Israeli Media: Leader of Far-Right Lehava Group Admits Support for Destroying Churches

The leader of an extreme right-wing Israeli group opposed to the integration of Jews and Arabs appeared to admit in comments at a public event reported by Israeli media that he supports the burning of churches, though he later said he was not calling for individuals to take matters into their own hands.

Bentzi Gopstein, head of the Lehava group, made the comments at a public debate on idolatry at the Wolfson Yeshiva in Jerusalem. A recording of the debate was obtained by Haredi Orthodox news website Kikar HaShabbat.

A panel member at the debate, Benny Rabinowitz of the Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne'eman, asked Gopstein if he supported arson attacks on churches— a particularly controversial topic since the murder of a Palestinian baby in an arson attack last week.

In the recording, the extremist leader is heard replying to Rabinowitz by asking: "Are you against Maimonides or in favour of him?" in reference to the 12th Century Sephardic Jewish philosopher who advocated the destruction of idolatry in ancient Jewish law. "Don't talk to me about Maimonides, I asked you what you think," Rabinowitz replies.

"Of course I am," Gopstein then says when asked if he is in favor of the destruction of churches. The comments were translated by The Jerusalem Post and other Israeli media outlets. "Did Maimonides rule that you need to destroy or not? Idolatry needs to be destroyed."

When told that his comments could land him in trouble with Israeli police, he brushed off the prospect of any punishment. "That's the last thing that bothers me," he says in the recording to another debate speaker, according to The Jerusalem Post. "If that's the truth then I'm prepared to sit 50 years in prison for it."

In a statement released by Gopstein after the publication of his remarks, he said that he was referring to the approach of Maimonides and that he was not calling for individuals to take the law into their own hands.

"During the debate I said that, according to the Rambam [an acronym for Maimonides], idol worship must be destroyed," he said. "I stressed several times I was not calling to take operative steps, but that this is the Rambam's approach and that it's the responsibility of the government, not of individuals."

The Lehava leader's comments come just a week after the murder by arson of 18-month-old Palestinian baby Ali Dawabsha by suspected Jewish extremists and weeks after another group of suspected Jewish extremists set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Israel's Galilee region last month. The site is believed in Christianity to be the site of Jesus's miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. A deliberate arson attack is suspected after an investigation showed that the fire had started in several places, a spokesman for the Israeli fire brigade said.

In the wake of the attacks, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon issued the first administrative detention order against a suspected Jewish extremist on Tuesday as part of a raft of tougher measures to battle Jewish extremism. Mordechai Meyer, an 18-year-old resident of the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, was sentenced without charges or trial to serve six months in Rimonim Prison.

Israeli police have not revealed the reasons behind Meyer's detention but Israeli media reports allege that it is linked to his suspected involvement with a group believed to be behind the arson attack on the Galilee church.

On Saturday, Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the opposition Zionist Union party who ran against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March's general election, called on the government to outlaw the Lehava group and classify them as a "terrorist organisation."

"Jewish terrorists endanger the security of Israel just like Islamic terrorists," Herzog said in a post on his Facebook page.

The group has become notorious within Israel for its anti-assimilation stance towards Arabs. Last year, the group protested the intermarriage of Morel Malcha, a Jew, and Mahmoud Mansour, an Arab, outside their wedding venue. In November, three members of the group were charged with the arson of Jerusalem's Arab-Jewish Max Rayne Hand in Hand School.