Reform Campaign Spurs State Crackdown on Right-Wing Free Speech
Bentzi Gopshtain (Image credit: N. Sher)
Bentzi Gopshtain, director of the Lehava anti-assimilation organization, had already been subjected to a sudden arrest in late October, over what he described as a trumped up crackdown on free speech ordered by the Reform Movement in an exclusive article for The Jerusalem Herald.
But now, after the judge threw out the accusations against him, the Kiryat Arba resident and one of the leaders of the Otzma Yehudit party is again under fire. On Monday it was announced he is being summoned by the attorney general for a hearing ahead of a criminal trial on charges of “incitement” to racism, violence, and terror.
The Reform Movement in Israel has openly boasted that it caused the free speech witch hunt – and a closer investigation reveals Gopshtain’s targeting appears to be part of a larger campaign to reshape key issues of thought and religion in Israel.
The Jerusalem district attorney’s office, with the approval of the attorney general and the state attorney’s office, announced that Gopshtain will have a hearing before being put on trial for a number of statements made to the media since 2012.
The mottled list of soundbites that are being presented as criminal thought bears all the hallmarks of a targeted assault on right-wing free speech. This is particularly so since it is argued that far more severe statements made by leftist and Arab activists have been given a free pass by the state and the press, in what appears to be a double standard as part of a political agenda for speech in Israel.
Attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is representing Gopshtain, highlighted this point in his response to the announcement: “We have dozens of examples of Arabs and leftists speaking much stronger than Gopshtain, but the prosecutor’s office closed the files [against them].”
Outlining some of these cases, Ben-Gvir wrote on Facebook: “A woman who said that the supreme [court] judges should be hung because they aren’t leftist enough – the case was closed; a man who said that settlers should be castrated – his case was closed; a woman who called to murder me and Bentzi – the case was closed; and only against Bentzi are they requesting to hold a hearing before an indictment… a dark day for democracy! A festive day for the haters of Israel!”
Exactly which statements constitute “incitement” according to the attorney general when the speaker is Gopshtain, and not a leftist or Arab calling to inflict immediate physical harm? A number of quotes in various media outlets over the years have been presented as evidence.
One such statement under question is: “Muhammad is dead, Muhammad is dead,” in reference to the founder of Islam. Exactly how this historical fact constitutes criminal incitement may puzzle some.
Similarly, Gopshtain's views on Arab hostility are also being targeted, after he is alleged to have said: “The enemies within us are a cancer. And if we do not take this cancer and throw it away we will not continue to exist, and Jews will die here every day. …The center and peak of this cancer is at the head, the head on the Temple Mount. …As long as the government of Israel does not come to its senses and remove this growth from the Temple Mount, we will not succeed in bringing the state to the complete redemption.”
In another cited statement, he is reported to have said he would not attend a wedding where Arabs were employed in the hall, and that he promoted the value of Jewish labor. In yet another, he is said to have argued for the role of force being used to stop Arabs from taking advantage of Jewish women, saying, “I’m not a pacifist. There are those who deserve having violence used against them. There’s no need to talk with an Arab who starts with a Jewish woman.”
While the statement is admittedly not pacifist, there is a difference between opining that there are circumstances where violence is needed and explicitly calling to use violence. Furthermore, Gopshtain has stressed that his organization, Lehava, acts according to the law, which was borne out in his recent arrest last month in which the charges against him were thrown out by the judge as “weak.”
One central statement being brought in the legal attack on Gopshtain came at the end of a recent wedding, when he is alleged to have sung a song praising Baruch Goldstein as a “gever” (a “real man”) for going into the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and opening fire. At its face, the statement seems problematic; Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslims at prayer and wounded another 125.
However, examining the context of the incident puts Gopshtain’s words in a different light and highlights the difficulty in trying to legislate which opinions are legal. Goldstein’s defenders say what he did was a counter-terror action much like the actions of David Raziel, a national hero and underground leader who killed 21 Arabs in a 1938 bombing of a market in Haifa as part of a deterrent campaign against Arab attacks. His defenders argue that Goldstein – who as an emergency doctor in Hevron watched those close to him breathe their last as they were murdered in Arab terror attacks – was faced with clear reports of an imminent large-scale Hamas attack on Jews in Hevron on Purim on the one hand, and Israeli security force inaction on the other, which led him to make a desperate decision to take matters into his own hands.
Whether one supports Gopshtain’s positive view of Goldstein or not, one must conclude that he has the right to his own opinion, particularly since no clear call to mimic Goldstein was made.
A Well-Funded Reform Campaign
The Reform Movement’s branch in Israel has come out and directly taken credit for goading the state into cracking down on Gopshtain’s freedom of speech, in what appears to be part of a larger campaign to change Israeli society.
Attorney Orly Erez-Lachovsky, head of the legal department of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) – which is the advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel – celebrated the attorney general’s move. “Following long legal proceedings, the state has decided not to be silent anymore and to put Gopshtain on trial for incitement to racism and violence. We welcome this. We will continue to act against revelations of racism,” she said.
In a more overt statement, the Reform Movement in Israel gloated on its Facebook page that Gopshtain will be tried “thanks to the wonderful work of the female attorneys of the Israel Religious Action Center!”
The director of the IRAC is Noa Sattath, a Reform female “rabbi” who is raising three children together with another woman. She was quoted on the IRAC Facebook page saying the crackdown on free speech was entirely due to the Reform Movement: “I think freedom of speech is an important value, and defending minorities is also an important value… freedom of speech is limited by law; it is permissible up until incitement to violence and racism. …The police and prosecutor’s office are ignoring Gopshtain’s dangerous behavior for years, and only our petition led them to stop this.”
It may strike some as odd that the Reform Movement would try to dictate which opinions can be legally voiced in Israel, but in an interview with the leftist paper Haaretz back in 2015, Sattath made a significant revelation in announcing a new campaign being launched by the IRAC, of which the latest crackdown would appear to be part.
In the interview, aside from describing her activism for homosexuality and her work for “coexistence” – according to her “the Palestinians have a much stronger narrative and a much greater religious and political sense of self” – Sattath also explained that IRAC intends to “reorganize its priorities over the next few years” in order to launch a campaign against Jewish “racism.”
“In our upcoming three-year plan, we plan to devote 40 percent of our resources to a special campaign to fight racism in Israel, primarily racism against Arabs,” Sattath said.
Just to give a scale of the amount of money involved, IRAC made up 25% of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism’s overall 2011 budget, which totaled $5.47 million. That means in 2011, IRAC’s budget was $1.37 million, 40% of which would make $548,000 – in 2015, that amount would likely have risen. Half a million dollars is a pretty hefty budget for a campaign targeting those whose views constitute “racism” according to the Reform Movement’s definition.
“The Struggle for Israeli Society”
The latest targeting of Gopshtain is not the first time that he has been in the sights of the well-funded Reform campaign. During July, the Reform Movement led a petition to the High Court of Justice to ban Lehava, in an attempt that ultimately failed due to the legal nature of the group’s activity.
In 2015, in the same year in which Sattath spoke about the campaign in her interview, a similar attempt to stop Lehava led to a Knesset session discussing banning it. Gopshtain attended the session, where leftist and Arab MKs displayed their version of democracy by forcibly attempting to prevent Gopshtain from speaking and defending himself. Despite their ostensible opposition to “hate speech,” a label they attempted to pin on Gopshtain in order to ban him, their own speech was hateful to say the least. The parliamentarians hurled slurs at him such as “ISIS with a kippah,” “Nazi,” “racist,” and “the foreskin of the Jewish KKK.”
The double standards on free speech displayed by Israel’s legislators at the session make it no wonder that the Reform campaign continues to target Gopshtain, as their remarks indicate an opening for the undermining of free speech in light of the animosity expressed towards his positions at the highest levels of the state.
But aside from outlawing speech it doesn’t agree with, it would appear the Reform Movement also aims to force through wide-scale social change in Israel. In the same 2015 Haaretz interview, Sattath said she joined IRAC “looking for a 'comfort level' of Judaism that would allow me to think more creatively about social justice issues through a Jewish perspective.” Clearly politically and religiously charged “social justice issues” are a key component of the group’s goals.
Along those lines, Sattath also spoke about her work with her “hero” and boss at IRAC, Anat Hoffman. Hoffman leads the group Women of the Wall, which seeks to force Torah observant Judaism to recognize Reform Judaism at the Western Wall, and she previously has stated her goal is to “throw out the whole rabbinate.”
In the context of her joint activism with Hoffman at the Western Wall, Sattath framed IRAC’s activity back in May as “the struggle for the Kotel and Israeli society in general.” Seen in that light, the targeting of free speech takes on new dimensions.
Not Going Under
Despite the campaign against him, Gopshtain struck a determined tone in response to the latest news that he will be put on trial.
“Again it becomes clear that the attorney general and the prosecutor’s office work for the Reform and are influenced by the pressure,” he said. “For many years the prosecutor’s office reasoned that there was no crime in my actions, but suddenly when the Reform petitioned the prosecutor’s office they stood at attention.”
“I will continue to fight assimilation, and the prosecutor’s office needs to know that a struggle for the [Jewish] girls is not racism, and freedom of speech needs to also be for right-wingers,” he added.
Sharing his prediction for the looming court battle, Ben-Gvir said, “I estimate that as my client has been acquitted countless times, this time too if the prosecutor’s office submits an indictment the result will be an acquittal.”
He noted that he heard about the attorney general’s decision from the media and was not given proper notification, commenting, “The prosecutor’s office is again proving that it acts in a populist and media-oriented manner and due to the pressure of the Reform organizations.”
It remains to be seen if this case will set a precedent for well-funded leftist organizations to pressure the government into acting as a sort of thought police to throw those who hold opinions they disagree with into jail.
An indication that even those on the left may understand the dire implications of such a turn of events was seen in a Facebook post by Ari Shamay, an attorney and media figure, who called the decision to put Gopshtain on trial “a sad day for freedom of speech in the State of Israel.”
After carefully clarifying that he voted for the radical leftist Meretz party in the last elections and went out with two Arab Muslim women in the past, Shamay concluded by saying: “Good luck to my friend Itamar Ben-Gvir; it looks to me like another acquittal is on the way.”