutz and Anat Gopstein (Bentzi Gopstein’s wife) − were also active at the time in Yad La’ahayot. Incidentally, one of the members of the association was Baruch Goldstein, who carried out the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994 where 29 Muslim worshippers were murdered.
In a recent interview for the Orthodox magazine Ma’ayanei Hayeshua, Gopstein recalled her time at Yad La’ahayot: “Today when I see the children of girls whom we took care of in that home at the time − young girls whom we rescued from Arab villages and a life of oblivion − I say to myself: What a miracle that we managed to rescue them in time.” Today, said Gopstein, attempts to “rescue” girls who are in relationships with Arabs continue as part of Lehava. “We try to explain to each girl that she is the daughter of a king and the importance of her being a part of the Jewish people.”
Yehudit Amusi, who worked at Yad La’ahayot, told Haaretz this week that the place “lasted for barely a year.” She says there were “only four women there, aged between 25 and 50, with difficult stories of abuse. I was asked to give lessons on spiritual culture on a voluntary basis, evenings of a pleasant Jewish atmosphere, and to bring some happiness.” She remembers that “one of the women disappeared, another fled abroad, one returned to her family home and I don’t recall what happened to the fourth. And then it fell apart. Later I think the hostel moved to Jerusalem.”