Dr. Ari Engelberg. Emil Salman

‘They’re Not Like neo-Nazis’: Inside the Israeli Movement Fighting Jewish-Arab Intermarriage

How Lehava recruits activists and fights relationships between Jews and Arabs



Dr. Ari Engelberg, from Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, why did you choose to study Lehava, whose name is a Hebrew acronym for “flame” and stands for “Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land”?

It started as a project at Tel Aviv University. I was invited to join a research group dealing with mixed marriages of all types – including Filipinos, Arabs. At first I didn’t actually know how I could integrate into the project, because I am, all in all, a conservative, traditional, even religious person.

What do you mean? Your worldview doesn’t jibe with marriages that are – sorry, but I can’t bring myself to use the word “mixed,” I find it appalling ...

As I said, I’m religiously traditionalist. Of course, I believe that everyone has the right to do what he chooses and wants, but I didn’t see myself studying precisely those who choose that kind of marriage. The subject didn’t attract me. That is, it doesn’t bother me at the personal level, but it’s also not something I feel I would want to encourage. So I decided to look at people who are the most opposed to that, namely Lehava. It’s not that I’m not critical of them, but I was interested to see what things look like from the inside: what they think, what they feel, what drives them.

How was the study conducted?

Ofer Vaknin

I analyzed the discourse on Lehava’s Facebook page, in terms of both profiles and responses, but the major tool was what’s known as participant observation. Interviews. Until not long ago, Lehava activists carried out most of their activity in the evenings in Zion Square in Jerusalem. I went there regularly and interviewed them. I also held many conversations with [the organization’s leader] Benzi Gopstein. In fact, the first time I went to Zion Square I introduced myself to him and he spoke to me and was happy to cooperate. He even recommended activists whom it would be worth my while to interview. But when I started to talk to people without his involvement, it suited him less. He prohibited activists from talking to me and told them I was a journalist.

The Lehava group doesn’t congregate there anymore.

That’s right. Zion Square underwent a renovation, and afterward they didn’t come back. My sources tell me that it’s because Gopstein is focused now on an internal election in Otzma Yehudit [Jewish Strength – a political party]. They also removed the Facebook pages – his personal one, and the Lehava page from which I took many of the materials I analyzed – or possibly they were removed by others.

Who and what are the activists in the organization?

I observed several groups. Most of the activists are teenagers from weak, disadvantaged neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Mizrahim [Jews of Eastern descent]. There are no Ethiopians or Russians in Lehava, for the obvious reason that in both of those communities there were issues related to conversion [to Judaism] and with marriage.

Who recruits them to Lehava?

A social worker in Jerusalem whom I spoke to told me that Lehava’s activists visit those neighborhoods, talk to the young people, invite them to all kinds of activities. They describe Lehava to them as having a mission to rescue Jewish girls. He told me that for teens from disadvantaged neighborhoods, who are a little [socially] alienated, some of whom are at risk, the organization actually does offer a direction, gives them meaning. By the way, many of the Lehava activists I spoke with told me that they are also members of La Familia [a far-right fan club of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team].

Lovely.

Another prominent group in Lehava consists of ultra-Orthodox, but from the fringes of Haredi society – mainly the children of newly religious people. Almost all of them are Mizrahim, too. There’s also a small group of formerly religious people.

In any case, we’re talking about young people with a particular profile.

Yes. Surprisingly, even though Benzi himself is very connected to the “hilltop youth” [in the West Bank] – his son and daughter are among them – none of them are active in Lehava. Despite his and [Hebron Jewish community activist Baruch] Marzel’s connection to the extreme edge of the religious-Zionist movement, the young people they collect for their organization actually come from other communities. It somewhat recalls [Meir] Kahane’s activity in the 1980s, and his popularity in new-immigrant towns built in the 1950s.

In any event, it’s clear who Gopstein doesn’t try to recruit.

Lehava activists assault Palestinians in Jerusalem, 2017.

From his viewpoint, he makes his appeal to everyone. If you ask him, he’ll say he has contacts in every school.

Still, he doesn’t get the more well-off kids from the settlement of Efrat, let’s say, but rather collects them from disadvantaged neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

People aren’t really aware that Lehava’s activists are Mizrahi teens from poor neighborhoods in Jerusalem. By the way, in many cases, when I asked why they had joined Lehava, the answer was, “I knew a girl who went out with an Arab.” It’s not pleasant to say this, but statistically, in Jerusalem, working-class Mizrahim meet more Arabs. Let’s say, one of the workers in a supermarket starts up with a checkout girl. That’s less likely to happen to an Ashkenazi girl who’s a university student.

How is the organization structured? According to their Wikipedia entry, they have 10,000 members.

Of course they didn’t want to give me numbers, but having got into the subject, I would assume that the real number of activists in the Jerusalem area is only about 200. Lehava has the structure of a youth movement. There are groups of young people who are 15 years old or so, and each of these groups has a leader who’s 17 or 18.

The organization’s declared goal is “to prevent assimilation in the Holy Land.”

That’s what the initials stand for. Which is very interesting, because assimilation is actually a secular concept, dating back to the period of the Emancipation in Europe.

And also because there is no assimilation: There is no demographic threat to the Jews in Israel.

Ilan Assayag

That’s true. Even if it seems like a minority can only assimilate into a majority, but not the opposite, they insist that it can happen. My impression, by the way, is that they genuinely think that way. One of the boys I spoke to gave me a long speech about the [biblical] Amorites and the Jebusites, and how they are not remembered because they assimilated. By the way, all the young people I spoke to insisted that assimilation is a widespread phenomenon, that they themselves know Jewish girls who date Arabs, and that the Arabs start up with “our girls” – supposedly, in order to do away with the Jewish people.

Do you think they really perceive it as a threat?

I interpret it as a reflection of a threat that exists in the essence of the conflict. It’s about the erasure of the other side. You can see it in similar conflicts. In India, say, there’s a parallel phenomenon known as “Love Jihad,” whose members see the marriage of Muslims to Hindus as a threat, as a conspiracy aimed at causing an entire religion to disappear. Of course, there is no demographic threat to the Hindus in India, certainly not from Muslims, but that’s their narrative.

It doesn’t take a sharp mind to understand what Gopstein thinks of Arabs.

He hates Arabs, and that’s also true of his activists, of course, and it prompts them to make very big generalizations about Arabs. They genuinely believe, for example, that every Jewish woman who goes out with an Arab man is condemning herself to a life of beatings and abuse. They perceive their role as being to protect these women. The impression I gleaned from conversations with Anat Gopstein, Benzi’s wife, is that from her standpoint that is a definite fact.

So are they driven by a desire to protect the Jewish religion, or a desire to batter Arabs?

I don’t think there’s much of a difference, to them. Their hatred of Arabs stems from their perception of them as a threat and as a danger to the Jewish religion. Consider the name of Gopstein’s party – Jewish Strength – with its symbol: a fist. I connect it with Zionism, with Jewish history, with the memory of the injury done to Jews as individuals and as a group, simply because they were Jews. They might not admit it, but I think that’s where it comes from. Furthermore, as someone who grew up in the United States, as a religiously observant Jew, I underwent quite a lot of humiliation. Kahane, who came from the United States, brought the same thing with him.

One way or the other, marriage between Jews and Arabs isn’t considered a private act. We saw that mix of the private, the public, even the national, in connection with the marriage of Lucy Aharish [an Israeli Arab Muslim television personality who married a Jewish actor].

Benzi Gopstein, from his point of view, operates according to a religious imperative. The ban he touts against assimilation in the Holy Land is based on a religious justification: the fear of the Arab man who will violate the honor of the Jewish woman and the honor of the Jewish people.

At one point in your study you write, “I identified a therapeutic narrative in Lehava.” That’s surprising. What do you mean?

I’m talking about their approach toward the activists, and the truth is that it surprised me, too. They take in young people, some of them at risk, some of them on the street. Anat Gopstein is a kind of mother figure for them. She thinks about how to rehabilitate them, how to save them. I had a conversation with her in which she talked about a girl who uses drugs and told me how she’s caring for her and trying to imbue her with a sense of purpose. A new direction. Lehava group leaders also see themselves as mentors to these boys and girls. One told me he takes members of La Familia – how did he put it? “They shout ‘Death to the Arabs’ for no reason, he said – and he tells them: Work for the salvation of Jewish girls, don’t just shout “Death to the Arabs.” He gives them purpose.

What are the boundaries of this therapeutic approach? Is the Gopsteins’ home, say, open to Lehava activists? Can they come for Shabbat?

Gil Cohen-Magen

I think they make a separation between what happens in their home and what happens in the town square. In the square there’s a lot of warmth, a lot of inclusivity, that’s what I saw there. There are hugs, there are pats on the shoulder, and there’s a desire, which I consider authentic, by Anat and Benzi, to help and improve the lot of at-risk youths who are in need of that. I understand that from the outside it looks as though they are exploiting helpless kids, but the truth is more complex. And in this case, comparison is important. When we draw a comparison to fascist or neo-Nazi organizations in Europe, which people automatically associate with Lehava, and when we see studies that were conducted about the emotional element there, we find that there is a great deal of violence within the organizations themselves. There’s no inclusivity. That’s very plain among the neo-Nazis and the skinheads – they don’t express emotions, there’s no mother figure like Anat Gopstein. In Lehava that warm approach toward the activists definitely exists. And by the way, when I began my research, people would ask me if I wasn’t afraid. But I wasn’t. Because I felt comfortable. I felt the human warmth.

If you were an Arab, you would feel less comfortable.

Of course. But still, I can tell you about an American colleague of mine who did a study of neo-Nazis. She got threats, and she lived in terrible fear.

How do they operate? I understand that they collect intelligence about [mixed] couples, but what do they actually do? Do they go to the couple and tell them that Benzi Gopstein doesn’t approve?

Much of their activity consists of distributing fliers and talking to people. As for actual couples, I heard a few versions. The activists themselves, even when Gopstein wasn’t present, claimed that everything they do is legal. They send a team of a man and a woman. At first they only sent a man, which of course was problematic, so now there are two of them. The woman will try to persuade the girl, and if the girl doesn’t want to hear and throws her out, she leaves.

And that’s it? They ask nicely, and if it doesn’t happen, they leave?

Other people told me different things. I can tell you about my Arabic teacher, an Arab who was married to a Jewish woman, who got threatening calls from Lehava.

What did they say to him?

He didn’t want to go into details.

Did you see or hear about violence?

I think that Benzi Gopstein is a very cautious person.

He’s cautious because he knows that people are on his tail. He also gets ongoing legal advice, from [right-wing activist] Itamar Ben Gvir. I also have to choose my words carefully.

So, look, the people who torched the bilingual [Jewish-Arabic] school in Jerusalem described themselves as Lehava activists. Did he give the order? There are reports of violence. From them, of course, I heard nothing about that. I heard it from organizations that are active against them. That caution forces a certain dissonance on Gopstein: On the one hand, he has to be super-cautious, but at the same time he wants to serve the narrative of Jewish Strength. On the one hand, he wants to show activists that he is strong and heroic, but he can’t tell them to beat up people, because it will get him arrested. So he uses all kinds of hints. Like the one about the waiter at the wedding.

Emil Salman

That if there were an Arab waiter he wouldn’t be serving food but looking for a hospital [refering to the fact that Gopstein said at his daughter's wedding if there had been an Arab waiter on hand, he wouldn't be serving food but "would likely be looking for the nearest hospital."] Delightful. Let’s talk briefly about his attitude toward gays. They’re being targeted by Lehava.

Homosexuality is perceived as an attack on holiness. If Lehava fights against assimilation in the Holy Land, then Jerusalem is the Holy City, and they, the gays, are bringing their Sodom and Gomorrah into the Holy City.

That’s what’s behind Lehava’s activity against the city’s Gay Pride Parade.

Indeed. Surprisingly, though, if their activity is compared to right-wing organizations in Europe, which are homophobic and whose activity against gays is very violent – that wouldn’t go over here. It’s not violent, but their activity against Arabs is. I think that if Gopstein treated gays the way he treats Arabs, his organization would have been shut down long ago.

But gays are Jews. They have a Jewish soul, which has value. It’s not just some Arab soul.

You are now describing his viewpoint cynically. That’s true. But look at it from the state’s point of view. The state would not allow Lehava to exist if it directed that violence, in words and deeds, against gays. It would be a type of pinkwashing.

It’s well known that Israel is forgiving when it comes to the extreme right, in regard to both declarations and actions.

Gopstein’s attitude toward gays is relatively soft, certainly compared to the approach of the more extreme Orthodox. The assumption is that they are unfortunates, that they need treatment. That sounds bad, but it’s still different from, “They should be killed,” which is something quite a few rabbis believe. This also has to do with the therapeutic aspect. Lehava accommodates homosexuality. Gopstein himself said explicitly that there are gays who are active in Lehava. When he embraced Assi Azar [an Israeli television personality who came out of the closet], he said it on camera.

There’s no indication about the scale of their activity, apart from a report which they themselves published. Allow me to be skeptical about it.

I don’t believe they made it all up. I think, for example, that many people contact them. Gopstein himself showed me the WhatsApp messages on his phone.

How many female Jewish souls have been saved?

I don’t know. Gopstein will forgive me, but my feeling is that when it comes to these things, the Yad L’Achim [Jewish anti-missionary] organization is more professional.

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