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The Mideast in the Midwest
A Midwest Jewish Activist Helps Fight Zionist Mind Control in America
By Betsy Mayfield
Henry Herskovitz at the April 23 demonstration in front of the Peoria, IL corporate headquarters of Caterpillar, Inc. to protest Israel’s use of its bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes. In March 2003 an IDF-driven Caterpillar crushed to death American peace activist Rachel Corrie (staff photo B. Mayfield).
[PALESTINIANS] are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living. A living people makes such enormous concession on such fateful questions [as colonialization] when there is no hope left. Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions on such fateful questions like guarantees against expulsion, or equality and national autonomy....the only path to such an agreement is the iron wall, that is to say the strengthening in Palestine of a government without any kind of Arab influence, that is to say one against which the Arabs will fight. In other words, for us the only path to an agreement in the future is an absolute refusal of any attempts at an agreement now.
—Vladimir Jabotinsky, 1923
Driving from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Ames, Iowa, in mid-January is not a trip one embarks upon without good cause. But Henry Herskovitz believes his cause is good. He knows that in America’s Midwest a public relations war is being waged to secure unquestioning support for Israel. The Jewish Michigander wants to reach the hearts and minds of Midwesterners. He seeks not to control minds, but rather urges people—especially those raised to value Zionism above all else—to become aware and to think for themselves. Herskovitz wants Jews and non-Jews to think about Israeli occupation; the false suggestion that all Palestinians are antidemocratic radicals; and the tactics used to silence those who dare speak out in recognition of the political, economic and social imbalance that Israel has over the Christian and Muslim Arabs.
An American Jewish objector to Israel’s colonial and violent occupation of Palestine, Herskovitz made the trek to Ames, Iowa, with filmmaker Thom Saffold, to see if any members of the Ames Jewish community would talk to him about American Jewish support of the Israel-First policy. He came in response to a request by organizers (including the author) of “Palestine Unabridged,” a three-month film series held at the Ames Public Library from Sept. 11 to Dec. 11, 2003. The series offered alternative views on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Here in Iowa, Revisionist Zionists—the ideological descendants of Vladimir Jabotinsky—are determined “to make someone pay” for the film series’ success. Some 30 to 50 Jewish and Christian Zionists still are stunned that the familiar accusation of “anti-Semitic” failed to shut down the film series, nor did slander, isolation or dirty tricks against series organizers have the desired effect. Of a population of 50,000, this small group of Revisionist Zionist sympathizers, aided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, tried to get two of our librarians fired, remove a leader of the Ames Interfaith Council, and dismiss a young Chicano activist who dared place a “Palestine Unabridged” poster in the window of his not-for-profit community office. Explained one Zionist, “We cannot allow American institutions to become a platform for anti-Israel thinking.”
But the Ames Public Library, the City of Ames and the organizations sponsoring “Palestine Unabridged” refused to be deterred by the frequently employed tactic of interrupting and changing the subject from Palestine to Israel. Initially, the Zionist opponents of free speech and thought resorted to calling in a local fire marshal to turn on lights in the middle of the film “Rana’s Wedding” to see if the library had allowed more people in the auditorium than fire codes permit. The opening night ruse did not succeed, and the show went on—for 11 more weeks. One hundred or more people attended each film and 30 to 60 participants discussed the issues at a local coffee house on alternate weeks.
Have Cause, Will Travel
Henry Herskovitz has not always waved the flag for the Palestinian cause. An engineer focused on his successful career, Herskovitz spent little energy investigating what was going on in Palestine. Then, he retired. “I decided I had to go and see firsthand what the conflict was all about,” he explained. “Of course, I had read about it over the years, but I really didn’t have a good grasp of the situation. I spent all my adult life using engineering skills to fix things, but I knew that I had to have experience to develop real insight into a mechanical problem and, certainly, into this seemingly untenable human problem. Israel always seemed like a good idea to me, but I had questions.”
After a 2002 visit to Israel/Palestine, Herskovitz returned to Ann Arbor a changed man.His questions had been answered by firsthand experience. Active in the Ann Arbor peacecommunity, Herskovitz assumed he would have no trouble telling his friends and fellow Jewish community members about his trip and the disturbing realizations still reverberating in his head. He prepared a Power Point presentation about the Israeli checkpoints, home demolitions, needless killings and the attitude which he saw as destroying not only the Palestinians, but the Israelis, as well. Expectantly, Herskovitz called on the local rabbi to arrange a date for a showing. The answer was a shock. “No,” he was told by Temple Beth Emeth (Reformed), Beth Israel Congregation (Conservative), Chabad House (Orthodox), and the Jewish Community Center.
Herskovitz put himself on the line. He knocked on doors until all were slammed shut once and for all. Protest, he decided, was the only option. He formed a small group called Jewish Witnesses for Peace and friends—with a small “f” for “friends” because he wants to make it clear that his concerns are Jewish issues. He printed up signs that read, “THIS IS NOT MY JUDAISM,” under a picture of the Huwarra checkpoint; “STOP U.S. AID TO ISRAEL”; and “ANN ARBOR JEWS SAY ”˜END THE ISRAELI OCCUPATION.’”
On Sept. 13, 2003, as we in Ames were just beginning our film series, Herskovitz and a dozen others began weekly peaceful vigils outside Ann Arbor synagogues on Saturdays. They could not fail to be seen by those coming and going to prayers and study.
After more than six months of weekly protest, Herskovitz says the best he can get from his “old” friends are comments such as,“I don’t want to have a discussion with you, but I want to tell you just one thing...”
Explains Herskovitz, “This one-way ”˜conversation’ expressed how unhappy our vigils made [the woman]. As she walked away, we explained that it is not our intent to make anyone unhappy. However, her question begs inspection. If she had hung around, we would have asked: ”˜What is contained in our message that you find painful? And why is that message painful to you?’”
When Herskovitz came to Ames this past January 2004, only one Jewish friend of the author’s, a moderate Zionist, would speak with him. Herskovitz gave him his card and said, “If you can get 10 Jewish or Zionist folks from Ames to talk to me, I’ll drive back anytime.” That has yet to happen.
We Dared to Speak Out
Having produced a successful film series despite continuing efforts to silence us, Ames festival organizers are still paying a price for our determination. Economic threats, social isolation and hate-based rhetoric continue as our Zionist opposition is determined to let the rest of the community know the turmoil they will create for anyone who speaks out against the Israeli occupation. Revisionist Zionists continue to insist on an official, public apology.
One series objector who now works for our local paper never fails to flaunt her disdain for “Palestine Unabridged” when she visits the Ames Public Library and talks to library staff. As she and others told us on the last night of our program, “What you did was a mistake.”
Other partisans of Israel have spent the last four months harassing the library board, demanding a public apology and “unofficial” censorship through policy changes designed to deny the public access to programs critical of Israel. As Joel Beinin wrote in “Thought Control for Middle East Studies,” his March 31 Common Dreams critique of the Zionist tweaking of Title VI of the U.S. Higher Education Act, the idea is “to study, monitor, apprise, and evaluate” suspect programs at American universities. According to Beinin, Washington neocons want “to assert political control over teaching, research, and public programs” so that Americans will remain oblivious to anything unfavorable to Israel or America’s support of Israeli policy.
In Ames, Iowa, we are discovering that this kind of mind control is occurring outside the academy, as well.
Henry Herskovitz in Ann Arbor and our small group here in Ames have put ourselves on the line in an effort to make people aware ofthe evils of colonization in Palestine and the use of the “anti-Semite” label to stifle debate. As of mid-April, Herskovitz reported, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County solicited letters from socially prominent Ann Arbor community members. Thirteen people have responded, writing anti-Herskovitz letters to the local Ann Arbor news. Letters in support of “vigillers” are increasing, however.
Henry Herskovitz knows that peace starts with just one voice, and he is as encouraged as we are. Jewish Witnesses for Peace and friends, the “Palestine Unabridged” series, and the actions of Information Age groups everywhere are signs of a growing grassroots momentum. The work for peace has just begun.
Betsy Mayfield is a writer and activist based in Ames, Iowa.
Henry Herskovitz In His Own Words
Jewish Americans Can Help End Conflict (letter to the Feb. 25, 2004 Ann Arbor News):
Our group, formed last year, is called “Jewish Witnesses for Peace and friends.” We hold silent vigils in front of Beth Israel Congregation primarily to raise awareness of the effects of Israel’s 36-year-old illegal occupation of Palestinian land. Our venue is the synagogue, because the audience we wish to address is mainstream American Jews, very much like ourselves.
Many of the Jewish people who attend synagogue are those who financially and politically support Israel. Our goal is to end this funding of Israel’s occupation, financed by individual contributions, and by our tax dollars and loan guarantees. Ending the occupation is the most logical and necessary way to bring a just and lasting peace to the region. The estimated amount of money donated through these sources totals $15 million every day (Source: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs).
Our vigil accomplishes much more, however. To non-Jews, who might be critical of Israeli policies but too concerned to speak lest they be labeled “anti-Semites,” we offer them the observance that Jewish Americans come forth and criticize the Israeli government.
The Jewish community can play a vital and significant role in reducing the continuing slaughter of innocents in Israel and Palestine, both Jewish and Palestinian. Many in our group have been to Palestine and have witnessed firsthand the horrors of occupation.
Henry Herskovitz, Ann Arbor
On AIPAC’s Chicago Conference, “The Israel Summit—Tools for Action”
Perhaps most shocking to this observer was the nationalist tone set by this conference. A large room with hundreds of dining tables housed 1,600 attendees (650 students). At the front, on stage, stood the speakers’ table flooded in bright light. Flanking the speakers were four national flags: two Israeli (large and small) on the speaker’s left, and like-sized United States flags, on his/her right.
The show of power of this lobby was not limited just to physical surroundings. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and nine Illinois congressional representatives each spoke about their commitment to Israel, and to the goal of AIPAC—“Stengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Jesse Jackson, Jr. spoke of his AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel, and thanked the organization along with local rabbis (esp. Rabbi David Saperstein) for the privilege of traveling there. He declared “most moving” was his trip to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial, and subsequent “need” for the Jewish State. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky explained how helpful AIPAC is to citizens running for Congress: they will help the politician-to-be draft his/her Israel solidarity statement.
And wealth: Many of the 650 students in attendance were flown in at the expense of just three local businessmen. The ability to raise funds for Israel is just one of AIPAC’s many strengths. As peace activists dedicated to Palestinian self-determination, we have our work cut out for ourselves.