Leader of Jewish Extremist Group Arrested on Suspicion of Threatening Arabs

Lehava has been known to target Arabs for dating Jewish women

FILE PHOTO: Members of right-wing organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2014.
Ofer Vaknin

The leader of Lehava, a far-right group known for attacking Arab men they suspect of dating Jewish women, was arrested Sunday and questioned for allegedly threatening several Arabs.

Along with Ben-Tzion Gopstein, the police also arrested or detained fourteen other activists from the organization for allegedly threatening Arabs who they believed were in relationships with young Jewish women. 

Jerusalem Magistrate's Court Judge Eitan Cohen ordered Gopstein released on Sunday subject to limitations and called the suspicions against him weak and circumstantial. A stay was issued on Gopstein's release, however, which would give the police an opportunity to appeal.

Four other suspects, all members of Lehava, also appeared in court. The judge ordered two of them, both adults, held for an additional four days, saying that the suspicions in their cases were serious and well-founded. The two other suspects, who are juveniles, were ordered released to house arrest. The five, including Gopstein, are suspected of harassment and various computer-related offenses.

Relatives of the suspects told Haaretz the suspicions are baseless and complained that they had been unnecessarily arrested in the middle of the night, dragged out of their beds.

The Jerusalem district police said the investigation in the case had been ongoing for some time. The suspects were thought to have been involved in "an organized and sophisticated invasion of privacy," the police said, adding that there was no way to identify their location by conventional means because locations outside of Israel were also used in their activities. Some of the material in the investigation file is classified.

The arrests followed calls by left-wing organizations on the police to crackdown on Lehava, claiming that they had been apathetic about taking action against the allegations of violence.

They also follow the July petition by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center filed to the High Court of Justice asking the court order Gopstein be charged with incitement to racism and violence and to declare Lehava a criminal organization. IRAC had also claimed Gopstein’s alleged incitement had not been dealt with properly by law enforcement bodies.

The police said that recently there had been a number of “incidents of attacks and harassment against minorities in Jerusalem by activists of the Lehava organization. The police also said Lehava had been trying to expand their activities.

The anti-assimilationist Lehava works to break up romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Israel, particularly Jewish women and Arab men. The group provides what they term “safe houses" for Jewish women who might be seeking to leave relationships with Arab men and have cast the issue as a national problem that needs to be addressed.

Gopstein already had a record with the police. In 2014 he was arrested on suspicion of inciting racism and charged with preventing a police officer from  carrying out his duties. Last year he was acquitted in court on charges of assaulting two left-wing activists.

In the past Gopstein also organized protests against gay pride marches and the LGBT community.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Gopstein’s lawyer, said in response to the arrest that the police were scheduled to provide their response to the Reform movement’s petition in the next two weeks.

Ben-Gvir had harsh words for the police, saying they had succumbed to “pressure form the extreme left" and arresting Lehava activists in what he termed, "flamboyant arrests without bothering to summon them for questioning.”

The High Court petition claims that Lehava, whose name is a Hebrew acronym for “To Prevent Assimilation in the Holy Land,” was founded in 2009 and has become a hate group that spreads racism and violence against Arabs and Christians in various ways: Posters, flyers, conferences, rallies and on social networks.

The Reform movement links these activities to attacks on Arabs in Jerusalem and other places. Orly Erez-Likhovski, IRAC’s lawyer who filed the petition against Lehava, said she hopes Gopstein’s arrest signals a change in approach by the law enforcement system.

Last week the Supreme Court ordered security forces to provide IRAC with the investigative file within a month in a different case, that of Rabbi Yosef Elitzur of Yitzhar. He is one of the authors of “The King’s Torah,” a controversial book offering halakhic conditions under which it may be permissible to kill non-Jews.

IRAC filed a petition with the High Court concerning Elitzur, similar to the one it filed concerning Gopstein.