Jewish Extremist Leader Says Education Minister Praised His Group for Doing 'Holy Work'

Rafi Peretz met with Lehava leader Benzi Gopstein, who was charged with incitement to racism and violence, as part of talks over running for Knesset with the Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit

Benzi Gopstein speaking at an Otzma Yehudit campaign launch event in Jerusalem, 2019
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel’s Education Minister Rafi Peretz met a number of times with far-right activist and Jewish supremacist Benzi Gopstein, who has been charged with incitement to racism, violence and terror, Gopstein told Haaretz Friday after Peretz broke his political alliance with the Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit.

This comes a week after Peretz was widely condemnded for his comments against the LGBTQ community during an interview with an Israeli daily.

The High Court of Justice had ruled in the past that Gopstein cannot run for Knesset with the Oztma Yehudit party because of his record of anti-Arab statements as the leader of Lehava, a Jewish anti-assimilation movement.

Gopstein told Haaretz he occasionally meets with Peretz, and provided details of the meetings. “I presented the activities of the Lehava organization to him. I showed him the cases of girls we save every day, and he told me: ‘I don’t know what they want from you, you’re doing holy work.' I have no doubt that he opposes assimilation, but my problem is that he is a liar,” said Gopstein.

Gopstein said that he and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir met on Wednesday with Peretz in Ramat Gan, and that Peretz promised that he would uphold their political alliance. Hours later, Peretz broke his agreement, joining the broad right-wing Yamina slate led by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to pressure Bennett into forming a broad slate with Peretz and Ben-Gvir, but the defense minister refused to ally himself with the latter, citing his Kahanist ideology.

Netanyahu eventually relented, and began pressing Peretz to walk back his agreement with Otzma Yehudit so he could join forces with Bennett. Despite repeated public statements that he woud keep his word to Ben-Gvir, going so far as to tweet "A promise is a promise" a few hours before the deadline to submit their party lists to the Central Election Committee, Peretz ultimately reneged on his deal with the extremist party and united with Bennett's Hayamin Hehadash.

On Friday, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's main rival for the premiership, said that "He who is prepared to use Israel's security to bring in Kahane's supporters into the Knesset - is unfit to be Israel's prime minister."

Gopstein's group Lehava focuses on preventing romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews, particularly between Jewish women and Arab men. Officially, the group provides “safe house” shelters for Jewish women who are in relationships with Arab men, as well as public relations work on the matter.

In the past, Lehava activists have assaulted Palestinians, held rallies in which they chanted racist slogans, and according to their leader’s indictment, have spread hate and incited to racism, violence and terror.

Peretz confirmed he met with Gopstein as part of the contacts with Otzma Yehudit, but denies Gopstein’s characterization of the meeting. He said it’s no secret that he signed an agreement with Otzma Yehudit and confirmed that Gopstein was part of the negotiations.

Ben-Gvir, in turn, confirmed that Peretz had expressed support for Lehava.

In November, Gopstein was indicted for incitement to racism, violence and terror as a result of a long list of statements he made against Arabs. The first count of incitement to violence relates to a 2012 clip in which Gopstein commented on an attack by a number of Jews against three Arab youths in Jerusalem: “It seems here that the young men raised Jewish honor up from the floor and did what the police should have done, carried out justice against Arab rioters who harassed Jewish girls.”

The second count of incitement involves a 2013 television interview in which he was asked about Lehava’s approach to Jewish women who fall in love with Arab men and want to live with him. “There are those who deserve to have violence used against them,” he answered. “If an Arab man hits on a Jewish woman, talk is not what’s needed … I don’t think [this man] can continue walking down the street with his Jewish woman.”

Before the September Knesset election, the High Court banned Gopstein from running on the Otzma Yehudit slate. The justices wrote that dozens of pieces of evidence “formed a clear, unambiguous picture” in which Gopstein, in his “many expressions and acts as the person who headed the Lehava organization,” systematically incited to racism against Arabs.

In addition, the justices found that he characterizes Arabs in general as an enemy and called against any contacts with them that “could be interpreted as coexistence.”

In the past, Gopstein has also organized actions protesting gay pride marches and the LGBT community. He was arrested in 2014 on suspicions of incitement to racism and was charged in the past with preventing a police officer from carrying out his duty.

Last year, he was acquitted in court on charges of assaulting two left-wing activists.

Last week, Peretz was lambasted for his comments against the LGBTQ community during an interview with the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. When asked how he would respond had one of his children identified as gay, Peretz said that he raised them "in a natural and healthy way," and for that reason they don't have a "different" sexual orientation and are "building their homes based on Jewish values."

In the interview, Peretz also said the definition of a "normative family" was "a man and woman."

A demonstration by against the August 2014 wedding of Mahmoud Mansour, a Muslim, and Morel Malka, who converted from Judaism to Islam.
Ofer Vaknin