Israeli Man Indicted for Making Death Threats Against Reform Movement Leaders

Resident of ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak also charged with terrorizing prominent Israeli atheists and targeting anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence

Kehilat Ra'anan, the vandalized synagogue in Ra'anana Israel, November 24, 2016. Written on the knife are words from an ancient text that refers to the Jewish laws pertaining to murder.
Yossi Cohen

A 39-year-old resident of the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak was indicted on Monday for issuing death threats against leaders of the Reform movement and for vandalizing a Reform synagogue in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana twice in the past few years. 

The Jerusalem District prosecutor’s office did not disclose the name of the defendant in the indictment. The defendant has also been charged with terrorizing prominent Israeli atheists and targeting activists in Breaking the Silence, which collects testimony from Israeli soldiers about their service in the territories.

The prosecutors requested that the defendant, who was arrested late last month, be held in custody until the end of legal proceedings.

Kehilat Ra'anan, the vandalized Reform synagogue in Ra'anana, Israel, November 24, 2016.
Yossi Cohen

According to the indictment presented to the Jerusalem District Court on Monday, the suspect is being charged with extortion by threat, vandalism and preparation of dangerous substances in six separate incidents, which took place between January 2014 and August 2017, two of them involving the Reform synagogue in Ra’anana.

On November 24, 2016, according to the indictment, the defendant issued threatening letters, all identical in content, to three prominent figures in the Reform movement: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the movement in North America; Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the movement in Israel; and Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group, who also heads the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel.

The letters were discovered on an outdoor ledge of Kehilat Ra’anan, the Reform congregation in Ra’anana, under a knife. Written in red on the knife were words from an ancient text that refers to the Jewish laws pertaining to murder. The outside walls of the synagogue had been sprayed with hateful graffiti.

On one wall, spray-painted in large red letters, was the following verse from a Midrash: “The divine spirit never moves from the Western Wall.” It appeared to be a reference to the controversy over the government decision to build a new space at the Western Wall where Reform and Conservative Jews could hold mixed prayer services. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who deem the Reform and Conservative movement illegitimate, fiercely opposed this decision, which has since been suspended.

According to the indictment, the letters warned the Reform leaders that if they did not resign from their positions or leave the country, they would find themselves in a “frighteningly bad situation” and that the battle against them would involve “swords and blood and not words and speeches.” In addition, the defendant threatened that when he would eventually show up at their homes, the outcome “would be worse than what happened here.”

According to the charges, this was the second time the defendant had spray-painted threatening graffiti on the walls of Kehilat Ra’anan. The first incident took place on January 30, 2014.  No reference was made during that initial incident to the Western Wall controversy, nor were death threats issued.

In the letters he left at the synagogue in November, the defendant warned that the next time he came to the building “it will go up in flames,” according to the indictment.

The names of prominent Reform Jewish figures are written next to the knife inscribed with words from an ancient text that refers to the Jewish laws pertaining murder.
Yossi Cohen

He also scattered letters around the neighborhood addressed to local residents, in which he described Kehilat Ra’anan as an “ugly heresy of the Reform cult that led to the Holocaust of the Jewish people in exile.”

The indictment lists three other cases involving threats against prominent Israeli atheists. In each case, the defendant left threatening letters outside the homes of his victims, covered by knives, and sprayed hateful graffiti on the walls of their buildings.

The most recent incident for which he is being charged was discovered just two weeks ago. According to the indictment, the defendant had been collecting personal information on 42 activists in Breaking the Silence and had plans to threaten them with similar letters.

The defendant had also equipped himself with substances to set the organization’s headquarters on fire, according to the indictment, as well as other explosives.