Head of anti-assimilationist group declares churches have no place in Israel and says he "does not cry" over the death of Palestinian toddler in recent arson attack.
By Robert Tait, Jerusalem, video by Quique Kierszenbaum
Having publicly advocated the destruction of Israel's Christian churches, Benzi Gopstein might have good cause to fear for his liberty.
But if Mr Gopstein, the leader of Lehava - a group infamous for its virulent campaigns against relationships between Arab men and Jewish women - worries about arrest just days after prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government announced an unprecedented offensive against "Jewish terror", he was not showing it.
Instead, in plain sight and surrounded by the smells of multiple barbecues being cooked by ultra-Orthodox Jewish families in Jerusalem's Sacher Park, he brazenly urged the same government to expel Christian places of worship from the Holy Land.
"We don't speak about people to do it. It's what the government needs to do," Mr Gopstein told the Telegraph in a rare interview with a foreign news outlet. "If the government wants to [have] a Jewish state, that's what we say."
Asked if the government should set fire to churches - as hard-line Jewish extremists have done in recent times - he replied: "Not burn. They need to take them out. We don't have a place for churches here.... It's Jewish law. This is what God told us."
Mr Gopstein, 46, a knitted kippa-wearing religious settler from Kiryat Arba - on the outskirts of the flashpoint Palestinian city of Hebron - was addressing an explosive topic at a sensitive time.
The authorities, driven by revulsion over a fire-bomb attack blamed on far-Right settlers that killed a Palestinian toddler in the West Bank village of Duma last week, have disclosed plans to detain Jewish militants without trial, a measure long applied to Palestinian suspects.
Mordechai Meyer, 18, was ordered to be detained for six months for activities said to include suspected involvement in a fire that badly damaged the Church of Loaves and Fishes on the banks of the Sea of Galilee - marking the site where Jesus is believed to have miraculously fed 5,000 people.
Meir Ettinger, 23 - grandson of the late Meir Kahane, a rabbi whose Kach party was banned because of its racist beliefs - was also arrested days after lamenting how Israel was being "desecrated" by churches in a blog post.
The blog condemned "the state of Israel's great sin of allowing idolatry - churches and monasteries abounding in the Land of Israel with the sound of their ringing bells mixing with the pleasant sound of the Torah and prayer".
The sentiments chimed closely with those voiced by Mr Gopstein this week in a panel discussion that was widely reported in the Israeli media. “Did the Rambam [Maimonides] rule to destroy [idol worship] or not?" said Mr Gopstein - citing a 12th century Jewish philosopher - when asked if he supported destroying churches.
"Idol worship must be destroyed. It’s simply yes."
The Lehava leader - a former member of Kahane's party - insisted that no members of his organisation had carried out church attacks.
"I don't do these kind of things. These are not my people," he said, while acknowledging that three Lehava members had torched a mixed Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem last November.
Nevertheless, Mr Gopstein admitted he could be arrested soon - even though the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence service, has decided there are no grounds for outlawing his group.
"Maybe Boogie [Moshe Ya'alon, the defence minister] or Bibi [Mr Netanyahu] will want to show all the world [that they are doing something] and arrest me," he said. "If they arrest me, I am ready. It's not the first time."
Referring to this week's arrests, he added: "It will be very difficult for them to break these people. They are very strong ideologically and they won't get anything from them."
Mr Gopstein was chillingly dismissive of the reasons behind the crackdown - saying he would shed no tears for one-year-old Ali Dawabshe, the Palestinian child whose death in last Friday's arson attack triggered a wave of condemnation from Israeli politicians.
"I don't support [but] I don't cry for it because my people are dying," he said when asked if he too condemned the attack, for which suspects are yet to be arrested.
"My people are dying every day, so I don't have tears for my enemies. But I don't do it, and I tell my people not to do it. "
Asked how a one-year-old child could be his enemy, Mr Gopstein invoked Ali Dawabshe's brother Ahmad, aged four, who survived the fire but suffered third-degree burns to 60 per cent of his body.
"If you see his [Ali's] brother, his brother is five or six. He says, 'I want to to be a shahid [martyr]'," Mr Gopstein said.
In fact, there is no record of Ahmad, who is gravely ill and has been visited in hospital by leading Israeli figures, including Mr Netanyahu and Reuven Rivlin, the president, having said this. The boys' parents are fighting for their lives in Israeli hospitals.
Lehava's trademark campaign has been against relationships between Jews and gentiles, something Mr Gopstein attributes - like the desired expulsion of churches - to Jewish law.
"There are Arabs who try to take Jewish women," he said. "In their place they cannot date a woman because they will be killed, so they take Jewish women.
"These are poor women, sometimes from weak families. They use them, give them money so [the women] come to us to cry about their situation. The police say that they cannot do anything, so we come and help them."
Mr Gopstein also led a Lehava demonstration against last week's gay pride march in Jerusalem, at which an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stabbed six participants, leading to the death of 16-year-old Shira Banki. Before the march, one of the group's leading members had publicly compared being gay to robbing a bank.
The group's uncompromising stance drew headlines last year when supporters demonstrated violently outside the wedding in Jaffa between a Muslim man and a Jewish woman who had converted to Islam.
Although most Israelis disapprove of Lehava's methods, polls suggests that its opposition to inter-marriage has wide support - among Arabs and Jews - according to Tamar Hermann, of the Israel Democracy Institute.
"We found that between one-third and 40 per cent expressed strong support for organisations who fight against these mixed marriages," she said. "We even mentioned Lehava in the question, although we didn't ask if they supported it specifically.
"Now, with the exposure being given to the Ettinger arrest, it looks as if Gopstein thinks there might be some opening for him to expand beyond the issue of mixed marriages and assimilation."
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