New Incitement Claim Filed Against Israeli Far-right Activist Benzi Gopstein

Israel Religious Action Center filed another High Court petition over what it alleged was 'intolerable foot-dragging' that conveys 'a lax message from the authorities when it comes to racist incitement'

Benzi Gopstein during far-right disturbances in Jerusalem, June 2019.
Tomer Zmora

In 2010, the movement of Reform Judaism in Israel began complaining to the attorney general about racist incitement to violence on the part of Bentzi Gopstein, the chairman of the far-right group Lehava, which seeks in part to combat intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.

It took dozens of requests and two High Court of Justice petitions to extract a serious response from the law enforcement authorities, and in November 2017, the state prosecutor’s office announced it was considering filing criminal charges against Gopstein, subject to a pre-indictment hearing.

The hearing was held about four months later. At the end of 2018, a decision was made to indict, but the exact charges are not known, and at this point, nothing further has publicly happened.

Israeli settler Benzi Gopstein, the leader of the extreme right-wing movement Lehava, is escorted out of a hearing at a Jerusalem court, on December 18, 2014.
AFP

On Thursday, the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center filed another High Court petition against Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the state prosecutor’s office over what it alleged was “intolerable foot-dragging” that conveys “a lax message from the authorities when it comes to racist incitement.”

In the meantime, Gopstein, who is also a leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, which ran in April’s Knesset election on the slate of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, has pursued his activities unhindered.

Last month in Jerusalem, for example, he led 40 far-right activists seeking to attack hundreds of people from the messianic Jewish community, Jews who accept Jesus as the messiah, at a concert of messianic music. The protesters pushed and harassed the concertgoers, sprayed pepper spray at them and even tossed live frogs at them.

‘Devious ways’

A few weeks prior to the incident, Gopstein sought to pressure Likud Knesset member Gideon Sa’ar to get his daughter to end her relationship with an Arab actor. At the beginning of the year, Gopstein also posted a series of videos on the Lehava website warning about Arab men purportedly seducing Jewish women in a number of devious ways.

A source at the Justice Ministry acknowledged that the 16 months that have elapsed since Gopstein’s pre-indictment hearing is considered a relatively long period of time for such matters, but the source attributed the delay to the utmost caution that the state prosecutor is required to exercise when it comes to bringing charges that raise questions about incitement and freedom of expression.

The Justice Ministry in response for this article said that: “Our response will be delivered to the court, whenever it is requested.”

Gopstein said in response: “I suggest that the Reform and Haaretz stop imposing their agenda against good Jews on the justices.”

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The Israel Religious Action Center’s latest petition describes nearly a decade during which it states that dozens of complaints have been filed with law enforcement agencies regarding Gopstein and Lehava over alleged incitement to racism and violence. IRAC’s first High Court petition against Gopstein was filed in 2014. In early 2015, the state prosecutor’s office responded that it had just begun examining the findings from a secret investigation into Lehava that had been initiated several years earlier. As a result, IRAC’s petition was denied.

Two and half years later, IRAC filed another petition. In November 2017, the Jerusalem district attorney’s office announced that Gopstein was suspected of incitement to violence, racism, terrorism and of obstruction of justice and would be summoned for a hearing. Among the allegations was that Gopstein “published words of support and solidarity with the terrorist act committed by Baruch Goldstein,” a reference to the American immigrant to Israel who in 1994 killed 29 worshipers at the mosque at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Prosecutors allege that Gopstein sang a song of praise for Goldstein at a wedding in the West Bank settlement of Modi’in Ilit. It is also alleged that, at a memorial gathering for the far-right Kach movement leader Meir Kahane, Gopstein said: “The enemies among us are a cancer and if we don’t take the cancer and get rid of it, we won’t survive and Jews will die here every day…. The mosque on the Temple Mount is the biggest tumor of the cancer we have here, and unless the Israeli government removes this tumor from the Temple Mount, we won’t be able to bring full redemption to the country.”

When asked by a television interviewer, Avri Gilad, what Lehava would do in cases in which a Jewish woman fell in love with an Arab man and wanted to live with him, Gopstein is said to have replied: “There are those who deserve to have violence used against them. If an Arab starts up with a Jewish woman, talk is not what’s needed.”

In March of last year, the Jerusalem district attorney office held a hearing with Gopstein. In attempting to determine what the result of the hearing was, IRAC sent a letter arguing: “With each passing day that no decision is made on an indictment, [the authorities] are essentially allowing Gopstein and Lehava to continue with their violent and dangerous activity, which incites racism and violence against Arabs.”

IRAC alleged that Lehava was continuing to run information stands, mainly in Jerusalem and that Gopstein had posted a picture on social media with the caption: “Fire tomorrow’s terrorist today” along with a video in which he said Arabs were “destroying the State of Israel by bringing in a culture of murder, theft and rape… They have no place here in the Land of Israel.”

A complaint with the judicial ombudsman

In December 2018, IRAC filed a complaint with the judicial ombudsman’s office over the lack of a decision. At the end of December, the ombudsman, David Rosen, responded that the complaint was justified but added: “It appears that a decision was recently made about an indictment and the matter is currently being handled by the authorized parties at the state prosecutor’s office. It is my fervent hope that the matter will be fully dealt with very shortly.”

At about the same time, the Lehava website posted a series of videos about “the seven most common traps that hunters use to abuse Jewish girls.” Hunters clearly refers to Arab men.

In February 2019, after a further reminder about the lack of a decision, the Jerusalem district attorney said that Gopstein would be charged and that “the necessary preliminary procedures are currently being completed to submit an indictment to the court.” A few weeks later, Gopstein and his associates disrupted the concert for Messianic Jews.

It has been a year and eight months since the decision was made to charge Gopstein, subject to a hearing and a year and four months since the hearing was held. It has been seven months since the decision was made to file an indictment.