Church arson justified, says Israeli ultra right leader
The leader of a far-right Israeli group has risked arrest by apparently voicing support for arson attacks on Christian churches in Israel amid an official crackdown on Jewish extremism.
Benzi Gopstein, the outspoken head of Lehava - which has drawn notoriety for its violent assaults on Jewish-Arab assimilation - made the remarks at a panel discussion for Jewish yeshiva students when asked by a fellow panellist if he believed burning down churches in Israel was justified.
He later tried to evade accusations of inciting his followers to arson, saying it was the government's responsibility to carry out what he presented as a religious teaching of the 12th century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides.
"Did the Rambam (Maimonides) rule to destroy (idol worship) or not? Idol worship must be destroyed. It's simply yes - what's the question?" Mr Gopstein told the panel.
His comment alarmed his questioner Benny Rabinovich, a journalist, who told him: "Benzi, I must say I'm really shocked by what you're saying here. You are essentially saying we must go out and burn down churches. You're saying something insane here."
Told by another panellist that the discussion was being filmed and that his remarks could lead to his arrest, Mr Gopstein answered: "That's the last thing that concerns me. If this is truth, I'm prepared to sit in jail 50 years for it."
He later retreated slightly after a recording of the exchange was posted on an ultra-Orthodox Jewish website. "I stressed several times I was not calling to take operative steps, but that this is the Rambam's approach and that it's the responsibility of the government, not of individuals," he said in a statement.
Nevertheless, the incendiary comments could not have been more provocatively timed. They came after Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's defence minister, ordered the detention without trial of Mordechai Meyer (18) for extremist activities believed to include starting a fire that badly damaged the symbolic Church of Loaves and Fishes in Galilee in June.
He was one of three extremists detained after Benjamin Netanyahu's government was prompted to launch an unprecedented offensive against "Jewish terrorism" following an arson attack by suspected hardline settlers in the West Bank village of Duma last Friday that killed a one-year-old Palestinian toddler and gravely injured his parents and brother.