Rabbi Bentzi Gopstein.
(photo credit: ARIK SULTAN)
Police detained the leader of the far-right Lehava organization, Bentzi Gopstein, for questioning on Tuesday.
The arrest came two days after the Vatican asked Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein to indict Gopstein for incitement after the radical leader praised the June the arson attack at the Church of the Loaves and Fishes in the Galilee.
Gopstein was detained in the West Bank following the incendiary comments he made last week during a videotaped panel discussion with yeshiva students in Jerusalem.
Commenting after being released following the questioning, Gopstein said, “I feel like there is a witch hunt against me and that I’m some kind of enemy of the state “I was investigated today on the instructions of the pope.
The police has to understand that this is a democratic country.
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It’s unthinkable that on a closed panel in which I bring quotes from Maimonides I am investigated like this.”
Gopstein added that denying freedom of speech on religious matters causes “price tag” incidents of Jewish violence and vandalism.
“I call on the minister of justice to act on this matter.
If you don’t want ‘price tag attacks,’ let us speak,” he said.
Speaking at a panel debate in a Jerusalem yeshiva regarding Jewish religious law concerning idolatry, Gopstein was asked if he was in favor of burning churches, as certain opinions in Jewish law hold Christianity to be akin to idol worship.
“For sure,” he replied, adding “Did Maimonides rule that you need to destroy or not? Idolatry needs to be destroyed.”
When the panel’s moderator cautioned Gopstein that the debate was being filmed and could result in his arrest, Gopstein replied, “That’s the last thing that concerns me.
If this is truth, I’m prepared to sit in jail 50 years for it.”
After learning of Gopstein’s comments, the Vatican’s Custodian of the Holy Land – an institution of the Franciscan Order responsible for overseeing Christian holy sites in Israel – promptly issued a statement demanding that Weinstein charge Gopstein with incitement
In response to the statement, Gopstein posted a note on Facebook criticizing the Vatican for “censorship.”
“It’s time to remind the Vatican that the time when they censored Jewish books is gone,” he wrote. “Keep your hands away from Torat Yisrael [the Torah of the Jewish people].”
Tuesday’s detention is Gopstein’s second brush with the law for incitement since December, when he and 16 other members of Lehava were arrested following the November arson attack at the joint Jewish-Arab Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem.
Last month, two brothers associated with Lehava were sentenced to two and two-and-a-half years, the respectively, in prison by the Jerusalem District Court for vandalizing and setting a preschool classroom on fire at the school. The brothers also spray-painted Hebrew graffiti on the property’s interior walls stating “Kahane was right,” “You can’t coexist with a cancer,” “Enough with assimilation” and “Death to Arabs.”
Lehava propagates the ideology of the Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in New York City in 1990 after his Kach Party was outlawed in Israel for inciting racism.
Members of the group also protested against the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade last month during which six people were stabbed by Yishai Schlissel
, resulting in the death of 16-year-old Shira Banki.
Gopstein’s attorney responded on Tuesday by stating that police are “bowing to pressure from the Vatican.”