Lehava is a dangerous organization. Israelis have read and heard numerous news reports about its dangers in recent years: day camps to train for incitement, open threats against Arabs and Christians including calls to burn down churches, and actual arson against the bilingual school in Jerusalem.
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We at the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center have been following the organization’s sophisticated work for years. Lehava’s head, Bentzi Gopstein, often comes to Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem with the goal to turn the city center into an “Arab-free” zone, in his own words. The group recruits at-risk youths and uses methods of incitement, intimidation and violence against Arabs, aiming to create a separation between Jews and Arabs and prevent the chance for coexistence.
Gopstein claims that the organization strives to prevent Jewish assimilation and saves young Jewish women, who allegedly are kidnapped daily by Arabs. These claims are absurd and ridiculous; the police confirm that not a single woman has been kidnapped by Arabs in recent years. The percentage of marriages between Jewish women and Arab men in Israel is tiny. Gopstein operates like other racists out of history and generates an unfounded fear of Arab men.
The big problem is the cooperation the organization receives from the law enforcement authorities. Over the past seven years, we at the Israel Religious Action Center have filed dozens of complaints with the police about Gopstein’s actions, and have been shocked by the gross disregard for the evidence, the police’s blindness in not responding to violence, and the erasing of the stories of the violence’s victims.
In practice, the security of young Arab men in Jerusalem, who suffer verbal and physical violence by Lehava activists, has been ignored. The police, who are out in force in the center of Jerusalem, do not respond to complaints by Arabs who have been attacked, in the best case, and threaten or arrest them, in the worst.
At the top stands the attorney general, who for years considered the police’s recommendations to charge Gopstein without reaching a decision. Last week, one day before the government was due to respond to the High Court of Justice on a petition, we demanded that the attorney general and prosecutors justify why Gopstein hadn’t been put on trial in response to hundreds of statements that detail incitement to violence and racism. Only then did the prosecution announce its intention to indict him.
Lehava is a small and extremist organization that disgusts most Israelis. The decision to try Gopstein gives such people an opportunity to demand that the police, prosecution and attorney general stop ignoring the racist incitement spread by the organization.
This is the opportunity to expose Lehava’s true actions, which have no connection whatsoever to Judaism. Without enforcement, the extreme and impassioned discourse takes over. Ignoring the racist incitement creates a slippery slope of lawlessness and violence that endangers Israeli democracy and us all.
Only when the law enforcement system functions properly does the moderate majority have a chance to curb extremism. Only then is it possible to create a safe egalitarian space. The fabric of the shared society in Jerusalem is especially delicate and needs protection. The public will support and strengthen the authorities if they act to protect sanity and democracy.
Rabbi Noa Sattath is the director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.