Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2006, pages 68-69

Waging Peace

Ann Arbor Peace Activists Vigil Local Synagogue

Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends at their weekly vigil outside the Beth Israel Congregation (Photo by Ali Moossavi).

NINE members of Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends gathered in the early morning of Saturday, Nov. 26 for their weekly vigil in front of the Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, MI. For over an hour, they stood silently in the biting cold while displaying placards with slogans, including “Reject Zionism” and “Join The World—Hold Israel Responsible.”

As the witnesses conducted their vigil—and, they insist, it’s a vigil, not a protest—some congregants pulled into the synagogue’s parking lot, while others walked past on their way to the weekly service. Vigilers, such as Palestinian-American Farouq Shafie, politely greeted them with “Shabbat/ Shalom,” and the return greetings were equally polite.

“The purpose of this,” Shafie said, “is to make contact with the Jewish community and the public at large and let them know that there is something in this world that we would like to see rectified.”

Vigilers would like to see synagogues in their area take a more active role in addressing Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians under its occupation. For 26 months, vigils have occurred at other Jewish houses of worship as well, and the reactions vary, according to Henry Herskowitz, a retired engineer and a nominally observant Jew who has attended services at Beth Israel in the past.

“Sometimes, they give you the finger, and we wave back,” he said.

One congregant, a health and safety inspector for the United Auto Workers by the name of Darius Sivin, said he mostly agreed with the vigilers’ politics, but disagreed with their tactics.

Sivin, a member of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, said that he and others like him support a two-state solution. He’d like to try to alert Congress that not all American Jews support the Israeli right-wing, he said, but believed that the vigils pose an obstacle to their efforts.

In Sivin’s opinion, “It turns people the exact opposite way.”

During the course of the vigil, one congregant’s presence alerted Palestinian-American Gloria Harb, who yelled, “Everyone, look, the spitter’s here!”

The spitter—an unidentified older man wearing a bright blue yarmulke—has in the past spat at Harb and others holding vigils. He’s also had verbal exchanges, causing the otherwise pleasant and friendly Herskowitz to lose his temper, by sarcastically asking him if he’s seen his therapist. According to Herskowitz, he and the others deal with that kind of hostile response by using their training in nonviolence.

The vigils were sparked two years ago, after Herskowtiz’s trip to the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank. He decided to come back to his hometown, Ann Arbor, and speak at area synagogues about his experiences, but he was turned down at three of them, including Beth Israel. Herskowitz was even denied entry to Yom Kippur services in the fall of 2004, highlighting the intense hostility the vigils have so far received from the Ann Arbor Jewish community.

Spokespeople at Beth Israel weren’t available for comment.

The vigilers remain undeterred, however, and plan to continue their weekly presence.

As Farouq Shafie explained, “We stand against injustice.”

Ali Moossavi

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