Israel's Lehava Stirs 'Anarchy' in Jerusalem
The far-right group stokes hatred and incites followers
to violence against Palestinians, say analysts
By Jonathan Cook
- Four youths in black T-shirts, bearing a distinctive
yellow-flame insignia, approached "A" in July as he got
out of a taxi in central Jerusalem to meet friends. They
asked him the time. Suspicious of his accent, they
confronted him directly: "Are you an Arab?"
"The moment I
said, 'yes,' one of them punched me in the eye. The
others jumped on me and started hitting me all over my
body. There were many people in the area, but no one
took any notice or tried to help."
"A" managed to
break free and fled to a nearby restaurant, where a
friend worked, and hid inside. "If I hadn't been able to
run away, they would have killed me," he said.
filmed testimony is one of several taken of
Palestinians in Jerusalem who have been violently
assaulted recently by far-right Jewish activists.
Fearing reprisals, most of the victims agreed to testify
only on condition that their real identities were not
were carried out by a far-right group called Lehava, or
Flame in Hebrew, an acronym for the Organisation for the
Prevention of Miscegenation in the Holy Land. Run by a
far-right rabbi, Ben-Zion Gopstein, Lehava rejects any
interaction between Jews and Palestinians.
2009, Lehava is distinguished from other far-right
groups by its official focus on stopping miscegenation
and intermarriage between Jews and Palestinians. In
addition to the 300,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem, some
1.7 million of Israel's citizens are Palestinian by
origin, making them nearly a fifth of the population.
believed to be trying to extend its reach to a handful
of "mixed" cities in Israel where small numbers of
Palestinian citizens live in neighbourhoods close to
There are racist lynch mobs roaming the
streets of Jerusalem driven by a hatred
of Arabs and the police are showing no
interest in investigating.
In 2014, some
200 Lehava supporters - many wearing the group's "Jewish
honour guard" T-shirts - protested noisily outside the
wedding of a Palestinian man and a female Jewish convert
to Islam in the city of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. Some
with the slogan: "Miscegenation is a Holocaust".
streets, meanwhile, are littered with fliers and
stickers in Arabic warning, "Don't even think about a
Jewish girl" and in Hebrew stating, "Beware the goys [a
derogatory term for non-Jews] - they will defile you".
hardcore supporters number in the hundreds, according to
the Religious Action Centre, the advocacy arm of the
Reform Judaism movement, which filmed the testimonies.
But it believes Gopstein can draw on the open support of
David Sheen, an
Israeli journalist who has reported on far-right groups
for many years, told Al Jazeera: "Lehava's aim is to
rile up Jewish youth on the streets, to create a strike
force that can help ethnically cleanse Palestinians from
the main areas of Jerusalem."
about the wider effect of Lehava's incitement on the
climate of popular opinion in Israel.
a field researcher with Ir Amim, an Israeli group
advocating fair treatment for Palestinians in Jerusalem,
told Al Jazeera: "The idea of rescuing Jewish women from
Arabs - bringing them back to Judaism - has wide support
from Israelis, including from the left. The attitude
among most Israeli Jews is that, even if we don't
support your methods, your violence, we approve of your
by Al Jazeera, Gopstein declined to talk. However, in a
speech last year he called for
"action" to stop coexistence, calling it a "dangerous
cancer". Lehava leaders were all formerly active in Kach,
an anti-Arab group that was outlawed in 1994 after one
of its followers, Baruch Goldstein, shot 29 Palestinians
at worship in Hebron's Ibrahimi mosque.
Gopstein attended a memorial event in Jerusalem for
Kach's founder, Rabbi Meir Kahane. At the rally, he
waved a cleaning rag with the face of Lucy Aharish, the
only prominent TV presenter from Israel's Palestinian
minority, saying he would wash the floor with her. He
added: "She compared me to Hamas. So we'll make her
nightmare come true".
lives in Kiryat Arba, an Israeli settlement next to the
Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank, was a
student of Kahane. He was arrested in 1990 on suspicion
of murdering a Palestinian couple, in what appeared to
be retaliation for Kahane's assassination, but was later
banning, Kach openly supported the violent expulsion of
Palestinians from the region under the slogan: "Arabs to
the Arab states and Jews to Zion". Like Lehava, one of
its main activities was preventing mixing between Jews
Lehava had created "an instantly recognisable brand that
is all about racial purity. This is just a new version
of Kach. They can't use the same slogans without
breaking the law, but the similarities are
unmistakable." He noted that both organisations used the
same colours of black and yellow in their emblems -
Kach's was a fist, while Lehava uses a flame.
existed in the 1980s, it was seen as so racist that it
was likened to the Nazis and boycotted by other parties
in the parliament. It was seen as beyond the pale," said
Sheen. "Now it's in the mainstream. It even has
supporters in the Likud party [of Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu] who are happy to whitewash it."
Yehuda Glick, a
far-right activist close to Gopstein, who demands the
replacement of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem with a Jewish
temple, became a Likud member of parliament in May. Lehava's
ties with Kach were evident during the summer, when the
a series of training camps in the southern West Bank
to teach young people martial arts.
Gopstein were Itamar Ben Gvir and Noam Federman, two
former leaders of the banned movement, who tutored the
young men and women in techniques for withstanding
supporters have grown in numbers and confidence, large
parts of Jerusalem's city centre have rapidly become a
no-go area for Palestinians after dark. The victims, as
well as human rights groups and religious leaders, have
complained that the Israeli police are turning a blind
eye to the wave of intimidation and violence.
racist lynch mobs roaming the streets of Jerusalem,
driven by a hatred of Arabs, and the police are showing
no interest in investigating," Steven Beck, a spokesman
for the Israel Religious Action Centre, told Al Jazeera.
The centre, which promotes equality and social justice
in Israel, video recorded the testimonies of Lehava's
victims as part of a campaign called "Lehava is Burning
Jerusalem". It warns: "Jewish terror is not created out
of thin air. It is fueled by ideological incitement and
hatred that is spread by extremist rabbis."
"H", who was
assaulted twice this year, filed a complaint with the
police after he was knifed in the back and shoulder by a
Lehava gang. "Until now, no action has been taken," he
said. "The police are with them, covering for them."
Jamal Julani was left in a coma by a Lehava group in
2012, when he was 17. Investigators told him none of the
security cameras were working in the area of the
assault, even though it took place close to two banks.
"How that's possible? I don't understand," he said.
"There are maybe 10 cameras there. How did none of them
he had been left emotionally, as well as physically,
scarred. Fearful of further attacks, he said: "Now, I'm
scared to go out alone. Even if I try to fight back,
everyone will shout, 'Terrorist, terrorist'. If a
policeman is passing by and sees the incident … I'll be
the one who gets shot."
Palestinians of East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed
after 1967 in violation of international law, have
residency permits that entitle them to live and work in
Israel. Many travel into Jerusalem's city centre for the
nightlife and shopping not available in their own
deprived neighbourhoods, or to work in Jewish-owned
restaurants and shops.
This is when
many of the attacks occur, with Lehava claiming that the
Palestinian men use the visits to consort with Jewish
Calls for the
outlawing of Lehava have grown since three followers
were found guilty last year of
an arson attack on Jerusalem's only binational
school, for Jewish and Palestinian children. The three
walls were daubed with racist slogans, such as "End
miscegenation" and "No coexistence with cancer".
year, Moshe Yaalon, then defence minister, was reported
to be considering outlawing Lehava. By August, however,
the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence service, said
it had no evidence on which to recommend banning the
group. The current defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman,
of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, is considered
unlikely to try to curb Lehava's activities.
Lehava has called for boycotts of city businesses that
hire Palestinian workers. Critics say the group also
intimidates landlords who rent to Palestinian families.
Dan Biron, owner of the Birman restaurant in central
Jerusalem, said Palestinians among his staff had been
attacked on four separate occasions.
One time, he
said, a mob came to his restaurant demanding that he
hand over Palestinian workers. "Send them out so we can
kill them," he recalled. He stood his ground until they
left. "There is anarchy in Jerusalem. The police do not
enforce the law here," he said. "There are serious
criminals who wander around freely, criminals who beat
up people, and the police do nothing."
Christians have found themselves increasingly targeted,
Lehava's Gopstein called Christians
"blood-sucking vampires" and demanded they be
expelled from Israel. A few months earlier he told a
meeting he supported torching churches to prevent "idol
worship". Church leaders suspect Lehava supporters are
behind a recent wave of vandalism against Christian
sites in Jerusalem and intimidation of priests and nuns.
Lehava youths, led by Gopstein, rioted in September at a
performance by a Palestinian Armenian choir at a music
festival in a Jerusalem shopping mall. The singers were
forced to leave after the youths shouted "Jew
murderers!" and "Go to Syria!".
The Vatican filed
a complaint last year on behalf of local bishops to
Israel's attorney general, demanding that Gopstein be
indicted for incitement to violence.
Nassar, spokesman for the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem,
told Al Jazeera the Israeli authorities had not
responded. "Gopstein is continuously saying racist and
inciteful things in public, so one has to wonder why no
measures have been taken against him. He seems immune."
"There is a clear backing among members of this
government for far-right groups like Lehava."
inciteful rhetoric and connections to attacks, Lehava
has in the past
received significant funding from the Israeli
government - as much as $180,000 annually through a
sister charity, Hemla. The latter runs a hostel in
Jerusalem for the "rehabilitation" of Jewish women
"saved" from marriages to Palestinians.
media revealed this month that funding to Hemla this
nearly doubled, to $350,000. Gopstein formally
severed Lehava's connections to Hemla two years ago.
However, the registrar of non-governmental organisations
is reported to have warned that secret ties between the
two may have continued and has recommended an
There have also
been suspicions of close ties between Israeli police and
Lehava. They were fuelled in February when it
emerged, following an investigation of Gopstein's
activities, that a Border Police officer had supplied
the group with details of Jewish women dating
Tartasky, of Ir
Amim, told Al Jazeera: "The dominant culture in the
police regards the Palestinians as not proper residents
of the city. The police see their role as defending Jews
from Palestinians, not the other way around."
Jerusalem's politicians also contributed to an
impression that Palestinians had no place in the city.
"The mayor [Nir Barkat] has not made a single statement
against Lehava, even though they are inciting and
carrying out regular attacks in the heart of his city.
That has sent a clear message that Lehava has
was underscored by statements from Barkat's deputy, Meir
Turgeman, in September, following the arrest of a
Mesbah Abu Sabih, on suspicion of killing two
Israelis. Turgeman said he would
"punish" the Palestinian population of East
Jerusalem for their "animal behaviour … There are no
carrots left, only sticks".
Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, denied that the police
were failing to take Lehava's violence seriously. "There
has been a significant rise in the number of patrols in
the centre of Jerusalem to prevent such incidents," he
told Al Jazeera. He added that the police were
"dispersing" gangs of Lehava youth as soon as they were
authorities have been accused of failing to rein in
Lehava, too. Beck said the Religious Action Centre had
submitted 25 complaints to the attorney general against
Gopstein for incitement but had not received a response.
In April, a Jerusalem judge ruled that Gopstein had made
an "honest mistake" in beating up two left-wing Jewish
activists when they entered a West Bank settlement.
claimed he had believed they were Palestinians. Video
showed Israeli police arresting the two victims
rather than Gopstein. One of Lehava's public services is
a hotline so that Israeli Jews can inform on family or
friends who are dating non-Jews. Beck said: "Lehava has
perpetuated a lie that thousands of Jewish women are
being held against their will by Palestinians in abusive
marriages. It stokes hatred and incites followers to
show that only a tiny number of marriages between
Israeli Jews and Palestinians occur. In 2011, the year
for which official figures were released, there were
only 19 such marriages. Nonetheless, the group has
quickly pushed miscegenation on to the political agenda.
Back in 2011, Gopstein was invited by Tzipi Hotovely,
now the acting foreign minister, to advise a
parliamentary committee set up to investigate the issue.
And, in recent
months, the education ministry has
banned two famous Hebrew novels depicting
relationships between a Jew and an Arab from the school
curriculum. Polls indicate that that Lehava's playing up
of a supposed miscegenation threat from Palestinians
resonates with many Israeli Jews. A survey from 2007
found that more than half believed intermarriage
between Jews and Palestinians were "treason".
said they wanted Palestinians, including those with
Israeli citizenship, expelled from the region. However,
some Israeli Jews in Jerusalem have started to fight
back against Lehava. Since 2014, a group named "Talking
in the Square" has been organising
counter-demonstrations in Zion Square, where Lehava
stages a weekly rally.
One of their
activists, Ossnat Sharon,
said they tried to "keep an eye on [Lehava], curbing
their attempts at violence as best we can." Tartasky
said Lehava's rapid growth in popularity should be seen
in part as "a backlash" to the greater presence of
Palestinians in central Jerusalem in recent years.
were venturing into the city centre in bigger numbers,
he said, because their own neighbourhoods had been cut
off from nearby Ramallah and other Palestinian cities of
the West Bank by Israel's completion of its so-called
transport links after Israel opened its light rail
system have also contributed to the trend of
Palestinians seeking work and entertainment in
Jerusalem's city centre. "Lehava's growth indicates how
uncomfortable some Israelis have become with seeing
Palestinians in what they consider to be their city," he
said. "It has given them a sense of grievance and
increased their extremism."
Cook is a Nazareth- based journalist and winner of
the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism -
See more at: http://www.jonathan-cook.net/#sthash.Sh6MSZt7.dpuf
is a Nazareth- based journalist and winner of the Martha
Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism.
expressed in this article are the author's own and do
not necessarily reflect Information Clearing House