The leader of the extremist anti-assimilation group Lehava allegedly called for churches to be torched, at a panel held this week for yeshiva students. Benzi Gopstein said he is prepared to spend 50 years in jail for doing so, according to a report by the Haredi website Kikar Shabbat.
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During the yeshiva intercession, known as bein hazmanim, many yeshivas hold summer camps for their students. These combine Torah study with other activities, like trips and panels to discuss current events. Kikar Shabbat obtained and posted a recording of such a panel at the Wolfson Yeshiva camp, at which Gopstein appeared along with Rabbi Moshe Klein, the rabbi of the Hadassah Medical Centers; Elad Deputy Mayor Tzuriel Krispal; and Yated Ne’eman journalist Benny Rabinovich.
The panel was debating whether Jews are commanded to eliminate idol worship, as the Rambam (Maimonides) states. After Gopstein responded affirmatively, Klein hastened to interject, “It is a mitzvah according to the Rambam, but in our times the answer is no.”
The issue generated an argument on the panel, with Gopstein defending his position that churches should be burned. In response to a question by Rabinovich as to whether he “is in favor of burning churches in the Land of Israel,” Gopstein answered, “Did the Rambam rule to destroy [idol worship] or not? Idol worship must be destroyed. It’s simply yes – what’s the question?”
Rabinovich pressed the issue, saying, “Benzi, I must say I’m really shocked by what you’re saying here. You are essentially saying we must go out and burn down churches. You’re saying something insane here.”
Gopstein replied, “What’s the question? Do you doubt it?”
When Klein warned him the panel was being filmed, and that if the recording should get to the police he would be arrested, Gopstein replied, “That’s the last thing that concerns me. If this is truth, I’m prepared to sit in jail 50 years for it.”
As the panel discussion unfolded, Rabinovich tweeted a message on his Twitter account: “I’m shocked to the core. I’m sitting at a panel right now with Benzi Gopstein, who says outright it’s a mitzvah to burn churches, and he is prepared to sit in jail 50 years for this.” Some of the yeshiva students who saw his tweet called him a “moser” (informer).
In response to the release of the recording, Gopstein said, “At a closed panel of the Wolfson Yeshiva, there was a halakhic debate about the Rambam’s approach to Christianity. During the debate I said that, according to the Rambam, idol worship must be destroyed. I stressed several times I was not calling to take operative steps, but that this is the Rambam’s approach and that it’s the responsibility of the government, not of individuals.
“I understand there’s a campaign against right-wingers and they are trying to catch us on every word. But I would recommend that they first investigate the preachers in the mosques or [MK Ahmad] Tibi and [MK Haneen] Zoabi. Then let them come to me,” Gopstein added.
The Israel Religious Action Center, the legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement, petitioned the High Court of Justice last October against Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein for not prosecuting Gopstein over previous inflammatory remarks and actions. It has been waiting for a response since January.
“For many months, we have waited for a decision by the attorney general regarding complaints against Gopstein for incitement to racism,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement. “If even these remarks don’t lead to a quick decision to prosecute him, we can publicly declare that Israeli law allows incitement to racism and violence. What else has to happen for the State of Israel to seriously fight those who have decided to ignite the fire of hatred and fanaticism?”
Yair Ettinger contributed to this report.