JERUSALEM (JTA) – The chairman of the Lehava anti-coexistence group in Israel said he supports the burning of churches and mosques.
Rabbi Bentzi Gopstein made the statement during a symposium on the topic of halachah, or Jewish religious law on Tuesday night at the Wolfson Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The statement was first reported Wednesday evening by the haredi Orthodox news website Kikar HaShabbat, which obtained a recording of the debate.
Other members of the panel included Rabbi Moshe Klein of Hadassah Hospitals; Tzuriel Krispal, deputy mayor of Elad; and Benny Rabinowitz of the haredi Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman.
Asked during the debate if he supports the torching of Christian churches in Israel, Gopstein replied, “Did Maimonides rule that you need to destroy them or not? Idolatry needs to be destroyed.”
Rabinowitz followed his first question by asking Gopstein not to quote Maimonides but to say what he personally thinks.
“Certainly,” Gopstein replied.
Klein warned Gopstein that his statement was grounds for arrest
“If that’s the truth,” Gopstein said, “then I’m prepared to sit 50 years in prison for it.”
Rabinowitz tweeted the exchange, for which he was later criticized by the yeshiva students.
After the release of the recording, Gopstein said in a statement to the Israeli media: “At a closed panel of the Wolfson Yeshiva, there was a halachic debate about the Rambam’s approach to Christianity. During the debate I said that, according to the Rambam, idol worship must be destroyed. 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.
“I understand that there is criticism of the right wing and they are trying to trap us for every word, but I would recommend that first an investigation be opened up into preachers in mosques or [Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ahmed] Tibi or [Arab-Israeli lawmaker Haneen] Zoabi. Then let them come to me.”
Lehava opposes intermarriage and joint Jewish-Arab initiatives. Members of the group staged a protest in December against a marriage between a Muslim-Israeli man and a Jewish-Israeli woman. The group also protested the Jerusalem gay pride parade last week, where a lone attacker stabbed six marchers, killing a teenage girl.