Outlawing Racism Won’t Erase It

The leader of the extreme Jewish anti-assimilation group Lehava is a Judah Maccabee of our time.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A burnt classroom at Max Rayne Yad be Yad School in Jerusalem. November 30, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A senior law enforcement official boasted this week of how the police and Shin Bet have been working for months on a dossier that will not only put Benzi Gopstein, the arrested leader of the racist group Lehava, behind bars for a while, but also outlaw his tawdry organization once and for all. I’ve heard promises like these before from police and prosecutors, and all too often once they arrive in court the evidence is paltry and insufficient. Declaring Lehava illegal will mean a battle in the High Court, I said, are you sure you’re geared up for that? Don’t worry, he promised, we’re set to go, all we need is a political directive and Lehava is out.

Will they get the directive now that after the firing of Tzipi Livni, there is no justice minister and the remaining ministers in the coalition are busy outflanking each other on the right? I think the security cabinet will move to outlaw Lehava, with great fanfare, in an attempt to show the world that being a nationalist Zionist doesn’t mean you are racist as well. Livni has already called for it and this week Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On urged the government on. It will be a popular move, allowing the prime minister and defense minister (who signs the order defining a group an “illegal terror organization”) to look authoritative and zero-tolerant. It will also be a big mistake.

Racist football hooligans

Lehava (which means “flame” and is also the Hebrew acronym of “to prevent assimilation in the Holy Land”) is a bunch of racist football hooligans, usually to be found in the eastern stands of Teddy Stadium at Beitar Jerusalem matches, or holding angry rallies on Ben Yehuda Street calling upon shopkeepers not to employ Arabs. Lehava’s specialty is following Jewish women (usually after being tipped off by a family member) dating Arab men and urging them to break up. When mixed couples get married, they can be found outside the wedding venue hurling insults at the guests. Members of Lehava have been indicted for violent racist attacks; most recently three were charged with carrying out last month’s arson attack at the Jewish-Arab Hand In Hand school in Jerusalem. But unless the state prosecution can present proof in court that these actions were directed by Gopstein and other Lehava leaders, the movement has a strong case that all its actions, as despicable as they are, remain within the realm of freedom of speech.

I would be surprised if such proof exists. Gopstein is a veteran of the furthest extremes of Israeli racial politics, a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane. He has been arrested dozens of times, is under permanent Shin Bet surveillance but has usually succeeded in evading any serious conviction. He could teach an advanced course on how to avoid self-incrimination. If he has slipped up or been betrayed by one of his less-experienced followers, the prosecution may have enough to indict him, but not to define Lehava as a terror organization. It would be a fascinating trial, but it really isn’t the kind of issue that should reach the High Court to begin with. In the absence of clear evidence of criminal activity, and not just of its individual members, Lehava is a legal organization and should not be outlawed.

I’ll save you the usual clichés about how freedom of speech and democracy exist to defend the most reprehensible and obnoxious views (not that they are in any way invalidated by being clichés). Rather, I’ll say that classifying Lehava as illegal puts us on an even more slippery slope than merely limiting the civil rights of hate-mongers. Given their day in court, Lehava will seek to put Judaism on trial and while that is a debate worth having, it should be fought in the public arena, not in the legal confines of the High Court.

The media often has trouble accurately describing Lehava. It is sometimes described as “anti-miscegenationist,” but this fails to capture the non-racial nature of their racism, as they are not against relations between whites and blacks, or any color for that matter, as long as they are both Jews according to the Orthodox definitions of halakha, Jewish religious law. And while they are mainly focused on ensuring Jewish “purity” by preventing Arab-Jewish relationships, their claim to be in the vanguard of the much more consensual battle against assimilation – while faintly risible when it is, according to them, taking place in the Jewish state – is much more difficult to counter.

How is Lehava different from organizations such as the state-funded Birthright-Taglit, which has the stated objective of bringing to Israel young Jewish men and women from around the world together to strengthen their joint identity and prevent assimilation? That will be their lawyers’ argument, and they are going to try and challenge Jews who think of themselves as liberal, enlightened human beings yet fervently wish their children to marry inside the tribe.

Liberal Jewish dilemma

The liberal Jewish dilemma of how to regard intermarriage has been around ever since Jews began to receive equal rights and live and work among non-Jews, and is still no closer to resolution. It is an inescapable contradiction of modern life which isn’t going to go away. If you care about there being a Jewish future, and not just one that exists within the self-imposed walls of the ultra-Orthodox ghetto, there is no alternative to living with it, making necessary accommodations and treading fine lines between notions of tradition and tolerance.

It is the same dilemma that liberal and historically aware Jews feel each year at Hanukkah. It’s not just lighting candles and eating latkes. The Maccabees were the ancient world’s equivalent of the Taliban, fighting the ambassadors of Athens and their advanced philosophy, education and culture. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that Benzi Gopstein has at least got a claim to Judah Maccabee’s mantle.

Taking the easy way out and using the power of the courts to close down Lehava won’t make their racism go away or delegitimize their version of Judaism. Judges can’t be the ones who will draw the line between Lehava’s view of the world and how we want to choose to live and celebrate our tradition. It is the personal duty of each one of us to reject cruel certainties and live with the dilemmas instead.