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The right-wing group trying to keep downtown Jerusalem Arab-free

They roam the streets looking for either mixed Jewish-Palestinian couples or lone Arabs, protest at mixed weddings, and hand out racist leaflets. Their leaders are militant and well-organized, exploiting disaffected youth to do the dirty work. An inside look at the far-right group, Lehava, and the Jerusalem activists who are trying to put an end to its violence.

By Ossnat Sharon

Israeli right-wing activist Benzi Gopstein, leader of the Lehava organization, takes part in a protest near the tram station in East Jerusalem, a day after a Palestinian man killed a baby in a vehicular attack at the same location, October 23, 2014. The sign reads: ‘Jews, Revenge’

Israeli right-wing activist Benzi Gopstein, leader of the Lehava organization, takes part in a protest near the tram station in East Jerusalem, a day after a Palestinian man killed a baby in a vehicular attack at the same location, October 23, 2014. The sign reads: ‘Jews, Revenge’

Outside of Jerusalem, we often hear of Lehava demonstrating at a mixed Jewish-Palestinian wedding, or perhaps the LGBT pride parade. But ultimately, a protest of this sort by a handful of extremists isn’t very harmful. The truly destructive dimension of Lehava’s activities is its integration into Jerusalem’s landscape.

Lehava activists come to Jerusalem’s Zion Square on Thursday nights (and sometimes on Saturday nights) in trademark shirts and with flags, and hand out flyers and stickers to passersby. They are highly visible. Last summer they numbered no more than 10 teens, both boys and girls; this summer they have at least doubled in numbers, and almost all of them are boys. This fits in with the changing nature of their activities, which have become more organized and militant.

Sometimes the activists march down the street, shouting: “Arab, watch out, my sister is worth more!” “The daughters of Israel belong to the people of Israel!” and “Kahane was right!” These marches garner some media attention, and it is easy to track and report them to the police, which is likely the reason we have seen less of them in the past few weeks. But they continue to loiter around downtown Jerusalem in smaller groups that are more difficult to track, often without their identifiable shirts, looking for Arabs.

Lehava activists scout downtown Jerusalem looking for mixed couples, and often simply for Arabs, in order to threaten them. They obviously have a WhatsApp group, and are at their comrades’ beck and call whenever a fight appears imminent. This is an effective way to cleanse the city center of Arabs: these guys are scary.

Ideological youth

Before I get to Lehava’s complex relationship with the law and the police, it is important to understand who its activists are: nearly all of them are teenagers who are usually accompanied by one or two adult supervisors. Their ages range from about 13 to 21. While some come from a normative background,  others are youth at risk and many of them spend a great deal of time on the streets. Some of them formerly belonged to the ultra-Orthodox community, some live on the outer edges of Jerusalem, where there is often friction with the eastern side of the city (including stone throwing).

Read: Hundreds rally against racist group ‘Lehava’ in Jerusalem

Our personal conversations with Lehava activists have revealed that many of them work with Arabs, and many report of women they know personally who have had abusive relationships with Arab men. In their own eyes, they are ideological youth serving the greater good while their friends are out partying. Dedicated social workers spend many nights downtown offering at-risk youth thermoses with tea, or hoping to initiate a conversation over a game of checkers. This is all very well, but these teens live the complex and violent politics of the city, and want more than tea or checkers. They are looking for meaning, and Lehava supplies it in spades.

When the leaders disappear

Lehava has an inner circle of activists who wear its shirts, but there is also an outer circle consisting of friends of the activists, who hang around, say hello, and collaborate with them to some degree. The important difference between the circles is the level of discipline of their members: activists who wear Lehava shirts will avoid violence (at least as long as they are wearing them), and will obey the orders of the adult supervisor. These adults are wary — they know the law, and they want to be as effective as possible.

The heads of Lehava are careful to tread the fine line between legal and illegal, between extremism and what is deemed acceptable. They are very consistent in these acrobatics. When speaking to moderate religious Jews, they make an effort — and often succeed — to present themselves as an anti-assimilation group, that seeks to warn young Jewish women about the dangers of abusive romantic relationships with Arabs. Many Jerusalem residents respond to this positively, allowing the activists to transform an ideological-educational discourse into a violent one against Muslims, Christians and leftists.

It doesn’t take much for words to turn into actions: an integral part of the youths’ activities is to find and surround mixed couples, or join altercations with Arab youths hanging out downtown or Arab workers who they claim threaten them. The adult supervisors are also called to these altercations. Lehava takes part in creating violent provocations, which are later described — both within the group and outside it — as “attempted terrorist attacks.”

Right-wing activists from the anti-miscegenation group Lehava protest outside the wedding ceremony of a Muslim man and a Jewish woman in Rishon LeZion. (photo: Activestills.org)

Right-wing activists from the anti-miscegenation group Lehava protest outside the wedding ceremony of a Muslim man and a Jewish woman in Rishon LeZion, August 14, 2014. (photo: Activestills.org)

This is where the “outer circle” comes in. A few weeks ago, we intervened in a case in which a young teenage boy got into an argument with an Arab employee at a local business (perhaps the employee yelled at him or offended him? Perhaps there was some petty theft?). The boy’s friends came to his aid and threatened the employee, and in a matter of minutes Lehava activists had arrived at the scene. At this point, there were dozens of teenagers there preparing for violence. One can see a pattern that begins with a street kid looking for trouble and continues with the involvement of his friends who are more organized and ideological, while at the end of the line are a small group of adults with a violent political agenda, funding and a measure of legal support.

As for the legal front, we have witnessed two tactics Lehava activists employ just as the violence begins: 1. They take off the shirts with the Lehava logo on them; 2. The adult leaders take a step back and disappear from the scene, leaving the teenagers accountable. When the police intervenes, these teens bear responsibility for the people who sent them.

This makes it much harder to tie leaders of the organization directly to violence. The delicate acrobatics between legal and criminal activities, between arguably acceptable values and violence, and between street youth dynamics and racist far-right politics — are both effective and frightening, precisely because of how borderline they are.

And what about the police? There is significant police presence downtown at night, but they will get involved only when directly confronted with physical violence. The police refrain from taking action when it comes to threats, taunts or only the potential of violence. Sometimes a policeman will turn a blind eye, and phoning the police often does little good. Violence will frequently develop quickly and end quickly, which means police officers must be ready and willing to carefully track Lehava activists — and most of all to be familiar with the terrain and its dynamics. Unfortunately, there is no permanent police force patrolling the city center with a feel for what is happening and an ability to act accordingly.

What can be done?

We believe that if the municipality were to decide that Lehava are unwanted on the streets of Jerusalem, police possess the tools to prevent them from acting effectively. A different form of policing could also be useful: Randomly assigned policemen who lack understanding of the situation, are inadequately briefed and whose default is to either ignore events or use excessive violence are unhelpful. A patrolman or two who are intimately familiar with the downtown area, the teens and the dynamics of the city could be far more effective, while also better serving the local community.

+972 blogger Orly Noy speaks at a rally against racist group ‘Lehava’ at Zion Square in central Jerusalem, December 13, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

+972 blogger Orly Noy speaks at a rally against racist group ‘Lehava’ at Zion Square in central Jerusalem, December 13, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

In terms of education, we must recognize that this phenomenon rests on teenagers, some of whom spend much of their time in the street. Beyond the needs that welfare organizations are trying to fulfill, these youths yearn to be involved in something meaningful. They are only just discovering politics and social activism, a natural part of their coming of age. But the only ones who take them seriously are a handful of extremists with a simplistic and violent doctrine, who take advantage of these teens and use them for criminal activities. We need to find an alternative.

In the last year, a group called “Medabrim BaKikar” (Hebrew for “talking in the square”), made up of secular, religious, right-wing and leftist residents of Jerusalem meets on Thursday and Saturday nights near Zion Square. We stand by the Lehava activists and keep an eye on them, curbing their attempts at violence as best we can.

They know us, and know that unlike the police — we are watching them closely, and are interested not only in their violence, but also in what surrounds it and leads to it. We also initiate conversations with them and with others who gather in the square. We speak openly and respectfully about politics, beliefs, and identity, and the square fills with small public discussions.

This is responsible citizenship that refuses to let the activists of Lehava hold exclusive control of public space, and we are able to see the change in atmosphere over time. With the help of a few simple and elegant rules, this new, empathetic form of political discourse works surprisingly well, providing a rare opportunity for city youth of different backgrounds to converse in a respectful atmosphere. We welcome all Jerusalemites to join us.

Ossnat Sharon is an activist with Medabrim BaKikar in Jerusalem. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Ben

      If this were Arabs behaving this way the Shabak and the police would be all over it from start to finish, undercover agents galore, and taking off shirts and cowardly leaders slipping away would be to no avail No one would slip away. They’d all be locked up and prosecuted. Just another day then in the Lords Of the Land State.

      Reply to Comment
      • Wedding Singer

        This is the fifth time you have mentioned lords of the land in two days. Are you not tired of this already? Too bad you don’t realize that you are plagerizing the title of a 10 year old book. Ben is the ultimate effeminate loser.

        Now for some originality, tell us if you intentionally lied about BDS or if you were fooled by their propaganda. Which one is it? Either way, you are a spineless wimp.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Of course I’m borrowing the well known phrase that has passed into popular usage from the book by Zertal and Eldar. That’s the whole point. Fey twit. “Plagerizing (sic).” LoL. Everything with you is narcissistic envy. You could at least spell it right.

          As Adam LeBor, who reviewed the book, said:

          “Lords of the Land” is the first complete history of the settlement project. It provides a detailed narrative of injustice, and is profoundly depressing for anyone still hoping for a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even hoping that Jews and Arabs will be seen as equal in the eyes of Israeli law. In a chapter entitled “Everything Is Legal in the Land of Israel” Zertal and Eldar chronicle the paltry punishments given to settlers who kill Arabs, like the settlement leader Pinchas Wallerstein, who in 1988 shot two young Arabs in the back after he saw them burning a tire on the road. One died. Wallerstein was sentenced to four months community service.
          If Palestinian lives are cheap, much Palestinian land is even cheaper — that is, free, at least to the settlers and Israeli authorities. The security fence that snakes through the West Bank is, according to Zertal and Eldar, an unparalleled land grab. They write that it was “constructed with no reckoning and no logic other than the purpose of enclosing as many settlements as possible on the western, Israeli, side and dividing up and seizing Palestinian lands.”

          Reply to Comment
      • Mars Mercury

        Ben, the only sort of men you like are the kind who take poppers with you and meet you anonymously in men’s room stalls. Clearly, there are not those type of men and you feel threatened and afraid.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          I wouldn’t know. Is it “to die for”? *snicker* Give it up pal. Just collapse your names into one and call yourself Old Sluggo the Fumble-ing Mercurial Martian Wedding Singer with a Rickety Rocket in the pocket selling Cupcakes and Meatballs past sell date on Electric Avenue outside restaurants to die for. Or whatever.

          Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        “If this were Arabs behaving this way the Shabak and the police would be all over it from start to finish, undercover agents galore, and taking off shirts and cowardly leaders slipping away would be to no avail No one would slip away. They’d all be locked up and prosecuted.”

        Really? We are just learning from what Arabs do to absolve their own criminals who indiscriminately murder Jewish men, women and children.

        As a pre-requisite to peace talks, the Palestinian Authority demanded the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners.

        “Among the prisoners is terrorist Issa Abed Rabbo, who brutally murdered Israeli university students Roni Levi and Revital Seri in 1984 while they were hiking south of Jerusalem. He had tied the two up at gunpoint, placed bags over their heads, and then proceeded to murder them in cold blood. Abed Rabbo is presently serving two life sentences.”

        “Muhamad Daoud is another terrorist on the list. In 1987 Daoud hurled a molotov cocktail at a car, slaughtering a pregnant woman and her 5 year old son.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Yep. Really.

          Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            GUSTAV:”Really? We are just learning from what Arabs do to absolve their own criminals who indiscriminately murder Jewish men, women and children.”

            BEN:”Yep. Really”

            Thanks Ben for agreeing. Now tell us why is it only a problem for you what we do but it isn’t a problem for you what our Palestinian Arab teachers do?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            It’s hard to believe that an American like you really misunderstands English like this.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            LOL, I am not American, Benny, although I regularly visit America as part of my Job. Nice people, Americans. Well, most of them anyways. I know a few exceptions. Some of them post in this publication regularly.

            But since you claim I misunderstood your response maybe you could tell us what you meant? And maybe you could respond to my post in which I demonstrated how the Arabs treat Arab on Jew crimes. No, Benny? I dodn’t think so, that’s a sensitive subject for the likes of you.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I’m quite skeptical about the bio.
            Look it’s not complicated. You quoted me and then asked “Really?” I said “Yep. Really.” Why the professing not to understand this and the making of mountains out of molehills?
            How did the Irgun treat Jew on Arab crimes? How did the Irgun treat Irgun on Arab crimes?

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            You are skeptical about my bio? Ok, who cares. We are all Americans now. Like I said, I like most Americans. So you can think of me as American if ya wanna, LOL.

            As for your Irgun comment, see how misguided you are? You miss the thrust of my argument entirely. Here, let me simplify it so that even a dunce like you may get it (notice I say “MAY”). This is what I have been saying…

            1. The Palestinian Arabs have been the ones who insisted in solving our differences by resorting to violent tactics.

            2. Consequently, we too have been resorting to violent tactics.

            3. They have not been angels. So we were not angels either.

            4. People like you, Benny, ignore how Palestinian Arabs treated/treat us yet you expect us to be 100% beyond reproach.

            5. I just keep on reminding you, Benny, that your expectations are unrealistic. And that war is ugly. And that the only way ya will get us to be good little Jewish Boys towards them, if you will manage to convince them to behave nicer to us too…

            Do ya get it now, Benny? Nah, I am sure ya don’t. The only thing that I am not sure about is why ya don’t get it. Is it because you are…

            1. Too dumb to get it?

            2. You just don’t wanna get it?

            Oh well… Who cares…?

            Reply to Comment
    2. I had heard that marriages of non-Jews could/would not be performed or licensed in Israel.

      What’s the situation? You know, Cyprus and all that?

      Reply to Comment
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