Outlawing Far-Right Lehava Group in Israel Would Be ‘Unwise,’ Legal Expert Cautions
Push to have anti-miscegenation organization designated a terror organization could prove to be counter-productive
Designating the far-right Jewish anti-miscegenation organization Lehava as a terrorist organization could prove to be counter-productive and even lead to further radicalization, legal experts have warned.
Lehava is a Jewish supremacist organization based in Israel that denounces assimilation and intermarriage. Sometimes described as a Jewish version of the Ku Klux Klan, the group not only opposes interfaith marriages but also LGBT rights, a Christian presence in Israel, and Jews associating with non-Jews.
Israel’s Public Security Minister Omer Barlev of the Labor party, and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Ram Ben Barak of the Yesh Atid party are currently seeking to outlaw the group and have it classified as a terror organization.
But even if Israeli law could in principle support outlawing the group, some warn that it might not be wise to do so.
“The law cannot offer you a guarantee of political wisdom,” Gad Barzilai, a professor of law and former dean at Haifa University, told The Media Line. “Even if constitutionally it’s feasible, I’m not sure that it’s very smart, from a political perspective.”
“It seems to me to be a very risky game and I think that the government should be very careful about it,” he said.
According to Israeli law, the defense minister has the authority to designate a terror group. However, such a measure must be backed by strong evidence and data provided by Israel’s internal security agency, known as the Shin Bet, which is not publicly available.
“If the [Shin Bet] are saying that there is a clear and present danger and that Lehava is a terrorist organization, then they would submit this to Defense Minister Benny Gantz,” Barzilai said.
“If Lehava would be declared as a terrorist organization, they can appeal to the High Court of Justice,” he explained. “It’s very complicated. Declaring terrorist organizations is very, very rare in Israel.”
There have been previous attempts to outlaw Lehava. In 2015, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reportedly looked into the matter but his efforts proved fruitless. In 2019, Bentzi Gopstein, the founder and director of Lehava, was indicted on charges of incitement to terrorism, violence and racism.
Gopstein, notably, was a Knesset candidate for the far-right Kahanist and anti-Arab Otzma Yehudit Party, which currently holds two mandates in the 120-seat Knesset. At the time, the Supreme Court disqualified Gopstein’s candidacy due to his public racist statements.
More recently, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai accused Lehava and Otzma Yehudit lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir of fomenting violence between Jews and Arabs during last month’s intercommunal riots. The group notably organized a rally at the Damascus Gate in late April, with some supporters chanting “Death to Arabs” as they marched through it to the Old City of Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, Barzilai believes that banning the organization would ultimately prove to be counter-productive because it would drive members underground and perhaps even lead to greater radicalization.
“They are not going to disappear,” he said. “I’m not a great fan of ruling out radical political parties, however disgusting those parties are. There is one exception: in order to save human lives.”
It’s very complicated. Declaring terrorist organizations is very, very rare in Israel
Like Barzilai, other legal experts also do not believe that outlawing the group would be such a straightforward matter.
According to Dr. Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute who specializes in law and democracy, in order to be deemed “terrorist” a group must be systematically committing criminal offenses with the aim of scaring or threatening groups of people, be they Arab or Jewish.
“This is the motive of terrorists: to scare the public or threaten them,” Fuchs told The Media Line. The crimes that they commit, he adds, “have to either be violent, cause damage or destroy property.”
Regardless of the legal hurdles, social media platforms have already taken action against Lehava. Last fall, for example, TikTok banned Lehava’s channel and last month Whatsapp permanently blocked the phone numbers of several of its members, including Ayala Ben Gvir, the wife of Itamar Ben Gvir. Likewise, the group has been banned from Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
“They have already been indicted for incitement to racism, but regarding terrorism that is a question of classification,” Fuchs noted. “As soon as an organization is designated as being a terrorist group, they are no longer allowed to be active.”