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Israeli Lawmakers Mull Outlawing Extremist Lehava Organization
Lehava head Bentzi Gopstein (R) celebrates the Jewish Purim holiday in Hebron, on the West Bank, March 21, 2019. His T-shirt portrays Israel's attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, as Haman, the villain in the biblical Book of Esther. (Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli Lawmakers Mull Outlawing Extremist Lehava Organization

For years, left-wing Knesset members have called for branding the ultra-right-wing Lehava a terrorist organization. Now, after a wiretap recorded the group planning acts of violence against Arab Israelis, legislators have renewed the effort

A group of Jewish men gathers in Ramla, 12 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, to work on self-defense techniques, including Krav Maga. It soon becomes clear that the men are actually planning to attack Arab citizens of Israel in “mixed cities,” that is, cities with large numbers of both Jewish and Arabs residents, for example, the aforementioned Ramla.

Some of the men are associated with Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), an ultra-right-wing political party, or with the Lehava anti-assimilation organization, both inspired by the extremist teachings of Meir Kahane, an American-born rabbi and former MK who called for the transfer of the Arabs from Israel.

The gathering took place last May, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, the IDF’s 11-day war with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, which triggered wide-scale confrontations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, mostly in mixed cities.

After the Ramla gathering became public knowledge, based on secret recordings made by a Channel 13 correspondent who was planted inside the group, MKs from the Meretz party published a petition to ban Lehava, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz referred the matter to the security forces, saying: “Things are serious and must be investigated.”

Security officials are reviewing the materials in order to formulate an opinion on whether Lehava meets the definition of a terrorist organization.

“This investigation points to the dangerous nature of the Lehava organization and its ties with a powerful Jewish party [Otzma Yehudit] represented in the Knesset,” said former MK Dov Khenin, who, along with dozens of other ex-lawmakers signed a petition on the issue addressed to Gantz.

“Lehava should be outlawed, and the party affiliated with it should be disqualified from running for Knesset. This is our demand of the Israeli government,” Khenin said.

In October, Israel designated six Palestinian organizations, some with links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as terrorist organizations. Little evidence was presented, and cabinet ministers weren’t even notified by Gantz.

However, the PFLP has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and the European Union.

History of incitement and violence

The story of Lehava, of course, didn’t begin in May 2021. Bentzi Gopstein, once a student of Meir Kahane, founded this notorious organization, which has taken upon itself the mission of “stopping the assimilation in Israel,” in 2009.

Lehava’s website claims its activists save Jewish women who are wedded to Arabs in Israel or the West Bank, and brings stories of women who were “salvaged from their violent husbands.” The organization also promotes “Jewish labor” and calls on businesses in Israel not to hire Arabs. In 2020, it issued an urgent call to girls who volunteer within the framework of National Service to avoid working in the hospitals, since “there are too many Arabs.”

Members of the organization often demonstrate against LGBTQ parades and other such activities in Jerusalem.

According to the Ir Amim organization, which focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem, Lehava has become an active force in the city and incited hatred and violence toward Arabs.

Under the guise of a war on assimilation, the organization publicizes its doctrine of hatred of Arabs, while intimidating them and inciting against them on a racist basis. This incitement occurs across many arenas through posters, leaflets, activist stalls, demonstrations, conferences and social media platforms such as Facebook.

Lehava activists have initiated many violent demonstrations throughout the country in order to “incite hatred and incitement against the Arab public in Israel,” Ir Amim reported in 2015.

That same year, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon asked the Shin Bet security force to formulate an opinion on Lehava with a view toward declaring it an “illegal association.”

“The members of the Lehava organization are mistakenly called ‘extreme right.’ They do not represent to me any right, at least not the right I know,” he wrote on his personal Facebook page. “They simply represent a dark and dangerous phenomenon that has nothing to do with the sane, law-abiding and liberal right.”

Soon afterward, Ya’alon was squeezed out of government and left his post, while Otzma Yehudit, led by Lehava sympathizer Itamar Ben-Gvir, made it into the Knesset. The Supreme Court disqualified Gopstein himself from running for the legislature due to his racist remarks and activities.

‘Clear and present danger’

During the fateful events of April and May this year, when the situation in mixed cities in Israel got out of control, it became clear that Lehava activists played a significant role during this flare-up in violence. By late April, the organization’s activists were busy picking fights with Arabs in Jerusalem and other cities, attacking innocent passersby and provoking violence. Their activity was carefully planned and organized via WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook and YouTube. (Since then, Lehava’s YouTube channel was taken down.)

In June, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and Ram Ben Barak, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, appealed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to define Lahava, as well as its fundraising arm, the Foundation for the Salvation of the Jewish People, as illegal. Ben Barak said then that “we cannot allow ourselves to let extremist organizations use terrorism and harm innocent people, whether Jews or Arabs.”

Gopstein said in response to Barlev’s and Ben Barak’s actions that his organization was engaged in “holy work.”

“I have seen the world turned upside down, in which those who sit in a government with the Islamic Movement are trying to outlaw Lehava,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Those who follow the criticism of Lehava and its activities know that every now and then, after violent demonstrations or clashes, the politicians demand to ban the organization and designate it as a terrorist organization, but then things continue as they were. What are the chances that today, after yet more evidence of Lehava’s extreme and violent activities, the attorney general or the Registrar of Associations (both of which have the authority to outlaw Lehava) will finally act and ban it?

According to Channel 13, instead of arresting Lehava members who were planning an act of violence against Arabs in Ramla, the police paid a visit to the home of the group’s leader and warned him, with the implication being that the police was treating the organization too softly.

“This is the first time that there is incriminating documentation at such a level that allows measures to be taken to outlaw the organization and declare it a terrorist organization,” former Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz told The Media Line

“In the light of the evidence taken, I think there is a good chance that this will happen,” he said.

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