Jerusalem – 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.
His 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 disclosed.
The attacks 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.
Founded in 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.
Lehava is 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 Israeli Jews.
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 carried placards with the slogan: “Miscegenation is a Holocaust”.
Jerusalem’s 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”.
Lehava’s 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 thousands more.
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.”
Others worry about the wider effect of Lehava’s incitement on the climate of popular opinion in Israel.
Aviv Tartasky, 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 goals.”
When contacted 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.
Last month, 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”.
Gopstein, who 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 released.
Before its 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 and Palestinians.
Sheen said 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.
“When Kach 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 group hosted a series of training camps in the southern West Bank to teach young people martial arts.
Assisting 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 police interrogations.
As Lehava’s 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.
“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,” 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.”
Another victim, 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 work?”
Like others, “H” said 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.”
The 300,000 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 women.
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”.
Early last 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.
Meanwhile, 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.”
The city’s Christians have found themselves increasingly targeted, too.
Last December, 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.
Dozens of 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.
Wadie Abu 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.”
He added: “There is a clear backing among members of this government for far-right groups like Lehava.”
Despite its 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.
The Israeli media revealed this month that funding to Hemla this year has 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 investigation.
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 Palestinian men.
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.”
He said 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 protection.”
That impression was underscored by statements from Barkat’s deputy, Meir Turgeman, in September, following the arrest of a Jerusalem resident, 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”.
Micky 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 identified.
The legal 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.
Gopstein claimed he had believed they were Palestinians. Video footage 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 violence.”
In reality, official figures 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”.
In 2013, similar numbers 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.
Palestinians 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 separation barrier.
Better public 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.”