So I've made quite a few references to Jewish right-wing extremism on this blog. I'm not sure that most Americans are quite familiar with what Jewish right-wing extremism is: many American Jews are familiar with the fact that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish right-wing extremist named Yigal Amir, and some might remember the massacre of 29 Palestinian worshipers in Hebron by a Jewish right-wing extremist named Baruch Goldstein, but I don't think there's much discussion of the continuing presence of Jewish right-wing extremism in Israeli life in the American Jewish community. It's definitely an important phenomenon in Israeli society, so I'm going to use some space on this blog to discuss Jewish extremism over the coming months.
Before I begin this series, a quick note-I'm obviously not trying to imply that all Israeli Jews are supporters of these groups (to the contrary, most oppose them, often vehemently) or that Israel is somehow a fatally flawed entity that shouldn't exist because of the presence of these groups, any more than I'd suggest that all Americans are supporters of the KKK, or that the United States shouldn't exist because of the KKK.
Nevertheless, I think it's important to discuss extremist groups for a few reasons. The first, obviously, is that even if extremist groups are small or largely abhorred, they're not small or irrelevant to those who are victimized by their actions. The second is that in any society, extremist groups are often "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of really significant social problems; for instance, most Southerners were not members of the KKK, but the KKK represented sentiments that were really common in Southern society, even if most Southerners did not violently act on those sentiments. With those principles in mind, let's begin this series with a discussion of Lehava.
I think it's best to explain Lehava by sharing one of their flyers, which I picked up at one of their weekly rallies. About 200 of their members rally weekly in Jerusalem's Zion Square, a few blocks from my apartment, and I've had the pleasure (?) of observing a few of their rallies at this point.
Lehava is a far-right Jewish supremacist group. Its leadership consists mainly of middle-aged veterans of the Kahanist movement (wikipedia link for now, my own blog post on Kahanism will come later), but its rank and file is mainly drawn from teenage boys, primarily from low-income families. They've targeted Christians and LGBT people, but their primary activities involve harassment and violence against Arab citizens of Israel and Jews who interact with them. They've protested the weddings of Jewish/Arab couples, threaten and attack random Arabs on the streets of Israeli cities (see also), and operated a hotline where people can report intermarriages, particularly marriages between Jewish women and non-Jewish men (which are presumed to be coercive or abusive), so that the women can be "saved" by Lehava. In December 2014, members of Lehava set fire to the Hand in Hand integrated school in Jerusalem (where I work). So basically, a pretty nasty group of people.
Lehava is not popular. Their rallies only attract a few hundred people, at most (anti-Lehava rallies tend to be more popular), and members of Lehava's leadership have been arrested several times for various crimes. There has been quite a bit of discussion of banning the group in recent months, although no action has been taken at this point. Nevertheless, some of the sentiments that they espouse are sadly more mainstream than you'd think. The Knesset has held hearings on the alleged phenomenon of abusive or coercive marriages between non-Jewish men and Jewish women, a favorite topic of Lehava, and Lehava-affiliated groups have received government funding. In 2010, a group of the wives of 30 prominent rabbis wrote an open letter urging Jewish women to avoid romantic relationships with Arabs (which, according to the letter, required Jewish women to avoid working in businesses that also employed Arabs), shortly after 50 prominent rabbis wrote an open letter urging Jewish landlords to avoid renting to Arabs. According to a Hebrew University poll, 44% of Jewish Israelis supported the letters, while 48% opposed them.