It is coincidental that I am writing this column on the first night of Chanukah and can see the flames from the candles my wife and I just lit. On this night it would be natural to write about oil and flames lasting beyond eight nights. We sing “don’t let the light go out” as we strive to maintain the flame of Jewish life from generation to generation.
But news reports this morning coming out of Israel, which will likely be missed by most, turn my attention to a different “flame.” The Israeli Police Hate Crimes Division (probably the only one in the Middle East!) converged simultaneously on the homes of nine leaders of the Israeli organization Lehava. They arrested the nine on suspicion of incitement of violent acts based on racist motivations.
The group’s name, Lehava, is actually a Hebrew acronym of “fighting assimilation in the Holy Land.” The letters of the acronym spell out the Hebrew word, Lehava, or “flame.” Lehava has sought to earn public legitimacy by harnessing fear of intermarriage as a pretext for plain racist hate speech.
I first stumbled upon Lehava several years ago while walking with a friend in Israel. We came upon a park where a small rally was taking place. My friend translated the speeches and the placards. It was clear their message was more than simply fighting assimilation by opposing interfaith and interethnic marriages. One speaker railed against Jews hiring Arabs in their businesses and urged Jewish Israelis to stop frequenting Arab businesses. He encouraged Israelis to report to Lehava the names of Jews who rent or sell apartments to Arabs, so that they can be named and shamed publicly. Another speaker, mirrored by statements on the protest signs, said that Arab men were prowling for Jewish women, not for romantic reasons, but for trysts to defile and humiliate Jews as part of their struggle and their “nature.” Later we reviewed YouTube videos and articles. The Lehava leader called for citizen-armed militias on Israel’s beaches, town squares and markets to prevent the fraternizing among Jews and Arabs.
This was not a rally to discuss assimilation and the preservation of Judaism.
The tone and tenor of the rally was alarming. Being from the Deep South I was reminded of things I heard in my youth bearing similar racist overtones, such as the calls for social and public segregation and the sexualization of black men. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, I easily saw the parallels in the Lehava speeches to anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.
In recent years there have been an increasing number of attacks in Israel against Arabs, many labeled as hate crimes but unfortunately not thoroughly pursued. Israel has hate crime laws as well as laws prohibiting incitement against minorities. Earlier this year Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), noted that enforcement of these laws has not been ideal. While Israeli authorities have a fierce no-tolerance policy (as they should) toward Muslim religious leaders who preach hate, there are Israeli Jews who have been allowed to incite without any legal ramifications.
In the last year the Israeli Police began taking the matter more seriously, largely due to petitions and lawsuits filed by IRAC against the government for its inaction. Authorities have been actively gathering information. Then in November a Jerusalem school for Jewish and Arab children was set afire by arsonists and earlier this week three Lehava members confessed to the crime. And less than 48 hours later the nine Lehava leaders were arrested.
The documented and alleged racist acts and incitements by Lehava leaders and followers are numerous.
The killings this summer in Israel of three Jewish yeshiva students, followed by the killing of a young Arab teen, called attention to the power of language to incite hatred and violence. It is reassuring that Israeli society expresses its condemnation of such language, whether directed at Jews or at Muslims. And that Israel has laws that fight against hate crimes and incitement against minorities. And that the authorities are applying these laws. While I would love for the reaction to be the same in other countries in the Middle East, the lack of such humane response should not, and does not, impede Israel doing right.
As I lit my first Chanukah candle, I thought about the arrests in Israel. May Lehava be a flame that is extinguished and replaced by a light that promotes peace, tolerance, coexistence and tolerance.