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Why Israel may list this hard-line Jewish group as a terrorist organization

Israeli prison guards escort far-right Lehava activists Yitzhak Gabai, Nahman Twito and Shlomo Twito at Jerusalem District Court on Dec. 15. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

In November, a bilingual Arabic and Hebrew school in Jerusalem was set on fire and vandalized by a group of right-wing hard-liners. The arsonists scrawled slogans such as "Death to Arabs," "You can't coexist with cancer," and "Enough with assimilation" on the walls of a classroom in the school, which strives to set an example for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.

In the weeks that followed, Israeli authorities detained 21 suspects connected to the Lehava extremist group on charges of incitement to hatred. Three youths, two 18-year-olds and a 20-year-old, have been charged with carrying out the act. Now, after remarks by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, it appears that the government is considering listing Lehava as a terrorist group and banning it.

"I have turned to legal elements in the defense establishment and in the Shin Bet with a request to examine the possibility of defining Lehava as an illegal association," Yaalon said Monday, referring to Israel's top internal security agency. "I did this because we cannot as a country allow racist phenomenon to endanger in a substantial way the fabric of life here."

Lehava is the Hebrew acronym for the "Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land." It is also a pun on the Hebrew word for "flame." The group gained notoriety in August when it picketed and attempted to disrupt the wedding of a Jewish woman, who had converted to Islam, and an Arab man in central Israel.

The group ascribes its worldview to that of Jewish extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, a fiery figure of Israel's far right in the 1980s who was known for his hatred of Arabs. "I don't want to kill Arabs, I just want them to live happily, elsewhere," he once told cheering rallies, according to the New York Times. "Give me the strength to take care of them once and for all."

Kahane's Kach party was banned by Israel in 1988 for its alleged racism and undemocratic behavior. (Kahane was killed in a Manhattan hotel room in 1990.) Lehava's leader, Benzion Gopstein, 45, was once active within the Kach movement.

At a memorial service marking the 24th anniversary of Kahane's death last year, Gopstein allegedly made these comments:

Some 45 years ago, Rabbi Kahane said, shouted and cried out that the enemies within us are a cancer and that if we don't take this cancer and get rid of it, we won't continue to exist. Unfortunately, this dangerous cancer of coexistence has metastasized everywhere. There are various ministers in the government who are encouraging coexistence, who are giving them jobs, allowing them into the hi-tech world, allowing them to become doctors. Everyone knows today that Rabbi Kahane was right, but knowing is not enough. The rabbi wanted action and so we haven't gathered here only to remember Rabbi Kahane; we are here to continue Rabbi Kahane's way.

Lehava's activists have focused their efforts primarily on intimidating young Arabs and Jews, particularly Jewish women, to prevent them from intermingling. Its mission to save Jewish "purity" has led to the group spreading the names and pictures of Arab men thought to be courting Jewish women, and terrible scenes of mobs hounding interracial couples. One Lehava member recently bragged to an undercover reporter that the group had "saved" more than 200 Israeli women over the past four years.

Lehava also wants Israeli businesses not to offer jobs to Palestinian men from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Action against Lehava by the government of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes only after months of campaigning and petitioning by left-leaning Israelis and media commentators, Reuters reports. The past year has seen a particularly worrying rise in tensions in Jerusalem, involving abductions, killings and reprisal attacks.

Bullying and vandalism may seem mild in comparison, but Lehava's rhetoric is seen as genuinely dangerous. A new poll, cited by Reuters, finds that 21 percent of Israeli Jews identify as "religious nationalists" — a portion of whom may have sympathy for Lehava's extremist beliefs.

A defiant Gopstein told reporters this week that the recent moves against his organization were politically motivated, with elections looming. "Instead of taking care of an enemy of Israel, the defense minister is trying to win over votes from the Left [by] taking on Lehava," Gopstein said, according to the Times of Israel, and added that his organization should be awarded the Israeli state's highest honor. "The group acts to save the daughters of Israel and deserves the Israel Prize."