Lehava, which means flame in Hebrew and is an acronym for “preventing assimilation in the Holy Land,” has become a thorn in Israel’s side in recent years. Its declared mission to “save” Jews from intermarriage, or any other kind of relationship with non-Jews (namely the country’s Arab minority), and its nationalist Kahanist doctrine have inspired some ugly confrontations between its members and the wider Israeli society.
In the summer, as the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip reached its peak, a few hundred members of Lahava chanted “Death to Arabs” outside the wedding of a Jewish-born woman to an Arab Muslim man. Despite attempts by the couple to prevent the protest, the court allowed it to go ahead, citing the right to free speech.
Lehava had caused controversy before that, too. In 2010, the group sent an open letter to Israeli Jewish supermodel Bar Refaeli, telling her to end her relationship with Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The group also drew criticism for a letter urging Jewish women not to date Arab men.
While the majority of Israel’s 8 million people are Jewish and their religion forbids intermarriage, a large percentage of Israeli Jews consider themselves secular and open to interaction with other religions. More than 20 percent Israel’s citizens are Muslim, Christian or atheist.
Lehava’s vocal attacks against mixed Jewish-Arab couples, as well as its stated goal of naming and shaming people who rent to Arab citizens in Israel, come even as the Israeli leadership continually complains about Arab or Palestinian incitement against Jews, blaming a recent wave of deadly terrorist attacks against Israelis on speeches given by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“We do not distinguish between acts of terrorism, and we will react harshly against both. We do not distinguish between forms of incitement,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in July, days after three Jewish extremists killed a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem.
“This is what differentiates us with our neighbors,” said Netanyahu, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “There the murderers are welcomed as heroes and squares are named for them. This is not the only difference between us. We put on trial those who incite, while incitement in the Palestinian Authority is carried out in official instruments and the educational system, incitement that calls for the destruction of the State of Israel.”
Tuesday’s arrests of Lehava members came after a lengthy investigation into the group’s actions, Israeli police said in a statement.
An attorney for the 10 Lehava suspects held Tuesday, Itamar Ben Gvir, criticized the arrests. "Left-wing politicians put on the pressure and police are now fighting Lehava, even though it's clear that they are a legal organization that openly operates against assimilation," Ben Gvir said, according to the Jerusalem Post.